The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Forget Paris. It Was Never a Serious Way to Handle Climate Change

Conservatives (and others) should pursue alternative approaches to the threat of climate change.


On Monday, the Trump Administration formally announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, as President Trump had pledged to do earlier. Environmental activists decried the move, as did many of the President's political opponents.

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is nothing to complain about. This move does not hamper efforts to address the threat of climate change, as serious climate policy analysts acknowledge. The agreement did little if anything to accelerate decarbonization here or abroad—and this is no surprise, as it did not require much of anything from member countries other than the submission of non-binding plans of some sort or other. It was a symbolic measure (at best) or (more likely) a misleading facade of cliamte action masking business-as-usual.

While there's no reason to criticize the Trump Administration for refusing to remain in the Paris agreement, there is ample reason to criticize the Administration's abject failure to come forward with a meaningful policy alternative, as I explained in an op-ed published in today's LA Times. Here's a taste:

Republicans know what environmental regulations to oppose, but they have a hard time identifying positive environmental policies to support. Nowhere is this more evident than with climate change.

Meaningful climate mitigation requires stabilizing (and eventually reducing) atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. This, in turn, requires a dramatic transformation of the energy economy, both here and abroad. The type of technological transformation necessary for this feat is similar to that which we saw in telecommunications, as resource-intensive technologies, such as copper wire, were replaced first by fiber optics and eventually by spectrum. The economy's decarbonization efforts must match this sort of transformation.

Traditional environmental policy tools, such as regulatory mandates and directed subsidies for favored technologies are a poor fit for the climate challenge. Federal agencies cannot simply mandate the development of technologies necessary for such a transformation. What the government can do is can create a legal and economic environment in which such technologies are more likely to emerge and be deployed – and they can do so in ways that are entirely consistent with traditional conservative commitments to free enterprise and limited constitutional government.

Instead of trying to find ways to shoehorn greenhouse gas policies into the Clean Air Act, through initiatives like the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan, policymakers should be focused on spurring the technological innovation that will be necessary to provide low-carbon energy around the globe. Once this is achieved, there will be plenty of time for international agreements and other measures to spur technology transfer and deployment. Focusing on treaties and mandates first, however, is putting the cart before the horse.

Policymakers should seek to increase the rewards for climate friendly innovation, incentivize reductions in carbon intensity, and remove barriers to technological adoption and deployment.  This can be done through a combination of technology inducement prizes and a revenue-neutral carbon tax (such as a cap-and-dividend plan), combined with efforts to reduce regulatory and NIMBY barriers to the development and deployment of low-carbon energy sources. In short, give people more reasons to develop and adopt low-carbon technologies, and remove the barriers to their doing so.

My bottom line is that one need not embrace centralized regulatory measures, bureaucratic international agreements, or massive public works projects to address climate change. Big government is not the best way to be Green. But ignoring serious problems, such as climate change, should not be an option either.