Why Conservatives Are Going to Win on Global Warming

Almost a year ago to the day, National Review published what turned out to be a somewhat controversial cover story on global warming in which I argued three things: (1) anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real, (2) current projections of its expected impact are wildly uncertain, but are not sufficient to justify the costs of an aggressive emissions reduction program, and (3) conservatives have an unseen political opportunity to win on the issue by pointing this out.

A year ago, many conservatives feared, and many liberals hoped, that this was simply a way-station to a me-too conservative emissions reduction program that accepted the premise of the need for massive government intervention, and did a little tinkering around the edges. But the recent (temporary) defeat of the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade proposal showed the success of exactly this strategy. The reason for this is simple: we have the facts on our side. The economic problems with L-W are not fixable with clever drafting. Given current projections, the costs of restricting emissions just can’t be justified based on the benefits that it is projected to provide.

As far as I can see, proponents of emissions reductions will respond with four arguments: (1) inflate the analyzed costs of global warming by claiming the science actually now says things will be even worse than we previously thought, (2) inflate the analyzed costs of global warming by embedding indefensible discount rate assumptions in the black box of econometric calculations used by economists to conduct the cost-benefit analysis, (3) deflate the analyzed costs of emissions mitigation by claiming a free lunch – that there is a cost-free or low-cost way to radically reduce emissions, and/or (4) turn this into a moral crusade asserting that we have a moral duty to the poor of the world because of our past sins of emission. I have laid out responses to each of these objections: 1, 2, 3 and 4. When considered carefully, emissions mitigation proponents have no persuasive arguments.

Where does the debate go from here in practical political terms? It’s going to take a long time to win, and there will be setbacks along the way. A betting man would have to say that Democrats will likely have larger majorities in both houses of Congress, and hold the presidency, in 2009. While a competent Republican presidential campaign on this issue could make cap-and-trade radioactive for years, McCain obviously seems to want to capitulate on the issue. So, it is a good bet that another, maybe more stringent, version of emissions reduction legislation will be introduced and debated in the next 2 – 4 years. It is very possible that conservatives could mobilize sufficient opposition, even in the minority, to prevent its passage, but there is a real possibility that there will be a cap-and-trade law. Even in this scenario, it will fail in practice, either because (as in Europe to date) it becomes a pointless boondoggle, or because it starts to actually restrict energy use, and therefore becomes a visible drag on the economy. One way or the other, it would just create an issue for conservatives to campaign on, win and roll-back.

How do we keep pushing this to the most positive possible outcome, given the overall correlation of political forces? Simple, keep coming back to the same question: “What do we pay, and what do we get?”