What ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Really Mean on Climate Change (Hint: Nothing)

by David Roberts, reposted from Grist

Ezra Klein had an interesting post last week about the arbitrary nature of what gets coded “left” and “right” in today’s policy debates. He mentions cap-and-trade, which was the subject of bipartisan consensus from 2000 to 2008, at which point it abruptly became socialist.

Klein is right that the ideological coding of the climate debate is peculiar, but he’s barely scratching the surface. The left-right alignment on climate is completely scrambled, in part because the real battle, as we shall see, is not ideological.

On the same day, Brian Merchant had a post on Treehugger about “the right-wing case for a carbon tax.” Technically it should have been called “the right-wing case for carbon pricing,” since it cites a Washington Post op-ed from Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and two of their former Republican colleagues that advocates either “a market mechanism such as the sale of carbon allowances or a fee on carbon pollution.” Merchant also notes that legendary conservative economist Arthur B. Laffer — father of the Laffer Curve — came out last week in favor of a carbon tax as part of a “tax switch” that would reduce income tax rates. (Laffer is “agnostic” on climate change but he really, really wants to reduce the income tax.) As Joe Romm notes, in 2011, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation funded the work of six groups across the ideological spectrum to develop deficit plans. Of the six, only one did not include [or consider] a price on carbon: the hacktastic Heritage Institute.

I’m not sure I would call carbon-pricing solutions right-wing, but I do think it’s fair to characterize them as conservative. Conservative economic thinking prefers a minimum of government intervention in the economy. Sending a carbon-pricing signal via a tax or cap is a minimalist intervention, as technology and industry agnostic as policy can be. If the revenue is used to reduce the deficit or other taxes (income or payroll), then the policy is even more solidly conservative, as both are conservative priorities.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Just because carbon pricing is conservative doesn’t mean it’s bad or undesirable. I, like virtually everyone who’s thought seriously about the problem (which excludes Heritage), see a substantial role for carbon pricing. I’m just saying it is a solution designed to align with conservative principles, endorsed by both Chicago school and neoliberal economists.

So what would liberal climate policy be?

As I see it, liberal climate policy would involve more planning — developing and deploying new energy sources, new technologies, and new urban forms on purpose, as part of a plan to remake the economy along sustainable lines. There are obviously many varieties and gradations of planning, from the Chinese approach all the way down to, say, building codes. Public investment, performance standards, industrial policy, job training programs, mandates, tariffs, and a variety of other regulations would qualify as liberal, in that they represent more active government shaping of the economy.

The odd thing that’s happened in climate circles in the last few decades is not just that the (generally liberal) environmental community has fervently championed “market-based” solutions like carbon pricing, but that the activist left in particular has adopted a carbon tax as its cri de coeur. Especially during and since the climate bill fight, the debate among climate hawks is often framed such that cap-and-trade is the “right” choice and a carbon tax is the “left” choice. That doesn’t make any sense at all on the merits — the only differences between the two, economically speaking, come in the design and implementation, mainly in what’s done with the revenue. As I said, both are basically conservative in their approach.

Nonetheless, that’s the odd situation we are in today: an intra-left battle between two conservative policy solutions. The climate left is now aligned with think tanks and intellectuals on the right for a carbon tax and against cap-and-trade. Politicians on the right offer nothing and politicians on the left shy from cap-and-trade because it’s coded too liberal. Meanwhile, the only policies doing any real work now — broadly liberal policies like renewable energy standards, feed-in tariffs, loan guarantee programs, and advanced energy research — get remarkably little public attention unless they are being attacked by Republicans.

It’s a mess. There really is no coherent left vs. right on climate, at least not in terms of economic ideology.

But that just goes to show that the real battles around climate have nothing to do with principles of governance. The central battle, the one that shapes all others, is the one between those aligned with the status quo — fossil-fuel development, sprawl, and unfettered carbon pollution — and those who seek to change it. There is nothing “left” or “right” about the status quo, it’s simply a set of rigged rules and institutions meant to support certain financial interests. Commitment to preserving the privileges and advantages of status quo interests is not a philosophy at all. It does not submit to placement on an ideological spectrum. (It is thus a dark irony that the term used to describe those most committed to this purely instrumental approach to governance is “centrists.”)

There are other sub-battles: The battle over science and education. The battle over communications and framing. The battle over activism and its targets. But these are fights over epistemology, psychology, and social change — none of them divide neatly into left and right. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are often used around climate, but they are used in a purely tribal sense, to designate some group or coalition. In actual fact, there is no struggle between philosophies happening in U.S. climate politics, only a struggle among economic interests.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at This piece was originally published at Grist.

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8 Responses to What ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Really Mean on Climate Change (Hint: Nothing)

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Dave is right. We need to start using different language to describe what’s going on, though. “Financial interests”, “special interests”, etc. make them sound abstract and rigid, and their opponents too timid.

    How about “a greed crazed alliance between hillbilly fossil fuel maangers and their wealthy stockholders, who have been attempting a government coup d’etat, leading us on a suicide mission”? This is more accurate, and may get people’s attention.

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    The terms “right”, “right wing” and “conservative” are all bought-and-paid-for trademarks of Koch Industries, and may be used only with their permission.

  3. BillD says:

    While cap and trade may not be the ideal solution, I see it as a big step toward getting rid of coal and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We can’t really wait another 20 years for something better. Let’s give green energy an edge.

    I think that cap and trade should be “branded” as a market based conservative approach.

  4. Ben Lieberman says:


    That left/right division is now accurately describing a lot of cleavages, but the absolute rejection of the science of climate change by most of the Republican Party presents a major obstacle to any plan to combat global warming.

  5. M Tucker says:

    Use of agnostic in this piece…

    Agnostic on climate change I would think means not knowing if it is real.

    The use of agnostic in this sentence however does not seem to preserve that meaning:
    “Sending a carbon-pricing signal via a tax or cap is a minimalist intervention, as technology and industry agnostic as policy can be.” Here it seems to mean “moderate” perhaps?

    At least ‘agnostic’ was not overused in this peace so I will move on…

    I reject the notion that reducing the deficit or taxes or balancing the budget is conservative or liberal. That is as ridiculous as describing environmental concerns in the same manner. Do not liberals and the Democratic Party support the working class? Would not reducing taxes help those folks? Liberals fail because they fall into the stupid trap of allowing the label “tax and spend” to actually have meaning. Let the party of xenophobes, liars and homophobes keep the inane label of “small government” but let’s not compose arguments that seem to support the equally inane label of “tax and spend” for liberals.

    Conservatives and the Republican Party have adopted many issues as their own that I see as completely insane and do not promote a healthy, educated, happy and free population.

  6. cervantes says:

    Er, no. The conservative position is that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by commies who want to take away your freedoms. The liberal position is that it is, in fact, happening. Liberals in general don’t have a problem with taxation as a way to capture externalities. They may be more inclined to put the tax money to work actually mitigating the damage than conservatives are, but to assert that liberals as a class would rather write specific regulations than use taxation to socialize costs is nonsense.

  7. Dick Smith says:

    A carbon tax “may be the closest thing to a free lunch that economics has to offer.”
    George, Mankiw, Chief economic advisor to President George W. Bush

    “(T)he only two clean and efficient solutions to climate change. One is a carbon tax, which this paper has long advocated. The second is a cap-and-trade system of the sort Europe introduced to meet the Kyoto targets.” The Economist, January 25, 2007

    Other Carbon Tax supporters include:
    •Martin Feldstein, chief economic advisor, President Ronald Reagan
    •Douglas Eakin-Holtz, chief economic advisor, presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain
    Liberal Nobel Prize laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz
    •Alan Greenspan, Michael Bloomberg, Arthur Laffer, Anthony Lake,
    William Nordhaus, Richard Posner, Murray Wiedenbaum
    •Scholars from American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Hudson Institute, Rand Corp
    •Columnists, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, Tom Friedman
    •Obama advisors (before his election) Paul Voelker, Peter Orzag, Steven Chu, Lawrence Summers
    And Bill McKibben was inches away just yesterday in his CP piece.

    REALITY: The regulatory complexity of cap and trade would encourage “gaming”, starting with “offsets.” A fee and dividend carbon tax is simple, and Pigouvian taxes have a very good track record of discouraging behavior.

    •The “fee”
    1. At the first point of sale of carbon, put a $10-15/ton fee based on CO2 emissions.

    2. Increase the rate by $10-15 per ton per year for 10 years. (The “price signal” to get off carbon ASAP.)

    3. Impose import fees on products from countries without comparable emission-reduction plans.

    •The “dividend”

    1. Return all domestic fees on a per capita basis (1/2 share for up to 2 kids per family)

    2. Return import fees to U.S. companies competing to export.

    3. Dividends can be monthly (like social security) or annually (like tax rebates).

    •It’s a good thing that there is something conservative politicians can support. They like fee-and-dividend because:

    1. It’s about national security. You painted yourself in a corner on GW? No problem.

    2. It’s revenue neutral. You signed a no-tax pledge? No problem.

    3. No regulations. You voted against cap and trade because of the regs? No problem.

    4. No treaties. You don’t trust China to play fair? No problem. They either play or pay the import fees.

    5. No Solyndra’s. Worried about crony capitalism? No problem. Government doesn’t pick winners—individuals do—making their own personal choices in the energy and energy-efficiency markets.

    6. No subsidies.

    Now, we need to get the politicians in both parties to fall in line with direction that leading economic thinkers in both parties are steering us.

    Congressman Paul Stark has introduced the fee and dividend proposal in SOCA (Save Our Climate Act). Get a copy—and then get behind it. It’s time to TAX CARBON.

  8. RayFrack says:

    Dick Smith’s comment is just about on point. A read of Prof. Hsu’s book, “The Case of a Carbon Tax” is well worth while.

    David Robert’s article suggests, ” If the revenue is used to reduce the deficit or other taxes (income or payroll), then the policy is even more solidly conservative, as both are conservative priorities.”. Such use of the revenue would be terribly regressive, socially unjust, and ethically totally unacceptable. For, it would disproportionally cause harm to the working and non-working poor: those least responsible for AGW, yet suffering already the most from AGW’s impacts.