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Where's The Beef?

Part One of a debate about what conservatives can do--and haven't done--to confront climate change.

In the 20 years since climate change came to national attention, leading conservative politicians and intellectuals have alternately claimed it's not happening, it’s not caused by humans, or it’s not something to worry much about.

Today, however, increasing numbers of conservative leaders and thinkers are breaking from the pack and urging some sort of action on the climate crisis. In a debate about the environment last spring, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, "I'm not going to stand up here and defend our failure to lead. There has to be a green conservatism." Gingrich takes a modest step toward establishing a serious conservative plan to address climate change in their new book, A Contract with the Earth, co-written with Terry L. Maple, by acknowledging the challenge we face and calling for prizes for clean technology inventions, tax credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and modest incentives for nuclear power and carbon capture and storage technologies. But if conservatives like Gingrich are to have any credibility, they'll need to move beyond the conservative orthodoxy that global warming can be overcome by private companies operating in free markets with little or no help from the government. They need to be willing to put government money where their mouths are.

Recently, in response to our new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, several conservatives have embraced our critique of approaches that focus solely on pollution regulation. They have not been so quick to embrace our call for a new Apollo project that would require no less than $300 billion in clean energy. In The Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Adler praised our deconstruction of the regulation-centered approach, but then argued, "The authors embrace the fatal conceit that markets can somehow be planned or manipulated to achieve a grand and worthy purpose." At the libertarian Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey endorsed our critique of nature-centered environmentalism--which sees regulation as the best solution--but then concluded, "Shellenberger's and Nordhaus' naïve trust in wise government bureaucrats guiding technological innovation is problematic, to say the least." For conservatives to be taken seriously, they'll need to ditch their knee-jerk opposition to government intervention in the economy and recognize that government has long played a critical role in investing in transformational technologies.

In fact, historically, Republican presidents have made as many large investments in technology and infrastructure as Democratic ones. President Lincoln championed railroads, which were largely built under President Grant. President Eisenhower invested billions in the highways and in microchips, making the entire information technology revolution possible.

But then, over the last 30 years, conservatives began confusing their opposition to investments in social programs like welfare with opposition to investments in technology and infrastructure. Today's conservatives say government should not pick "winners and losers" in the economy. But this tired old trope--now parroted, ironically, by liberals and environmentalists who believe that carbon taxes and regulation alone can solve the climate crisis--misses the point. An effective technology strategy, one capable of driving the clean energy revolution we need, requires a broad range of investments in everything from building large farms of concentrated solar power to to capturing and storing carbon dioxide emitted from coal plants. To be sure, many of these technologies will fail. But any venture capitalist will tell you that multiple failures are required to reap a single success, and that you can't win if you don't play.

Doing this well will also require insulating these investments from pork-barrel politics. This is no small hurdle, but it is one that the U.S. has managed in the past when it have chosen to do so, as with, for example, certain defense research and development programs like the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA). It also requires establishing clear cost and performance criteria to guide those investments, and benchmarks for when technologies have matured commercially and no longer require public support. Here again, we have successful models to look to: microchips, where public investment came at critical moments, both in the 1950s and again in the 1980s.

The fact that some past public investments in energy failed is no more an argument against public investment than the failure of private firms to deliver cheap, clean energy is an argument against markets. It is true that government has made some lousy investments--but it has also made remarkable ones.

Companies like Intel and Google wouldn't exist had the Pentagon not invested in transistors and microchips, or invented the Internet from whole cloth. Conservatives should acknowledge these clear historical facts. Doing so does not require one to abandon faith in the efficiency and power of markets. But it does demand the recognition that there is more to the story of America’s remarkable record of innovation and economic growth than entrepreneurial spirit, individual initiative, and free markets. American government, from the very beginning, has made big investments in promising technologies that have defined our history and transformed our world.

In 1955, in his introduction to the very first issue of the National Review, William F. Buckley famously described his new conservative magazine’s mission as follows: “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” Yet few conservatives today would want to go back to the days before highways or the Internet. If conservatives are going to engage the climate change debate seriously, they will need to offer America something more. They will need to put forward a serious plan--backed by real money--to drive new clean energy technologies into the market on a massive and unprecedented scale.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute.

(Check back tomorrow to read a response from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple.)

By Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus