Conservative Environmentalism

Brad Plumer at the Washington Post interviews law professor Jonathan Adler, who believes that property rights can form a basis for sustainability:

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.

He manages to turn the climate debate on its head:

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 climate change by saying Al Gore is exaggerating or that it’s inefficient or too costly to deal with it. Folks on the right didn’t say it was wrong to take Kelo’s land because it was inefficient. It was wrong because it was her land!

He comes out for a revenue neutral carbon tax, Hansen style.

I think that idea will never fly, because the gridlock of American politics is not really based on a philosophical differences. Those are a proxy for a culture war between rural and urban worldviews. The side waving the “conservative” colors is the rural one, for whom coherence is not really a core value in the first place.

A carbon tax transfers wealth from rural to urban areas.

I oppose a carbon tax because it would exacerbate the culture wars. The American right will find some excuse to oppose it, because the actual interests of its constituents overwhelms its philosophical posturing.

“Property rights” sell in rural areas, of course, and the whole overvaluing of real estate results from a frontier mentality. But the principle is not what the red/blue divide is about at all. The cultural divide forms the principles, despite all the posturing that it goes the other way. Thus, philosophical coherence is not the real motivator of voting patterns in the US. So although a carbon tax is based in conservative principles, I expect that most American conservatives will continue to oppose it anyway because it is against their interests.

How to come up with a climate strategy that respects and appeals to the rural culture is hard to imagine at this point, but the philosophical coherence of a carbon tax won’t do the trick.



  1. One way to engage rural states and the conservative politicians they represent:

    Tax carbon at a price that will suffice to hire Exxon to implement carbon capture on a scale that can ultimately bring emissions back into balance.

    Klaus Lackner at Columbia works on air capture:
    If it can be sequestered in solid form, even better:

    Jump start the R&D funding with military research; an unstable climate is already recognized by the Pentagon as a trigger for conflict.

    Put the funding into research centers in red states. Add energy research.

  2. I don't know what Adler thinks the prospects are for a carbon tax in the real world. I do think that Michael's assessment is oversimple: our gridlock is not a function of "rural vs. urban worldviews," or at least not only that. There is certainly a strong social-conservative world view that has rural roots, but is more about religion in the modern day than it is about rural/urban (at least if one counts "suburban" as urban rather than rural, which is kind of an interesting question). However, the Republican party is comprised of a secular business and professional class as well, which has been happy (since Reagan, and arguably since Nixon) to form an alliance with social conservatives in order to maintain a voting majority. Now that the worst of our pollution problems have been tamed, the business/professional wing has largely turned anti-regulatory. The regulation of greenhouse gases has been a victim of this general trend, even though it is only a small fraction of the business class that really has a lot to lose from carbon regulation in the short run. (GM will be able to sell electric cars, but coal and oil will lose most of their value.)

    • The idea that American suburbanites are escapees from the city is wrong; there was a nice article, in the Atlantic I think, some years back that explained this but I'd be hard pressed to find it. Outside the older suburbs of the rustbelt and the east, I would explicitly claim that American suburbs are rural in culture.

      As for the business/professional/academic conservative, who may really have a philosophy rather than an attitude, the rural populist streak doesn't like them and has finally worked up the gumption to make that clear. This is obviously causing serious problems within the Republican party. But this makes rural real-estate-centric know-nothing decide-from-the-gut populism more powerful than ever.

      The Romney types will say whatever is good for business. That's obvious. But the whole Romney approach has been utterly discredited among the right wing voters. The business class has little political clout with the right anymore. OK, there's still cronyism at the state level, but what else is new.

      I learned my lesson in arguing about "world governance" with someone at Kloor's. I pointed out that we already have world governance in the WTO. He said he hated the WTO every bit as much as he hated the proposed world environmental agency. These people want money minted in their local bank (and if times get too rough, I figure they want to be able to pull bandanas over their faces, take over the bank at gunpoint, and steal the money...).

      The populists (the supporters of William Jennings Bryan) have not gone away. In their eyes big government and big capital are one and the same, and have been for over a century. Now they are back, the only important difference being that they think of Wall Street as a sort of "socialism". (Come to think of it, they have a point. Almost everything is run centrally by a single institution. What difference does it make whether it is "public" or "private"?) Now successfully labelled "right" instead of "left", primed against "socialism" by their fading deal with the oligarchy, they revile any collective action not associated with the military. But they still hate eastern capitalism as much as ever.

      I have to keep explaining that the new American right is anti-corporate. People have a hard time with the idea.

      But nationally, corporate capitalism may soon have more influence on the left than on the right! I know that's hard to even think about. Nobody believes me because it is sort of inconceivable. But there it is.

      "The business/professional wing has largely turned anti-regulatory" in large part to retain the votes of the William Jennings Bryan set. They are insincere about anything other than their own success, and will often frankly admit that.

      But they've created a monster now. They're no happier about it than us Euro-symp social democracy types are.

      • Obviously when it comes to suburbia there are both geographic and cultural "origins." I suspect that the large majority of today's suburban dwellers are currently living in the least-dense area of their lives, having mostly moved either outward or simply between suburbs (keeping in mind that we've been suburban for a very long time). Whether they are culturally "rural" - well, I'm not sure entirely what that would mean. Certainly the majority, whatever their cultural identities, have the same material lifestyle as all but the most "citified" (the latter being the relatively small number of places where you can live successfully without a car). As a practical matter I would tend to think that the more important distinction is not rural, but "Southern." Certainly there is a populist streak involved, but the number of people who actually want their money minted locally is probably a pretty small fraction.

        As for "the business professional wing has turned anti-regulatory", I don't think that is primarily about winning votes, I think it's about economic self-interest. But since there's no conflict, it doesn't require additional explanation until regulation becomes a matter of self interest again (which, I would argue, is precisely the point about climate change). Then - as was the case until about two years ago - you began to see corporate interest in (limited) GHG regulation.

        Clearly in the short run the "populist" right has become more powerful, because they are both a significant plurality if not outright majority of Republican primary voters, and also the only possibility for a Republican presidential majority. But given the fundamental divergence of interests and philosophies, the Republican party as it is now unlikely to survive as more than a state/local phenomenon beyond the next decade. What comes after is an open question; I would guess that both the republicans will move left on social issues at the national level and try to rebuild their coalition on that basis.

        But hey, who knows?

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