Is there a solution to climate change that doesn't freak out conservatives?
Pundit confession time: Climate change, the science behind it, and the policy solutions meant to abate it have never really interested me. The basic mechanics of anthropocentric climate change always made intuitive sense to me. But even though I'm paid to have opinions, I've avoided the topic.
For one, I only have so much time in the day. But more importantly, all the cures on offer seemed worse than the disease and none of them could be reconciled with how I thought about environmental problems. I have always agreed with Roger Scruton that the best way to protect an environment is for people to cultivate a love of the places they live, work, and play in, and wherever possible, connect the interests of posterity in an environment to its present use. It's an ownership model not of leasing, but trusteeship. No one is better at keeping a city clean than the people who live in it. No group of people is better at restoring the health of a lake than the people who like to sail and fish in it, and who hope to pass on their lake house to their children.
That model of finding and creating solutions does not work for anthropogenic climate change, which is, by its nature, globally diffused. The center-left solution has been to propose a scheme of carbon-taxing and trading, which — whenever the details are revealed — strikes me as corporatist grifting. Whenever GE is for a new legal scheme, I find myself instinctively against it. Please excuse the slight hyperbole to follow, but, to a right-winger, the progressive solutions to climate-change look like emergency-mandated communism. It looks like this to us: After years of diplomatic wrangle, panels of scientists and left-wingers will use new global governing mechanisms to regulate all economic activity. So, it's better to avoid the topic altogether, or pretend with libertarians that if the effects of climate change are so bad, humans will pay to invent a way to abate them.
But then a friend of mine, Matt Frost, came up with a simple, elegant idea: Just buy coal that's in the ground and then don't extract it. Environmentalist millionaires and billionaires spend fortunes on ineffective lobbying efforts that do more to enhance the lifestyle of professional environmentalist consultants and politicians than the condition of the atmosphere. Those consultants and politicians then work to build an elusive consensus on moonshot regulatory and diplomatic schemes, which are unlikely to get global buy-in and are likely to be cheated and abandoned anyway.
Why not just spend all that money and effort buying the coal deposits that are already in the ground? That would increase the price of coal globally, and make cleaner energy sources more viable in the market. Frost calls it the coal retirement plan and the idea has now been profiled in an essay in The Atlantic.
For the conservative who suspects that climate-change requires some action, but who finds themselves suspicious of the plans on offer, this is an attractive start. Why?
First, because it is much cheaper and more cost effective. Every dollar put to an effort like this actually has an effect on the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere.
Second, it uses market forces to quickly make cleaner alternative sources of energy cheaper, but not in the more abstract and profiteering way that certain cap-and-trade efforts do.
Third, it's voluntary. Like the effort of local associations to clean local environments, an effort like this doesn't try to harness the power of all states, but all parties interested in this specific cause. It collects diffuse interest and concentrates it on a voluntary project; it's morally entrepreneurial.
By contrast, progressive solutions instead seek to capture the energy and power of institutions (like governments) that were not built for this purpose, and whose power are premised on ideas and interests that are not concentrated on this cause.
Unfortunately, this may be why the coal retirement plan doesn't take off. It relies almost exclusively on a truly moral interest in saving the planet from catastrophic climate change, its only benefit is a healthier world.
Maybe it's an advantage of cap-and-trade schemes that major corporations are interested in using them to rip us off. Maybe it's an advantage that a climate emergency can create the governing structures far-left ideologues wanted even before there was a climate emergency. These are advantages because they provide tangible benefits of "use" to potential environmentalists — just as a clean lake is of more use to someone whose kids are going to inherit a lakeside cabin.
The advantage of the coal retirement plan is its cheap price and narrow focus. But it provides a test to environmentalists: Do you really want to save the atmosphere? Or do you want to save the atmosphere while accomplishing something else?