Putting Free Enterprise to Work: A Conservative Vision of Our Environmental Future

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ADAPTED FROM KEYNOTE ADDRESS AT 2012 DELPF SYMPOSIUM (1)

It is time for conservatives to take the lead on environmental issues because, in the face of our most pressing environmental problems, conservatism offers the solution--free enterprise. For years, conservatives have been afraid to lead on the issues of climate change and energy because we thought we did not have a viable solution to offer the country. I propose a new approach. Conservatives can and must offer a muscular, free enterprise solution to the energy and climate challenge. We have the answer that the country and the world urgently need.

First, the climate is changing. That fact is neither conservative nor liberal. However, what we choose to do about the climate crisis is a political issue. I posit that the climate crisis is not an unsolvable riddle. Instead, if we apply conservative principles, climate change can be an opportunity for the economy and the environment.

I will offer a definition of sustainability to frame my discussion about the free enterprise solution to our energy and climate crisis. I heard the definition for sustainability that I now take as an operational definition for the Energy and Enterprise Initiative from Carlos Gutierrez of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Carlos is a recycler of a type of plastic called PET who developed a new process for recycling PET by crushing and sorting the material, rather than grinding it. He then sent the PET back to Coca-Cola unmelted to be used in the same way as virgin material. The virgin PET manufacturers thought that there was no way Carlos could recycle the material successfully and beat them on price. In fact, Carlos's innovative solution allowed him to do just that. He proved that he could sell recycled PET at a lower price point than virgin PET.

It was Carlos who told me the definition of sustainability that I now accept: sustainability means making a profit. If you can make a profit, it's sustainable. If you can't, it is not. The profit motive extends to innovations that have driven sustainability in the technology and energy sectors. Technological innovation has evolved faster than we ever could have imagined. Expect speed if you have muscular free enterprise.

I suggest to you that conservatives really do have the answer to our energy and climate challenges. The reason we shrink into positions like science denialism is because we don't think we have the answer. We're not confident in our abilities to deliver a better product. This is simply wrong.

If you're a conservative, it is time to step forward and engage in the climate and energy debate because we have the answer--free enterprise. I'd like to outline several foundational concepts of this approach: accountability, certainty, and tax reform.

The first key is accountability. If you're a social issue conservative like me, you understand that accountability is the underpinning of how we view all of human society. We believe that human beings are responsible moral actors and should be held accountable for their actions. For all conservatives, whatever style, whether libertarian, economic conservative, social conservative, or national security conservative, accountability is a central concept.

The second point is certainty. In this economic climate, uncertainty is hampering economic growth. Conservatives argue that people are not investing because they don't know what their labor costs will be, they don't know the regulatory environment they will face, and they do not know the health care costs they will confront.

In the energy sector, that lack of certainty about a carbon price holds back investment. Many in the power sector believe that a price on carbon is inevitable, but they do not know how much it is going to be. If power executives knew what price Congress was going to put on carbon, then they would know whether to build a nuclear power plant, or just a natural gas plant, or eke out an existence with coal. …