Some men just want to watch the world burn. Other men don’t want to watch the world burn, but don’t want to do much to stop it from burning, and also, perhaps, want to form political coalitions with the men who do want to watch it burn. This brings us to the reform conservatives, or reformicons — a small cadre of wonkish right-leaning intellectuals trying to gently nudge the Party toward the economic center. They find themselves caught between their pragmatic impulses and a Party moving farther and farther from any semblance of reality. The reformicons are attempting to formulate a coherent line on climate change that can straddle this widening gulf. They are rapidly settling upon an agreed-upon solution: new technology.
The spread of this argument can be traced to Jim Manzi, who wrote a column for National Review earlier this month urging conservatives to oppose the Obama administration’s environmental agenda, and instead “Invest in visionary technologies that are too long-term, too speculative, or have benefits too diffuse to be funded by private companies.” Manzi’s argument has since been endorsed by reformist conservative writers like Reihan Salam (“While the president and his allies back price-hiking regulation, conservatives should call for accelerating price-lowering technological innovation”), Ramesh Ponnuru, James Pethokoukis, and National Review editor Rich Lowry.
The embrace of new environmental technology does represent genuine differentiation from the mindless scientific denialism and reflexive sneering at green energy that is the mainstream Republican position. By endorsing subsidies for basic energy research, the reformist conservatives are (at least implicitly) accepting the validity of climate science, as well as the possibility of some government role in limiting the threat of climate change.
And yet, even though they have moved a fair distance from mindless Republican climate orthodoxy, the reformicons remain well short of grappling with reality. One obvious problem is that they present basic energy research as something close to a miracle cure — why spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars complying with caps on greenhouse-gas emissions when instead we can spend a fraction of the sum on cool science? In a 2008 article, Manzi claimed funding basic research would “hold the potential for solving any global-warming problem that might develop — for a one-time cost of less than 0.01 percent of U.S. GDP. The incremental cost of this approach could be single-digit billions per year, possibly with partially offsetting spin-off benefits.”
Of course, it’s impossible to judge how effective subsidies for basic research will be in reducing emissions over time. If the ‘technology-first” approach truly can produce cheaper green energy, then there’s no harm in setting caps on greenhouse-gas emissions as well — it just means that newer technologies allow businesses and consumers to comply with the caps more cheaply than predicted. (In fact, flexible environmental caps like the one Obama is implementing yield exactly this result most of the time.) If technology subsidies alone aren’t enough to prod the market to embrace technologies, then you do need the caps. Either way, technology-first is not an adequate substitute for putting a price on carbon emissions.
The deeper problem with the technology-first line is that the reformicons seem to have no specific idea about how their proposal would work, or even what current technology policy is. In a 2007 National Review cover story, Manzi proposed to create a new agency tasked with funding advanced, speculative scientific research. “The agency for funding any government-sponsored research should be explicitly modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,” he wrote.
In 2009, the stimulus created this exact thing. It’s called “The Advanced Research Projects-Energy.” It was explicitly modeled after DARPA. (You can read an account of its creation in “The New New Deal,” a history of the stimulus, which reports on page four that the agency was “modeled after DARPA.”) It still exists.
Now, maybe the reformicons believe ARPA-E needs to have its funding boosted. But they haven’t actually defined a specific proposal to do so. Indeed, it’s not clear they actually realize the agency exists. Since Manzi proposed creating a DARPA for energy in 2007 and 2008, I have only found one example of him mentioning the idea since — a 2011 column calling for a “DARPA analog focused on new energy technologies,” a phrasing that implies Manzi was proposing to create an agency that had already existed for two and a half years. Since its establishment, the Obama administration has been fighting to preserve the agency from House Republicans, who have proposed to cut its budget by 80 percent. Needless to say, the technology-first reformicons have said nothing at all about the incumbent Party stance of slashing basic energy science research.
You might wonder why a group of policy wonks would rally around a proposal without having a clear idea of what they want or even whether it currently exists. The answer is that reform conservatism is designed to produce a policy agenda for the next Republican candidate. This is a worthy project, but unfortunately imposes the significant constraint that any proposal must be acceptable to the GOP and unacceptable to Democrats. “Cap and trade” was a popular idea among moderate Republicans before Obama tried to implement it. Ted Gayer, a former Bush administration economist currently at Brookings, notes that Obama's new EPA proposal “does a good job of providing compliance flexibility, which is the key to containing costs” — reflecting the kind of analysis that would have been perfectly at home within the GOP a half-dozen years ago, but would be grounds for excommunication today. If and when the reformicons learn that their solution to climate change already exists, and is the subject of fierce opposition by House Republicans, they may lose their enthusiasm for the idea.