In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Texas senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz argued that “scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming.”
Other prominent Republican politicians have also suggested that climate change is a hoax.
These claims make it easy for Democrats, including President Obama, to label those of us who vote Republican as dangerous climate-change deniers who oppose science and don’t care about the future of our planet.
The truth is that among scientists, even the skeptics aren’t denialists; they simply express doubts about the magnitude of the effects and suggest the possibility that technological advances may avert catastrophe.
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But uncertainty isn’t a good reason to sit on our hands. While we shouldn’t succumb to economically ruinous alarmism, we should take sensible steps to reduce the risks for which scientists have produced significant evidence.
Thankfully, an affordable solution exists: Economists argue that a modest carbon tax can substantially and cheaply mitigate climate change.
Pricing carbon emissions is the simplest way to create incentives for businesses and individuals to adjust their behavior in ways that benefit the environment at the lowest possible cost.
If the government eschews a carbon tax in favor of complicated regulations or if it doles out the “green” subsidies favored by industry lobbyists, then mitigation costs will skyrocket.
Micromanaging the economy through bureaucratic rules and expensive “carrots” just isn’t feasible.
Polls consistently show that Americans, including many Republican voters, believe that climate change is a problem worth addressing.
But paradoxically, the public favors costly regulations and subsidies that won’t work while at the same time opposing the less expensive and more effective carbon tax.
My own research suggests that the public is confused about costs. People like tax credits for hybrid cars and rules placing restrictions on power plants precisely because these policies appear to offer a free lunch — environmental gain without any pain.
In fact, these policies impose large, but hidden, costs on consumers and taxpayers, often to no avail.
Meanwhile, a carbon tax makes tradeoffs transparent, so it’s unpopular.
The carbon tax creates an opportunity for conservatives to lead the country while also combating the perception that the Republican Party is reckless and anti-scientific.
Recently, leading conservative thinkers like Greg Mankiw and Jerry Taylor have advocated a policy swap in which the government abandons its current regulatory approach in favor of a carbon tax and uses the revenue to cut other taxes that impede economic growth by discouraging work and investment.
I have frequently written about the potential perils of government intervention, but I also understand the dangers of reflexive anti-government ideology.
The free market generally works well, but global warming represents a well-identified market failure, the existence of which is supported by substantial scientific evidence.
Instead of denying facts and concocting far-fetched conspiracy theories, Republican leaders like Ted Cruz should learn from President Ronald Reagan’s example.
Reagan adopted an innovative policy to reduce lead in gasoline, which was cleverly designed to be not only effective, but to minimize costs and government interference in the economy.
Against the pleadings of some of his advisers, Reagan also took significant action to protect the ozone layer after he was presented with a careful cost-benefit analysis showing that intervention was warranted.
Today’s Republican presidential candidates could similarly demonstrate true environmental leadership if they did more than pay lip service to Reagan’s legacy and instead exhibited some of the political courage for which Reagan is widely admired.
Gary Lucas is a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth.