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The Eco-Right’s One Simple Trick

Climate-denying Republicans grab the headlines, but green policy debates are being shaped by the Right.

As Naomi Klein has pointed out, the Right may be onto something when it describes global warming as a Bolshevik plot: curbing climate change requires a fundamental rethinking of our economic system and the role of the state in orchestrating it. Conservatives grasp at a visceral level just how vast the implications of the ecological crisis really are. For them, rejecting climate change is a perfectly rational political position.

And yet, while climate-denying Republicans grab the headlines, neoliberal and openly right-wing actors have carved out sizable space in policy discussions about how to stem rising tides and scale up renewable energy.

Though the climate fight tends to get painted in black and white terms — either you believe in global warming or you don’t — the former camp contains multitudes. The thread linking the Wall Street bankers, oil magnates, and progressive heroes contained within it is a conviction that a perfectly free market and its rational economic actors can offer salvation from the end of the world as we know it. Even amid the GOP’s staunch denialism, it’s this uneasy coalition that may pose one of the most difficult barriers to surmount as the stark reality of the climate crisis becomes more painfully obvious.

Unsurprisingly, conservative economists, housed everywhere from Ivy League universities to libertarian think tanks, are especially gung-ho on this point. Some 95 percent of all economists agree that a carbon tax should be enacted. But for many this consensus comes not from their desire to curb warming so much as to create more efficient markets. The neoclassical logic behind carbon pricing seeks to make companies factor the cost of pollution into their budgets. It’s what’s known as a Pigouvian Tax, and whether it actually succeeds in curbing emissions is secondary to whether it breeds efficiency.

A reasonable carbon tax probably should exist as part of a suite of much bolder policies to reign in emissions. Yet the plans right-wing wonks put forward, like one Exxon-approved carbon pricing scheme, tend to see a tax as a silver bullet, or even as an easy vehicle through which to dismantle regulation. One of the four pillars of a proposal put out by the conservative Climate Leadership Council last spring, for instance, is a “significant regulatory rollback.”

The scheme — coauthored by Reagan and Bush-era treasury secretaries — would phase out the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon and implement an “outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.” The problem with this is that carbon taxes on their own don’t tend to be especially good at bringing down emissions sans regulation, especially not at the low price most plans tend to set (generally well under $100 per ton). Exxon’s own spokesperson has said that such a price would need to be set at $2000 per ton in order for it to cap warming at 1.6°C. Like many other oil majors, they already assume a carbon price in their long-term projections, in some cases as high as $80 per ton. When fossil fuel companies embrace market-based solutions, it’s because they know it won’t pose a threat to their business model.

Industry-friendly climate action isn’t a new phenomenon, though. In fact, one of the earliest backers of a carbon tax was Milton Friedman. In 1979, amid debates over pollution controls, he argued that people who hadn’t contractually agreed to endure pollution — that is, the general population — had a reasonable right to be protected from it, and that the government had a role to play in protecting them. But the way to do it, he argued, wasn’t through rules and regulations administered by federal agencies. “The way to do it,” he said, “is to impose a tax on the cost of the pollutants emitted by a car and make an incentive for car manufacturers and for consumers to keep down the amount of pollution.”

He made the case even more bluntly two years earlier when asked how ecological pressures might influence economics. “I would like to tax those activities which create pollution,” Friedman said. “The greatest protection of wildlife has not come from governmental measures to protect wildlife. It has come from the Audubon Society and from other private associations,” small groupings of rational actors who — in Friedman’s view — were better suited to drive down pollution than the state.

Nearly forty years later, everyone seems to be a Friedmanite environmentalist — even figures like Robert Reich. Still more pervasive than support for carbon pricing specifically, though, is the wider belief that the market is the best and only tool to dig us out of this crisis. In a new book coauthored with former Sierra Club head Carl Pope, Michael Bloomberg evangelizes that climate change is a problem best solved by the private sector and local governments. Pope famously threw his lot in with fracking enthusiast T. Boone Pickens in 2008, stepping down from the Sierra Club shortly thereafter “to revitalize the manufacturing sector.” Before leaving, he negotiated a $1.3 million contract allowing Clorox to use the group’s logo on its line of green products, and regularly hyped up corporate partnerships as being an integral part of the club’s work.

The upshot here is that if you happen to frequent places like Davos, your outlook on climate change is probably an optimistic one. Indeed, you might stand to make a bit of money because of it.

Scientific reality, of course, is grimmer. Given how thoroughly neoliberalism has infected nearly every aspect of daily life, that its logic has taken root in high-level climate policy discussions shouldn’t come as a surprise. Like neoliberalism itself, support for the market-as-panacea position also doesn’t fall firmly along partisan lines, either. There’s plenty of daylight separating Robert Reich from Milton Friedman, of course, but the ubiquity of faith in market-based solutions among some of the climate fight’s most visible faces should be cause for concern. As warming mounts — and denial ebbs — the neoliberal solutions currently dominating the conversation about how to respond are poised to find friends at the highest levels of government, perhaps even in a Trump White House where Goldman Sachs executives and former ExxonMobil CEOs-turned-cabinet members agree with progressives that a carbon tax is our best shot at survival.

We shouldn’t think for a moment that popular GOP denialism is set in stone. The Right’s fundamental mission is to preserve capitalist class power — if we let them, they’ll find a way to use climate policy to do that.