The Corner

Energy & Environment

Toward a Conservative Approach to Climate Policy

The Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant in Royalton, Pa., May 30, 2017. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters )

For years, major U.S. environmental groups have resisted the conclusion that nuclear energy ought to play a central role in addressing climate change. This despite the enormous practical barriers to scaling renewable energy and the fact that the shuttering of nuclear power plants, a policy often championed by mainstream environmentalists, has typically been associated with increased reliance on carbon-intensive energy. But that’s changing. As Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute observes, the Union of Concerned Scientists has come out in support of the continued operation of existing nuclear power plants. That is not as far as I’d like them to go, of course, but it’s an important and encouraging step.

Because the Breakthrough Institute has long championed nuclear energy (one reason I’m a supporter), Nordhaus offers thoughts on what this development augurs. “For environmentalists,” he writes, “it is time not just to recognize the importance of nuclear energy but also that making it so is not someone else’s job. If you care about the climate, you need to care about nuclear energy.” He then offers a gentle admonishment to critics of mainstream environmentalism from the right:

For my conservative friends, it is time to demonstrate that your commitment to a nuclear future goes beyond trolling environmentalists over their climate hypocrisy.

Though I take Nordhaus’s point — trolling environmentalists will only take you so far — the deeper issue is that most conservatives aren’t terribly invested in climate policy. There’s this myth that opposition to carbon pricing is rooted in Big Oil lobbying. If anything, Big Oil is increasingly supportive of carbon pricing. (See ExxonMobil’s support for Americans for a Carbon Dividend, a group championing a carbon pricing plan that, for the record, I oppose.) The real driver of opposition to carbon pricing on the right is anti-tax sentiment, and as much as advocates talk of carbon tax swaps, the message doesn’t resonate if you see climate as a low-priority issue. Nuclear advocacy has gained more traction on the right, partly because the central issues there have been reducing barriers to nuclear innovation (deregulation) and boosting public investment in advanced nuclear technology (making sure America plays a leading role in a key industry). I suspect there’s a lesson here.

I’ll have more to say on this subject in the future. For now, I’ll close by linking to my post on Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s proposed carbon tax — a bill I wouldn’t endorse (the proposed tax is unpalatably high), but which deserves a close look. Alas, for conservatives who are invested in climate policy, Curbelo’s defeat in this week’s midterms is a sobering sign. In the closing weeks of the campaign, the Florida Republican made a valiant effort to portray himself as a more devoted environmentalist than his Democratic opponent. And who knows, maybe that helped him lose by a smaller margin than it did otherwise. But his defeat reminds us that climate policy isn’t a galvanizing issue for the vast majority of voters, so the incentives to stick your neck out are weak.