A conservative case for smart climate action: Let's act now

Regarding climate change, about 40% of Americans do not believe that human activity contributes significantly to the cause. That number is driven primarily by conservatives. Cautiousness and sensibility are traits conservatives would readily identify with, so skepticism should be expected. But if there are actions that could be taken that are compatible with conservative principles, skepticism is not an excuse for inaction.

Right-minded conservatives are prudent. They weigh costs versus benefits and risks against rewards. This is a proper lens to view whether climate action is appropriate. Since credible scientific organizations like NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Meteorological Society support the consensus science that human activity is the main cause, there's a strong case for acknowledging risk. While they may be wrong, they could be right. And if they are correct, projections of a 6- to 7-degrees Fahrenheit average temperature increase mean a significant worsening of increased costs from flooding, wildfires and extreme storm damage. An attempt to quantify future costs was undertaken in the Trump Administration's release of the 4th National Climate Assessment. If resolute action isn't taken, it estimated the U.S. economy will shrink by 8% to 10% this century.

Conservatives should rightfully be concerned about another compelling risk: national security. First, the U.S. Military considers climate change a "threat multiplier" that can destabilize governments and potentially draw us into additional conflicts. Simultaneously, climate change could impact operational readiness in 74 of 79 critical military installations according to a recent Department of Defense report. Additionally, sea-level rise presents a further risk of trillions of dollars of commercial and residential property damage remediation. Brace yourself for taxpayer funded bailouts.

With so much at stake and with a possibility that the scientists are right, if there is an approach that embraces conservative principles and mitigates these threats without harming economic growth, jobs or consumers, then we are compelled to act. Prudence dictates that in evaluating risk, when the downside costs of acting are negligible but downside cost of inaction is disastrous, we are compelled to act.

Conservatives rightfully look to the free market as the best source for the most efficient solutions to fix problems. But with respect to fossil fuels, the market is broken. Fossil fuel companies have been receiving tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year obscuring their true cost. In addition, none of the costs that taxpayers incur related to burning fossil are included in fossil fuel prices (increased health care and natural disaster costs, etc.).

Conservative principles of transparency and accountability are not in play related to fossil fuel pricing. As such, the competitive playing field is not level for innovation in renewable and low-carbon energy sources.

Let's discuss a solution that meets our conservative criteria. By correcting a well-known market failure (CO2 pollution is "free"), a carbon tax will send a powerful price signal that harnesses the invisible hand of the marketplace to steer economic actors toward a low-carbon future. The conservative solution is as follows: place a small but annually increasing "fee" on fossil fuel companies for the carbon emissions of their products. That fee is then returned to every American household in the form of a monthly "dividend" check. Credible studies show it will dramatically reduce carbon emissions without harming the poor or middle class, job growth or GDP growth.

An example of this legislation is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR2307). The fee helps ensure that fossil fuels reflect their true cost, which will unleash a torrent of investment and innovation into the marketplace. Low-carbon energy will become more competitive and consumers will switch to cheaper cleaner energy. This will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Border adjustments written into the legislation will keep U.S. businesses internationally competitive. Studies also show this revenue-neutral, market-driven approach delivers all this without economic harm to the poor or middle class and without growing big government.

To quote legendary Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, "taking this action is a pretty good bet to make, a no-regrets strategy."

Prudence dictates we act now.

• Andrew Panelli works with the Archdiocese of Chicago's Encyclical Working Group and leads seminars for Citizens Climate Education, a non-partisan, not-for-profit volunteer organization advancing knowledge on the subject. This essay is the fourth in a series the Daily Herald is publishing in conjunction with Covering Climate Now, a coalition of journalism organizations worldwide devoted to providing information on climate change.

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