The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, conservatives can be environmentalists. Here’s how.

When it comes to the environment, Republicans these days tend to have a pretty good idea what they're against — just about everything the Obama administration is doing. But it's not quite as clear what they're actually for.

Jonathan Adler wants to change all that. The law professor at Case Western University has just published a big new essay, titled "Conservative Principles for Environmental Reform," that tries to lay out a positive vision for how the right should approach various green issues.

In the essay, Adler critiques many of the traditional regulatory approaches to issues like endangered species. Clumsy regulations often have unintended consequences. But historically, he notes, conservatives have failed to come up with an alternative. There's either "moderate me-too-ism," which involves embracing regulations on a lesser scale. Or there's "reflexive opposition" — the current GOP stance — which often means ignoring actual environmental problems.

Instead, Adler argues that conservatives should favor a different approach, one based on property rights. The best example of this? Fisheries. For years, government regulators tried in vain to tackle the problem of over-fishing. More recently, however, "catch shares" have caught on, in which fishermen own a portion of the overall fish haul each year and have incentives to manage the fisheries. It appears to work remarkably well.

I talked to Adler by phone this week about his ideas for conservative environmental reform and whether they could apply to issues like climate change. A transcript is below.

Brad Plumer: You argue that our current environmental regulatory system was put in place back in the 1970s and needs an upgrade. But no one on the right is really offering an alternative. Twenty years ago you had moderate Republicans embracing, essentially, lighter regulations. And nowadays the GOP seems to oppose any and all environmental moves. Why does that need to change?

Jonathan Adler: If environmental protection is important — and I believe it is — then we should make sure we're doing it in an effective way. The reactionary posture denies that environmental values are important at all.

I think the change that has to happen mirrors what conservatives did in the welfare debate [in the 1990s].  One thing that shifted that debate is that conservatives began engaging the issue. They weren't just focused on cutting the budget. They made the case that if one was compassionate, if one did care about the poor, one had to question the status quo. And there was a conservative approach that had a lot to offer.

In the environmental debate, by contrast, the two approaches I discuss in the essay — moderate "me-too"-ism and reactionary obstruction — both accept that the way we measure our environmental values is by traditional centralized regulation. And I think that's wrong as a practical matter. That's not the only way to advance environmental values.

I also don't think the current Republican approach reflects the way that many people who think environmental regulation has gone too far actually feel. Your average farmer or rancher isn't opposed to clean air and clean water. They just object to the way things are done. Back in the 1990s, I was involved in commissioning some polling that found that if you give people an alternative, they're willing to consider it. But if the only choice they're presented is more regulation or total opposition, many people will side with the first.

We saw the same thing in the welfare debate. Many people said I don’t like the traditional welfare system, but so long as the choice is between that and leaving people out in the cold, I’m going to accept welfare.

BP: So let's talk about potential alternatives. Your favorite example is property rights for fishing.

JA: Fisheries are really the best example. Back in the 1970s, we saw command-and-control approaches fail. First regulators adopted limits on catch. When those didn't work, they limited the type of gear you could use, or the type of boats you could use. Each set of regulations altered the incentives faced by fishery participants and they responded accordingly, still trying to maximize return. And there was no meaningful gain in conservation. Instead, there was a decline in efficiency, a decline in the quality of catch. We were moving backward in many respects.

Then various countries started to experiment with property-based fisheries management, and we got superior economic and environmental results. The United States has now begun to move in that direction and the results are significant.

That story to me points out several things. One is to never ignore the fact that any regulatory intervention won't work if we don't pay attention to the way it alters incentives. And two, the gold standard of how to align incentives is to replicate what a fairly complete system of property rights would produce.

BP: So how do you use property rights to align incentives in other areas, like air pollution?

JA: We do have to recognize that in many areas we still don't know how to do that. We know what it might look like. In the pollution context, it would mean that every polluter would be held responsible for the pollution it generates. We don't yet know how to make the tort system do that efficiently. But we know that's the incentive we want. And the closer we can get to that ideal, the more we're going to produce environmental results.

BP: What about things like land management or endangered species? Would a property-rights-oriented approach work there?

JA: Oh sure.  We tend to see when federal government acts as a market participant, they tend to get better environmental results. Programs like the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which purchases easements from landowners or subsidizes habitat restoration, tend to be more effective than heavy-handed regulatory strategies.

On species, if the government viewed species habitation as a public good, it could provide it more efficiently than the regulatory strategy embodied by the Endangered Species Act. I have a couple articles about this. Instead of punishing landowners for owning habitat, the government would seek to compensate landowners or encourage landowners to behave in ways the government believes is necessary. That would eliminate the perverse incentives against stewardship.

BP: Okay, what about climate change? This is arguably the biggest environmental problem of all and so far most conservatives have tried not to talk about it at all. 

JA: I've done work on this before arguing that if you take property rights seriously, then climate change is a problem even if you don't believe in the apocalyptic climate-change scenarios.

Even most skeptics believe, for instance, that there will be some degree of sea-level rise — they might not think it's catastrophic, but they'll concede it exists. And over hundreds of years of common-law tradition, we've recognized that flooding a neighbor's land is a property right's violation.

So if there's a conservative commitment to property rights, you can't ignore that by talking about Al Gore or saying that it's inefficient or too costly to deal with it. Folks on the right didn't say it was wrong for New London to take [Susette] Kelo's land because it was inefficient. It was wrong because it was her land!

At the very least, folks on the right should be talking about things like whether the United States should be indemnifying poor parts of the world that are likely to be flooded and help them adapt. But I think that once we think about those questions, we start seeing climate change as an insurance or risk problem. And if it's a risk problem, given the possibility of potentially large downside risk, we have to start talking about mitigation too.

BP: So that's the case that conservatives should pay attention to climate change. But what does that mean for policies to deal with?

JA: I'm not a fan of regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, I don't think that's particularly effective or efficient. But I don't see the argument for doing nothing. I don't think that's consistent with conservative principles. So I've done papers on adaptation and how do we get the degree of energy innovation that many people think will be necessary. And most controversially, I've argued that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be a good idea.

It's funny, when I first came to Washington, D.C. in 1988, there were tons of folks on the right talking about how they wanted to tax consumption rather than labor or wealth. And a revenue neutral carbon tax that's rebated the way folks like Art Laffer or Bob Inglis have proposed, that's effectively what it does. It shifts the incidence of taxation away from income and towards consumption.

BP: Do you see elected Republicans or other conservatives moving toward these ideas in any way?

JA: Among elected officials you see little movement, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One thing I don't discuss in my piece is that the environmental lobby does bear some responsibility here. Republican elected officials have been conditioned to believing that there's no upside to doing what environmental groups want. They'll never get credit for it, and they'll risk alienating certain portions of their base and doing things that harm certain environmental interests. Look at the first President Bush. He signed into law the most expansive piece of environmental legislation in history, and did any environmental groups endorse him?

On think tanks and academics... I think it's fair to say that most of the folks on the right inside the Beltway spend far more time attacking regulation than articulating a positive vision. And I think that's unfortunate. You occasionally see conservative groups make some generic nod to importance of market approaches, but there's little work articulating what that would actually mean.

BP: It's interesting you mention the first President Bush, because what he signed into law was a cap-and-trade program for acid rain pollution that was, at the time, a market-based alternative to traditional regulation. But since then, greens have championed cap-and-trade, while it's become a dirty word among Republicans.

JA: Right, I've seen folks on the right refer to catch shares as "cap-and-trade for fish" and they don't mean that as a compliment. They've forgotten that cap-and-trade is just a tool, and the argument should be over what we're controlling and why. I happen to think that cap-and-trade as done for acid rain isn't a good fit for carbon. In my paper I discuss reasons to think that a tax is preferable. But that hasn't been the argument.

You're right, there hasn't been much effort to push the ball forward, and in some cases there's even been backsliding. The second Bush administration missed a lot of opportunities to try to reorient the environmental debate toward market oriented policies. When he came into office, there was quite a bit of discussion for how to modify the federal government's approach to grazing on federal lands, moving away from regulatory permits to forage access rights that could be bought and sold as property. The Bush administration showed no interest and pretty much kiboshed it. That was a missed opportunity, and I'm not sure when it will come up again.

Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.