Baker Institute for Public Policy

Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

By Randy Lee Loftis
Texas Climate News

Several avowed capitalists gathered in Houston recently to urge conservatives to stop denying climate change and start making money by fixing it.

Embracing the truth of climate change is far from current Republican orthodoxy, and the ability of the market to save the environment has its own doubters, left and right.

But during a conversation at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on Nov. 16, participants were bullish on crafting a lower-carbon economy based on climate change’s human factor.

“We’d better hope it’s human-caused – if it’s not, we are hosed,” said former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina who now heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a free-market climate-action program at George Mason University in Virginia. “If problems are of human origin, they are open to human solution.”

The hottest idea in market-based climate action is putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions – making energy and goods reflect the cost of the climate damage they do. That, the theory goes, would create financial incentives for cutting carbon.

“The best way to do that, or one of the best ways to do that, we believe, is through carbon pricing,” said Marilu Hastings, vice president, sustainability programs, at the Texas-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. “It’s very market friendly, and it’s anti-regulatory, so what’s better for Texas than that type of approach?” [The Mitchell Foundation is a financial supporter of Texas Climate News.]

The Baker Institute’s namesake, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, along with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and business and political leaders of the Climate Leadership Council, advocate a tax, starting at $40, on every ton of carbon in energy and products. The revenues would be distributed in equal shares to American families.

Inglis said a U.S. carbon tax, if applied to domestic and imported goods, would force importer nations to follow suit so they could keep the revenues for themselves.

“We impose a carbon tax, we think we win that case [before the World Trade Organization],” Inglis said. “Twenty-four hours later, China will impose their own tax so they [can] set their own carbon price. And then we’ve got the whole world.”

That’s not the only approach being suggested. Houston attorney Jim Blackburn described his push for payments to landowners for the ecosystem services their undeveloped land now provides for free – slowing floods, cleaning and storing water and locking up carbon and other pollutants in plants and soil. The more work the land does, the less governments must do, at public expense, to engineer those same benefits.

“Ecosystem services might generate lots of landowner money,” Blackburn said. “We need to mobilize the grasslands of the U.S. and the cattle industry of the U.S. We think we can set up a system that every red state in the country would accept in a heartbeat.”

Finding ways to monetize environmental action isn’t exclusively a Republican exercise. Cheaper renewable energy and new green-economy jobs have long been mainstays of many environmentalists’ climate pitches.

Former Vice President Al Gore’s organization, the Climate Reality Project, says it is “working to accelerate the global shift from the dirty fossil fuels driving climate change to renewables so we can power our lives and economies without destroying our planet.” Other climate advocate groups use similar language.

But a happy partnership of profit and planet isn’t universally accepted. Opposition to acknowledging climate science – and therefore to doing anything about it – is still strong in the Trump administration and the Republican-majority Congress.

Inglis said many conservatives have been persuaded that fighting climate change means bigger government, repentance and guilt, a destroyed economy, domination by China and India, and ultimately futility because nothing can be done.

None of that is true, Inglis said. “If you’re a conservative here, you can relax.”

Not all the rejection of market-based climate solutions comes from conservatives. Some critics on the left say that if capitalism knew how to solve the climate crisis, it already would have done so.

“The dominant role of capital is made even clearer by a new carbon tax-and-dividend scheme put out by neoliberal think-tanks and championed by a group of U.S. Republicans,” Belgian ecosocialist (his term) Daniel Tanuro wrote in April in the leftist magazine Jacobin.

“But despite its populist potential and liberal pedigree, the proposal will not solve our ecological crisis,” Tanuro wrote. “For that, we need to build a strong alliance from below that will develop alternatives freed from the profit-driven logic that produced the climate crisis in the first place.”

Just talking calmly about economics and the earth isn’t easy in an era of toxic politics, said the Rice session’s moderator, Kenneth B. Medlock III, senior director of the Baker Institute’s Center for Energy Studies.

“Having a vested interest in the outcome is what drives much of that dialogue,” Medlock said. “Anytime you can elevate the conversation out of the muck, you end up with a much better outcome.”

But Blackburn said climate change is still a forbidden topic in much of Houston’s establishment. Prominent Houstonians have emailed him saying that his ideas are good, but to get them across he shouldn’t mention climate change.

“Everyone we talk to says basically they don’t believe in climate change,” Blackburn said. “It’s become such a politicized issue, we can’t have a conversation.”

For Inglis that’s a hard-learned lesson about political psychology. “If you don’t like the solution,” he said, “you’ll deny the problem.”


Randy Lee Loftis is a senior editor at Texas Climate News.

TCN’s editors and writers make all editorial decisions independently, with no direction or influence from our funders.

Image credit: Baker Institute for Public Policy