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Evoking Nixon to Get Conservatives Back on Green Trail

March 11, 2013 By Salman Mitha, Fellow

The first in a two-part series.

Remember back in the early- to mid-2000s, when conservatives like Tim Pawlenty and those concerned with military interests we’re getting serious about finding solutions to global warming? Whatever happened to those days?

Until about 2007, there was a political consensus nationwide that global climate change was a real problem and that an expanding green economy would solve the problem. Silicon Valley VCs such as Vinod Khosla and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk shifted their focus towards green investment and green products. Conservative businessman T. Boone Pickens bought into the green economy by proposing to develop huge wind farms in Texas.

Unfortunately by the time President Obama took office for his first term in 2009, the consensus had unraveled. The poor economic climate caused by the financial market meltdown had driven the investors away. Global warming concerns had become politically associated with a Democratic or liberal agenda causing some conservatives to begin to call global warming concerns a 'hoax'.

However, the pendulum is swinging back with events like Super Storm Sandy and more severe natural disasters devastating communities. A 2012 study commissioned by the libertarian Koch brothers once again demonstrated that climate change is real. The slowly improving economy is bringing some green products to the forefront, such as Silicon Valley-based Tesla’s automobile, Motor Trend's first electric car of the year. In Minnesota, our huge investments in wind, solar and biofuel research and infrastructure could play a leading role in the new green economy.

The Political Background

In 2004, former Governor Pawlenty said "It's a little unfortunate that Al Gore has become the spokesperson for this by himself, because he is a political figure in some people's minds, and in many people's minds I think a polarizing figure. It would be better if we had a more neutral or credible lead spokesperson."

While most progressives have the highest regard for former Vice President Al Gore's credibility and integrity, as a prominent progressive political leader, he’s considered a partisan spokesperson by approximately half the nation. Unfortunately in today's highly charged political environment any political figure will be regarded as a controversial spokesman for global climate change.

Further divisions on policy between conservatives and progressives came with shale oil and gas discoveries in the US, and a weak economy that put strong political pressure on government to support extracting and using these domestic fossils fuels. It also removed energy security as a basis for the green economy.

Policy Drivers

The green economy has been in the news for over a decade. During this period governments, federal, state and local, have been trying to implement policies that create green jobs. However there are detractors who assert that the government should not be focused on green jobs. These detractors claim that ‘green’ jobs is a pointless distinction; a job is a job and if there is such a thing as a green economy, the market will automatically develop it.

Detractors’ arguments overlook the critical fact that climate change represents a physical threat to the United States and the world population’s wellbeing. When such a public threat is identified governments are required to act. There are clear precedents for such government actions. The rapid economic development in the1950s and 1960s created significant environmental problems. By the late 60s pollution had created huge smog problems in Los Angeles and urban waterways such the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland were so polluted that they caught fire. This pollution represented a major threat to the public health and wellbeing. The congress responded to this threat and passed National Environmental Policy Act to limit pollution.

Government action was based on widespread public support for pollution control. A national consensus emerged that a clean environment was a right and the public demanded that the government enforce its right. The government’s primary pollution control mechanism, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed during the time of one of the most conservative presidents, Richard Nixon. He created the EPA because the public clearly decided it was not going to accept pollution damage nor provide the monies to fix it . Over a period of time EPA directives reformulated market incentives so that polluters became responsible for their pollution.

U.S. water and air quality has dramatically improved. However, the government did not take over the entire job of cleaning the environment, it was only the cleaner of 'last resort' through the Superfund and similar laws. Most of the cleanup was proactive and performed by market forces. What the government effectively did was to ensure that private actors were not allowed to socialize the costs of keeping the public environment clean. After that the firms merely behaved in a rational economic way.

The regulations that cleaned up the air, water and urban landscape in the US created new industries that directly that added value to the economy. But the indirect benefits to the economy are probably far larger and include a substantially improved quality of life for millions for people. Success was built on a public consensus that formed the basis of the regulatory framework. These regulations were based on cost effective and viable technologies. Otherwise the regulations would have severely disrupted the economy and the public consensus would have unraveled.

Tomorrow’s article will discuss this framework and the jobs and economic benefits that arise from it.

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