It’s hardly being noticed, given the current political atmosphere in Washington. But a small yet growing number of Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians are starting to push for action on climate.
As liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans pull farther apart in the long-running, increasingly polarized debate over climate change, Jerry Taylor is a rare bird —an advocate who has switched sides.
For two decades, as an energy and environment expert with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and the libertarian Cato Institute, Taylor challenged the scientific consensus on climate change and argued that decarbonizing the energy sector would impose intolerable costs on the U.S. economy. “I was an enthusiastic and convinced champion of the idea that climate change is an overblown problem,” he says.
Today, as the founder and president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, Taylor embraces the scientific consensus on climate change and argues that a carbon tax is “the most efficient and least costly means of achieving greenhouse gas emissions reductions and hedging against climate risk.” He makes the conservative case for carbon pricing in footnoted position papers, on Capitol Hill, and to the media, with unbridled passion. “If you believe in free markets, how are those ends advanced by burning the planet?” he asks.
Taylor has joined a small but growing cohort of Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians who are bucking Republican Party orthodoxy on climate — even as President Trump has moved briskly to roll back the Obama administration’s major climate initiatives. Loosely organized and sometimes called the eco-right, they include GOP stalwarts James Baker and George Shultz and the former treasury secretary Hank Paulson; Ted Halstead of the Climate Leadership Council, a newly formed research and advocacy group that supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax; Eli Lehrer of the R Street Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank that supports carbon taxes; and Lynn Scarlett, a former Bush administration official and director of the libertarian Reason Foundation who now directs global public policy at The Nature Conservancy.
‘You can be a conservative and address climate change in ways that are consistent with our limited government principles.’
These Washington-based groups, with longstanding ties on Capitol Hill, all say there’s no way to enact long-term climate policy in the U.S. without Republicans. They’re playing a long game, laying the ground work for climate action when a window of opportunity presents itself.
“Our focus is on opening up the dialogue,” Scarlett says. “Durable solutions — as opposed to a pendulum swinging from one end to the other — require a comfortable space for business people, Republicans, libertarians, independents, and the moderate middle, as well as Democrats and environmentalists.”
Andrew Moylan says the R Street Institute, where he is executive director, is “in the phase of educating a lot of our conservative brethren. You can be a conservative and address climate change in ways that are consistent with our limited government principles.”
Others are working in states and cities to build a grass-roots conservative climate movement. Backed by a $20 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund are working to persuade conservative Americans to support clean energy and climate action. Joining them in organizing outside the Beltway are former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis of RepublicEN, a membership organization that aims to be a voice for free-enterprise action on climate; the Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, which backed moderate Republicans against Tea Party challengers in 2014 and 2016; the rigorously bipartisan Citizens Climate Lobby; and Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, which is led by Michele Combs, whose mother, Roberta Combs, is president of the Christian Coalition. Michigan-based ConservAmerica, formed in 1995 as Republicans for Environmental Protection, also endorses climate-friendly Republican candidates and reminds Republicans that President Reagan once said that preserving the environment is “our great moral responsibility.”