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NIALL FERGUSON

Conservatives as conservationists?

Even GOP and Tory die-hards recognize a changed political climate on global warming.

September 04, 2006|NIALL FERGUSON

IT HAS BEEN the political equivalent of an explosion in a dye works. From Sacramento to Tokyo, red Republicans and true-blue Tories are turning green. Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to a plan aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions in California by a quarter within the next 15 years. On Thursday, British Conservative George Osborne told an audience in Japan that a future Tory government would consider increasing the share of revenue coming from environmental taxes.

Hang on -- aren't those Al Gore's lines? Aren't conservatives supposed to be in favor of gas-guzzling SUVs and drilling for oil in national parks?

The idea that there is something fundamentally unconservative about protecting the environment is, of course, a canard. At the very core of British conservatism since the time of Benjamin Disraeli has been a romantic reverence for the land and a desire to mitigate the damage done by industrialization. It was Marx and Engels who sneered at "the idiocy of rural life." It was Lenin and Stalin whose mania for smoke-belching steelworks turned huge tracts of Russia into toxic wastelands.

Nor have conservatives in Britain or America ever prospered for long when they have been seen to represent primarily the interests of big business, a mistake the Republicans made in the 1920s and are in danger of repeating under President Bush.

Speaking to reporters in June, Bush reiterated his unorthodox views on the causes of global warming. "There's a debate," he said, "over whether it's man-made or naturally caused." There may be such a debate within the Bush family but not among scientists, the overwhelming majority of whom now believe -- as my Harvard colleague John Holdren told the BBC last week -- that we are already "experiencing dangerous human disruption of the global climate, and we're going to experience more."

If the current rate of global warming continues, according to Holdren, sea levels could rise by as much as 13 feet this century. That's enough to put most of southern Florida under water.

Even if the science turns out, for some as-yet-unknown reason, to have been wrong, action will still have been warranted on purely prudential grounds. The question is simply: What form of action?

Merely setting targets is not a credible option. Tony Blair tried this and has abjectly failed. By 2010, he declared, Britain would have cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 20%. Embarrassingly, emissions have gone up every year since 2002.

The more fashionable solution is emissions trading. The theory is that government sets emission levels and issues tradable allowances. To achieve "carbon neutrality," Company A can offset an excess emission of CO2 by paying Company B not to emit an equivalent amount. This has the appeal of creating a market with built-in incentives to find the cheapest methods of reducing emissions. But when put into practice, the "cap-and-trade" model can have perverse results. The European Union Emission Trading Scheme, set up for big polluters such as power generators, ran into trouble this year because -- to name just one of a number of glitches -- quotas were issued for more carbon than was actually produced, causing the price of allowances to collapse.

I must say I prefer the simpler options of either taxing or fining polluters. Why? Because these have been tried before and have worked.

Ardent Greens sometimes forget that the problem of pollution is nothing new. The first clean air laws in the United States and Britain date to the 1950s. The principle of these and subsequent laws has been straightforward: to prohibit the most toxic pollutants and to set limits on less harmful but still undesirable emissions. True, emissions of sulfur dioxide would have fallen anyway as households relied less on coal for heating and cooking. But there is no question that the legislation speeded the transition to cleaner fuels -- and a less foggy London.

Needless to say, no national policy will be sufficient to halt global warming, much less a policy introduced by a single American state. Even the Kyoto Protocol, had the United States ratified it, would not have done the job because it does not bind the booming economies of Asia, which are producing more greenhouse gases with every passing year.

That, however, is not an argument for simply giving up and bidding farewell to Florida. Conservatives do not expect problems to be solved by some kind of world government; on the contrary, they prefer local solutions to global solutions. They also know that enlightened self-interest, not utopian fantasy, is the best basis for policy. And that is precisely why they may prove to be more effective environmentalists than the first generation of left-wing Greens, whose idealism too often slid over the edge into extremism.

Make no mistake: The current political transformation of red and blue into Green is a response to a political as well as meteorological climate change. Opinion polls show that Britons and Americans are belatedly waking up to the risks of global warming. They have heard the speeches. Now they want to see some action. It may not be enough to save the planet. But this political climate change could yet save conservatism.

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nferguson@latimescolumnists.com

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