Conservatives have a golden opportunity to show political leadership and checkmate the left on global warming policy with a conservative energy agenda championing natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. This would address global warming concerns while bringing more affordable energy options to consumers. Conservatives would force liberal political leaders to repudiate the far left’s “wind and solar only” energy position or defend to a skeptical electorate why they are obstructing affordable energy options that dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The far left’s rationale for its “wind and solar only” policy is that environmental quality and global warming concerns are too important to sacrifice for more affordable energy sources. Conservatives typically respond by arguing affordable energy is more important than environmental concerns. In doing so, conservatives fall into the trap of appearing callous about the environment. Instead, conservatives should call attention to energy sources that have minimal environmental impact but are also – unlike wind and solar – affordable and reliable.
Conservatives have long championed natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. Natural gas and hydro power have become cost-competitive with the coal power that has long provided our nation with affordable, reliable electricity. Nuclear power is somewhat more expensive, but much more affordable and reliable than wind and solar. All three provide extra value by substantially reducing air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions in comparison to coal power. Hydro and nuclear power are emissions-free. Natural gas cuts carbon dioxide emissions in half and traditional air pollutants by more than 80 percent.
The reason global warming science has become a political issue is political leaders on the left seek to “solve” global warming by converting our economy into one that relies on expensive and unreliable wind and solar power. If the proposed solution will impose so much economic pain on American households, conservatives want to make sure the science justifies the economic pain. But if the proposed solution does not punish American living standards and the American economy, then the scientific debate becomes largely irrelevant from a policy perspective.
When the liberal media attempt to paint conservative policymakers as “deniers” and corner them with ‘gotcha’ global warming questions, conservative policymakers can flip the issue on its head by saying, “I am skeptical of over-the-top global warming claims. However, I am prepared to demonstrate effective leadership and offer creative solutions by championing affordable energy that will immediately and substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Why won’t liberals do the same?”
Conservative policymakers can take their message a step further by noting prominent global warming advocates, such as MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, actively promote natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. Emanuel explicitly championed each of these energy sources last month at a global warming debate at FreedomFest in Las Vegas. Emanuel called for eliminating preferential wind and solar subsidies while allowing natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power to compete against wind and solar on a level playing field. The most economical and reliable of these power sources would replace the coal power responsible for most power plant carbon dioxide emissions.
Emanuel’s policy prescription is very similar to the free-market energy policy I proposed in a paper published earlier this year by the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute. I also spelled out this free-market energy proposal here at Forbes.com. In short, policymakers should eliminate preferential subsidies and punitive obstacles to specific energy sources, assign appropriate environmental impact fees to account for each energy source’s environmental externalities, and then allow each energy source to compete unencumbered in a free and fair market. This approach satisfies conservatives’ desire for free markets and affordable energy. It also satisfies global warming advocates’ desire for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Because natural gas and hydro power are already cost-competitive with coal power – and because nuclear power is not too far away from being cost-competitive – a free-market energy policy that assigns appropriate environmental externality costs to each energy source will result in low-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon hydro and nuclear power replacing coal power. Carbon dioxide emissions will decline under a free market that rewards efficiency and affordability while assigning appropriate costs for environmental impacts.
Imagine the political points conservatives would rack up at liberals’ expense by championing this common-sense energy policy. Voters and policymakers who worry about global warming will have their fears addressed as low-carbon natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power replace coal. Those who don’t worry about global warming will see affordable and reliable energy preserved, which was the reason conservatives engaged in the global warming debate in the first place. Liberal policymakers will have to follow the conservative lead on this issue or be boxed into a corner supporting a “wind and solar only” approach that would fall completely outside the political mainstream.
Conservative policymakers can win an important political battle while ensuring affordable future energy prices if they are bold enough to seize the moment.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.