the national interest

How the American Right Lost Its Chance to Get Sane on Climate Change

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In 2007, National Review published a cover story proposing “a conservative strategy on global warming.” While the strategy left much to be desired, what mattered was that the conservative movement finally seemed ready to abandon its denial of the science and acknowledge that the emission of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere was raising the Earth’s temperature. The next spring, Republican nominee John McCain broke with the Bush administration by proposing a cap-and-trade plan to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent.

It was possible to see the outlines of a future Republican Party that had come to grips with climate science and its implications. A vision of that imagined future instead came in the form of British prime minister Boris Johnson, who has drawn largely facile comparisons with Donald Trump, but who has instead steered a pragmatic path that remains unimaginable for a leader of the American right today. Johnson has accelerated his country’s emissions-reduction pledge, promising now to cut its carbon emission 78 percent from 1990 levels by 2035.

“It’s vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging,” he announced at the climate summit, the kind of summit Trump would boycott. “What I’m driving at is this is about growth and jobs.”

Instead of developing its own version of conservative climate activism, the Republican Party’s brief flickering of enlightenment was quickly extinguished. By 2012, the party’s nominee was mocking the very idea of trying to ameliorate climate change. (“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” said Mitt Romney in his acceptance speech. “MY promise is to help you and your family.”) Romney ridiculed Obama’s green-energy investments for choosing hopelessly doomed companies like Tesla. (“You put $90 billion, like 50 years’ worth of breaks, into — into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1,” he said at the first presidential debate. “I mean, I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right?”) Trump distilled the party’s instincts on the climate issue to their revanchist, culture-war brain-stem impulse, promising (in vain) to restore coal and making bizarre claims like wind turbines cause cancer.

But it is not just MAGA cultists or grandfathers who read Sean Hannity books who share this dismissive posture. The party’s intelligentsia has made barely any effort to acknowledge climate science or put any real thought into a program to address it. Not only have they refused to engage substantively with Biden’s plan, they categorically oppose the entire process of global climate negotiations and dismiss out of hand the very possibility that any such process could be needed or yield a productive result.

A good sample of the state of climate-policy thinking among conservative intellectuals can be found in National Review editor Rich Lowry’s column. What’s revealing is not just Lowry’s uninterest in proposing solutions, but his inability to apply even the slightest level of rigor to this analysis, such as it is.

Lowry sneers at officials who are “protecting the United States against alleged threats emerging from greenhouse gas emissions.” Note the revealing term “alleged.” He’s not outright denying the premise that greenhouse-gas emissions pose a threat, but he won’t concede it, either. He is simply putting the premise — the foundational premise that informs any decision about climate-change policy — off to the side so he can mock the solutions without committing himself to any alternative.

He proceeds to casually assert that zero-emissions energy sources can’t compete on price with fossil fuels:

It is inarguable that alternative sources of energy are more expensive than fossil fuels and drive up costs. Both Germany and California, which have made major commitments to wind and solar, have amply demonstrated this fact. There’s no way to make wind and solar competitive with conventional energy.

This is an extraordinary passage. There are no facts to support this claim, other than vague gestures in the direction of Germany and California. In fact, however, wind and solar power have achieved cost parity with fossil fuels in many places. The cost varies by region — depending on the local availability of wind and sun, among other factors — but this chart, via financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard, shows how close the cost currently is, even when stripping out subsidies:

Graphic: Lazard

Even more astonishing than Lowry’s shaky claim that wind and solar can’t compete with fossil-fuel energy is his insistence they will never compete with it. Wind and (especially) solar are in the midst of an extraordinary innovation cycle that has produced rapid productivity improvements, a classic learning curve in which new technologies have gotten cheaper, spread to new markets, and produce more efficiency. The cost of both has plummeted:

Graphic: Lazard

Lowry’s apparent belief that this cycle is coming to an immediate halt is contrary to the expectations of every energy-industry analyst. It’s a bit like claiming in 1910 that the automobile will never displace the horse as a form of travel. Now, sometimes a contrary view can be correct, but Lowry does not even hint at any evidence, other than simply claiming the permanent higher cost of renewable power is “inarguable.” It is, in fact, extremely arguable.

There are absolutely strong grounds for skepticism about the feasibility of green-energy targets. Several sectors of the economy have seen little to no innovation to allow decarbonization: agriculture, air travel, home heating, factories, and so on. Lowry is focusing on the sector where green tech has produced undeniable success to make the case progress is impossible. It’s simply a measure of how little he’s thought about the issue.

The most jaw-dropping passage in Lowry’s column is where he argues that the drop in emissions caused by the coronavirus pandemic shows that reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions are inherently disastrous:

To do more than nibbling around the edges of climate change would require restrictions on economic activity too onerous to contemplate. The point was illustrated by the pandemic, which, by grinding economic to a near-halt around the advanced world, drove unprecedented reductions in carbon emissions. Now that things are beginning to return to normal, carbon emissions are recovering smartly.

To the extent that there is any logic here, it seems to be that since the economic shutdown caused emissions to decline, any decline in emissions will cause an economic shutdown. A led to B, therefore, any B can only be produced by A. It’s a bit like saying that since the 1964 Civil Rights Act only passed due to the sentiment following JFK’s death, there’s no point in trying to pass civil-rights laws, because they’ll just result in presidential assassinations.

Lowry’s certainty that massive economic pain is the only way to reduce carbon pollution is an insight that has evaded virtually every major government in the world, with the exception of a handful of petro-oligarchies. But it also illustrates the degree to which American conservatism stands virtually alone as a reactionary sect.

The tragedy is that there is plenty of need for a useful conservative critique of the Biden agenda. By necessity, a Democratic Party–only response to climate change has been chapped by the needs of the party’s constituencies. Democrats are promising high-wage new green-energy jobs to coax their supporters in labor, when green-energy jobs in fact tend to pay less than the fossil-fuel industry. Democrats have paid little attention to the red tape and high cost of new construction, which is a confounding problem given the new green infrastructure that will be needed.

A non-pathological Republican Party would be able to constructively challenge and improve upon the Democrats’ model. The actual Republican Party we’re stuck with at the moment is capable of little more than irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas.

How the U.S. Right Lost Its Chance to Get Sane on Climate