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Guestwords: A Churchillian Climate Plan

Wed, 06/19/2024 - 11:50

It is a fact, verified by many independent polls, that conservatives are less likely than liberals to take climate change seriously. I propose to correct this imbalance with a plan that is fundamentally conservative, inspired by the vision of the 20th century’s greatest conservative, Winston Churchill.

Conservatives will accept the reality of climate change once they realize that the most effective solution is one that depends on market forces rather than government regulation. Here’s how it works. Include the true costs of carbon emissions in the price of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — and then let the market, not the government, pick the winners and losers. This can be done by charging the producers and importers of these fuels a fee proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when they are burned.

It becomes a conservative solution when it is stipulated that the funds collected be returned to the American people and not retained by the government. Each of us will receive monthly bank deposits using the existing Social Security system. This approach will use the invisible hand of economics to move electric utilities toward carbon-free sources of energy and consumers toward efficient products, without the need for heavy-handed bureaucracy.

This plan, known as “carbon fee and dividend,” has received bipartisan support, including that of cabinet-level officials from four past Republican administrations. It must be the central element in any effective climate plan. It is, however, not enough.

Humanity will need to adapt to the challenges we’ll face even if we make all the right choices from here on out — and that’s a big if. Think of these as the “five Ws”: Warming, Water, Windstorms, Wildfires, and Weirding. Warming comes with heat waves that kill people directly and ecosystem disruption that threatens other species on which we depend for life. Water levels of the ocean will rise. Windstorms driven by warmer ocean waters will be more severe even if not more frequent. Wildfires are a threat to areas hit by climate-caused drought. Weirding means that climate change will make some areas too wet and others too dry for the humans who live there.

Conservatives often advocate adaptation as a solution to changes in the climate. Provided they don’t say that adaptation alone is enough, they are on the right track.

The third need is for new climate-friendly technology. Research on energy efficiency and carbon-free energy should continue to pay dividends even as past research has helped America become twice as energy-efficient as it was 50 years ago and has brought the cost of solar and wind energy down to affordable levels. We need more of the same.

In addition, it is likely that some form of carbon capture and storage will be needed. Research on how to expand the applicability and reduce the cost of such measures may be the difference between success and failure. We also need research on ways to help the earth itself counteract the effects we humans are causing. It is very possible that some measures of this kind will be the last available weapon we have against the worst impacts of climate change. These are often derided as “geoengineering,” and while they may entail huge risks, we need to know these quantitatively, so that when humanity is pushed to consider last resorts, our children won’t have to guess which ones are acceptable and which should be avoided at all costs.

Finally, we should be open to negotiation. Nobody gets everything they want. Conservatives should recognize the reality of climate change and the necessity for government to play a role in its solution, while giving individuals and businesses freedom to decide how best to operate in the new low-carbon economy. Liberals should avoid “environmental perfectionism” — the tendency to reject any new technology that isn’t pristine, even if it’s much better than what we’re doing now.

When America gets its house in order, we’ll need to negotiate with other countries on the best way to limit the consequences of climate change collectively. We should recognize their right to a decent standard of living. We should help them adapt to the severe challenges climate change will pose to them, especially in the tropical regions where the climate is already close to the limit of livability. Beyond that, it should be “Let’s make a deal.”

There was a time when Europe’s democracies could have stopped Hitler’s rise to power, but by 1940 it was too late for that. Still, Winston Churchill remained an optimist. In his famous speech to Britain’s House of Commons, he said, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”

Churchill hoped for the best, but he was prepared for the worst. If you read his speech carefully, you’ll see that his was a layered plan. Fight on the beaches. If that doesn’t work, fight in the streets. If that doesn’t work, fight in the hills. If that doesn’t work, rely on the British Fleet and the Empire. And if that doesn’t work, appeal to the United States.

Our plan to address climate change must be similarly layered. Reduce emissions, yes, and implement adaptive measures. But if these aren’t enough, turn to carbon capture and storage. And if that isn’t enough, only then consider geoengineering. The more we know now, the wiser the choices our children will make when it appears that all is lost, as seems increasingly likely to happen as our present generation dawdles.

Churchill’s plan had no guarantees. It might have failed. But it rallied the people of Great Britain to fight. We need a climate plan that recognizes the danger but promises “we shall never surrender.”

John Andrews has a Ph.D. in physics. He lives in Sag Harbor.



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