Climate action is being blocked more by pessimism about innovation than skepticism about causation. Scratch a climate skeptic, and you’ll find an innovation pessimist. They don’t believe it can be done. Overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, they assume that we can’t change our trajectory. Secretly, they’re depressed about it. They need hope.
Had these pessimists been in the stadium at Rice University in September of 1962, they might have chanted “No way” when President Kennedy said of the Mariner spacecraft then on its way to Venus, “The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the 40-yard lines.”
Innovation pessimists are right to point out that the drive for innovation was more immediate and more visible in 1962. The Soviet’s launch of Sputnik had raised the specter of a goose-stepping, hostile power in control of space. We were unified, and our response was completely within our control.
Climate change crawls and creeps; it doesn’t goose step. Addressing it requires a coordinated global response, and innovation pessimists are right to doubt the ability of the United Nations and the ability of the regulatory state to solve the problem.
But the innovation pessimists are missing the dynamism that comes from the internalization of negative externalities, and they’re underestimating the strength of the American market.
Internalizing negative externalities involves adding the health and climate damages to the price of fossil fuels. This accountability would shatter the illusion that energy from fossil fuels is cheap. In a transparent, accountable energy market, consumers — not regulators, not mandates, not fickle tax incentives — would drive demand for clean energy. Entrepreneurs would race to supply that demand, and we’d power our lives with the fuels of the future.
Most simply, this could be accomplished through a carbon tax applied at the mine and at the pipeline. The revenue raised from the carbon tax should then be returned to taxpayers in cuts to existing taxes or in the form of dividend checks to ensure no growth of government.
The strength of the American market would become evident when we applied our carbon tax to imports from countries lacking the same price on carbon dioxide. This border adjustment would entice our trading partners to enact their own carbon taxes. Why pay a tax on entry into the U.S. when you could have paid that same tax to your home country, enabling your goods to enter the U.S. without a carbon tax adjustment?
If innovation pessimists need hope, there’s a further category that needs correction. They’re innovation opponents. They’re vested politically or financially in fossil fuels. They don’t want a level playing field. They don’t want transparency. Sometimes they even conjure up national security arguments so that the fossils can continue to socialize their soot.
Such is the case with Secretary of Energy Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party College football move rocks Texas legislature Trump tries to spin failed Texas endorsement: 'This was a win' MORE. It was reported earlier this month that the Department of Energy has reached back to the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to draft a plan that would enable the DOE to direct operators to purchase electricity from coal and nuclear facilities that are at risk of retirement.
There’s no red army getting ready to invade. The army marching on coal is natural gas. While, there may be an argument for continuing subsidies for emission-less nuclear power, there’s no argument for favoring dirtier-burning coal over cleaner-burning natural gas.
Had innovation opponents like Perry been in the Rice stadium that day in 1962, they would have gone beyond pessimism toward the innovation speech of the century — they would have tried to scramble the signal from the microphone.
They would have wanted to silence the credo of American exceptionalism spoken by Kennedy: “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it.”
Backwash indeed: frozen piles of coal, coal ash slurries, mountain top removal, asthma and other lung diseases, climate damages. Innovation is not your friend if you’re wed to the past or if you’ve made promises you can’t keep to people who trusted you to protect them from a future that you cannot hold back.
To the innovation pessimists, we can offer hope. To the innovation opponents, we must offer correction.
Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) directs republicEn.org, a community committed to free enterprise action on climate change. He served in Congress from 1993-1999 and 2005-2011.
This piece has been updated.