Two Cheers for “Conservative Conservation”
Governor Sanford tries a conservative approach to environmental protection.


Jonathan H. Adler

Environmental protection could be a sleeper issue in the 2008 campaign, particularly if the climate-policy debate continues to heat up in Congress, state capitols, and the courts. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hopes to make greenhouse-gas-emission reductions one of her primary legislative accomplishments. Governors from both parties are pushing new state-level energy policies and climate initiatives with increasing aggressiveness. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will issue a major opinion relating to climate change some time between now and the end of June, while many other climate cases remain pending in federal courts.

Few Republicans seem to take climate change and other environmental issues very seriously. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford may be a welcome exception. Writing in the Washington Post last week, Governor Sanford argued Republicans need to respond to the warming climate debate with a positive conservative agenda. “The climate change debate is here to stay,” he wrote “and as America warms to the idea of environmental conservation on a grander scale, it’s vital that conservatives change the debate before government regulation expands yet again and personal freedom is pushed closer toward extinction.”

Governor Sanford understands that embracing environmental policies entails a certain risks for conservatives; “the issue of environmental conservation sits squarely on the battle line between government and liberty.” On the one hand, environmental protection is a driving force for aggressive government intervention into the economy. Endorsing some environmental policies entails abandoning conservative support for limited government and economic liberty. On the other, as America becomes a wealthier and more advanced nation, the demand for environmental conservation will only increase. If conservatives fail to engage the debate in a constructive way, they may suffer political costs. In a divided nation, environmental questions need not motivate a large percentage of voters to have a real political effect.

Governor Sanford argued that “conservatives must reframe the environmental discussion” by articulating conservative principles for environmental protection. One does not have to accept Al Gore’s apocalyptic visions to share environmental concerns. Nor does one have to endorse expansive federal regulation to encourage conservation. As Governor Sanford wrote, there is a need for “ecologically responsible solutions based on free-market principles that both improve our quality of life and safeguard our freedoms.”

Articulating a truly conservative environmental agenda is much easier said than done, however, particularly for those holding elective office. Most conservatives who engage environmental issues are either knee-jerk reactionaries or half-hearted mimics of the environmental Left. Either is a mistake. The former know what to be against, but have difficulty deciding what to support. Opposing the legislative agenda of the Sierra Club makes sense more often than not, but blindly denying the existence of environmental problems or reflexively accommodating industry demands does not. On the other hand, endorsing the traditional green agenda, but only promising to make it cost less or more efficient hardly inspires support or trust. If massive government intervention is necessary to save the planet, why should voters wish to do it on the cheap? Becoming Al Gore lite is no way to beat Al Gore.

Based upon his Washington Post op-ed, Governor Sanford seems to have learned some of these lessons. He noted conservative politicians have yet to present much of an alternative to conventional environmental policies, in the context of climate change, or any other issue for that matter. Setting aside his misguided effort to blame Carolina coastal erosion on global warming and hyperbolic account of climate change’s current effects, he understands issues like climate change are not going away. Unfortunately, there is little in his article to suggest the sort of actual policies that a conservative could endorse without sacrificing conservative principle.

When Sanford suggests that environmental protection “is as much about expanding economic opportunity as it is about saving whales or replanting rain forests,” he again comes close to an important truth. In a competitive market economy, there are tremendous economic incentives to do more with less, to maintain or increase output while using fewer resource inputs. Such incentives are the primary reason the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP consistently declines in the United States and other advanced, market economies. Too often, environmentalists forget that this sort of market-driven efficiency can produce tremendous environmental benefits.

The danger in this rhetoric is that it can encourage environmental rent-seeking. There are many firms and industries that can benefit from government subsidies, market-distorting regulations, technology mandates, and other government interventions. Yet these sorts of regulations rarely make for sound environmental policy. Exhibit A is the political push for expanded use of ethanol and other biofuels. If these energy sources made economic sense, they would not need government assistance, and their environmental benefits are much less than most politicians suggest. It is all well and good to note examples of firms that profit through being greener than their competitors. The real question is what lesson Governor Sanford or other political leaders draw from these examples.