Last week, the Club came out in vocal opposition to a package of bills to fight climate change from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The bills would increase government spending to support carbon capture technologies that seek to sequester carbon emissions before they reach the atmosphere. They also include the Trillion Trees Act, which commits the United States to an aggressive tree-planting initiative to capture carbon the old-fashioned way, by storing it in wood.
This package is pretty weak tea for climate change activists. But for the Club, these measures are anathema. “Club for Growth PAC will not endorse any candidate that supports the liberal environmental agenda being pushed by Leader McCarthy,” the Club’s president, former Indiana congressman David McIntosh, said. He characterized McCarthy’s measures as “trying to get the political support of green socialists.”
That statement hardly passes the laugh test. The whole point of the measures is to ward off socialism by doing things that can reduce carbon emissions without requiring wholesale government control of the economy. Carbon capture and sequestration stops greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, thereby allowing the economy to grow by using fossil fuels rather than their more expensive and less reliable renewable alternatives. The McCarthy initiative is a free-market-friendly alternative to the global government socialist mobilization envisioned in the Green New Deal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The Club’s failure to see this is an example of the core problem with free-market fundamentalism. This view, pushed by libertarians and conservatives blinkered by their ideology, eschews any government response to a public problem. Free-market fundamentalists deny any problem exists or argue that the market’s independent working will solve whatever challenge remains. “Nothing to see here,” they intone. “All is well!”
This tired approach always fails. Free-market fundamentalists did nothing for decades to address the lack of health insurance coverage for tens of millions of Americans. For them, all was well. But that didn’t make the problem go away; all their denial and inaction did was give the left moral legitimacy to solve the problem. The result was Obamacare, which predictably extended government control and subsidies far beyond what a reasonable conservative approach would have been.
Principled conservatives understand this and are working to address climate change. Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, is one. She says her group’s polling shows that “millennial GOP voters as well as other key demographics such as suburban women and independents not only believe in climate change, but also that the party needs to do more to address it.” Her group supports McCarthy’s package of bills because it “will not result in dismantling the free market like Green New Deal would.”
Winning conservatives in other countries know this too. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a historic majority in December by tacking right on issues such as Brexit and immigration and toward the center on public spending and climate change. He has promised to cut Britain’s carbon emissions to a net zero by 2050. Johnson knows that he needs to build a majority coalition to govern, and that majority includes voters who want to address climate change without tanking the economy.
The Club is right to oppose grandstanding measures that will hurt the economy without addressing climate change, such as a carbon tax. Carbon taxes add to the price of everything people buy. They can reduce carbon emissions, but only by cutting people’s standard of living by forcing them to drive smaller cars, buy smaller houses or otherwise simply do with less. Many Americans intuitively know this and oppose carbon taxes. Even the liberal state of Washington, which hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1984, voted down two carbon tax initiatives in the past two elections.
Arguments that carbon taxes can spur innovation are discredited by Europe’s decades-long experiment with high fuel taxes. Europeans pay much more per gallon of gas in taxes, amounting to the equivalent of a carbon tax of between $200 and $400 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted. Yet, as policy analyst Oren Cass has noted, sky-high carbon taxes such as these have not produced any innovative approaches to fossil-free transportation. Carbon taxes, however, are far from the only way conservatives can combat climate change.
Free-market fundamentalists do not see the forest for the trees. Conservatives should back sensible measures to combat climate change such as McCarthy’s package. The alternative is that conservative political hopes will get clear cut by the real green socialists as they bulldoze their way to victory.