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How to get conservatives on board with environmental issues: Jerome Gessaroli in the Edmonton Journal

This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal.

By Jerome Gessaroli on September 30, 2022

Polls show that conservative Canadians are less likely than progressive Canadians to prioritize environmental issues. That’s unfortunate, because climate policy will only succeed if all key voters across the country see it as valuable. It’s not that conservatives don’t care; rather, they oppose the way environmental policy is discussed and constructed.

Left and left-leaning progressives have dominated the environmental movement, shaping politics based on centralized big government and top-down regulatory principles. They have also incorporated other social justice issues into the environmental movement, using terms like “climate justice” and “environmental racism.” Reflexively, conservatives will shy away from this approach.

Engaging and encouraging conservatives to support action on the environment and climate change is possible by creating policies that respect important conservative values. These values ​​include taking personal responsibility, protecting private property and promoting growth through competitive markets. It is entirely possible to create effective environmental and climate policies around these values.

Personal responsibility includes paying for the pollution you cause. Pollution taxes come with a price and require companies to pay for how much they pollute. The challenging part here is designing a pollution tax that is strictly revenue neutral and doesn’t unduly tax those who rely on fossil fuel use for their jobs or where they live. For example, those living in rural areas who need trucks or farmers who need to fuel their equipment should get bigger tax breaks to offset the higher carbon taxes they will pay. The incentive to reduce carbon emissions will remain as the use of more fuel efficient equipment and vehicles will reduce the carbon tax they pay and result in lower taxes overall.

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In addition, any tax must only affect those companies that pollute the environment. Too often governments use the above pretense to levy a tax, but then over-apply it and use the tax as an additional source of revenue. As early as 2008, British Columbia introduced a well thought-out CO2 tax. However, in 2017 the NDP government lifted its revenue neutrality and it is now another tax enriching the coffers.

Second, protecting private property involves valuing the environmental benefits that reside in private property. Just as pollution by those who pollute the environment should come with a cost, there should be benefits for private owners in preserving environmentally sensitive land for the common good. Think of the habitat of endangered species.

Unfortunately, regulations addressing endangered species on private property can create perverse incentives that increase the risk of extinction. The regulations can be so onerous that property owners are incentivized to prematurely destroy the habitats of endangered species on their property to avoid future regulatory penalties. Shawn Regan, an environmental economist, explains the misaligned rules this way: “If I have a rare metal on my property, its value goes up, but if a rare bird occupies the land, its value disappears.” By pricing environmental benefits, property owners have one incentive to save.

Third, the market economy is often blamed for pollution, but this claim is false. In the 1980s, the Eastern European countries of the Soviet bloc had neither a market economy nor private property rights, and yet these countries were experiencing terrible environmental degradation. For example, compared to the United States, these countries used an average of 75 percent more energy per dollar of GDP. And despite accounting for just 12 percent of Europe’s production, Eastern Bloc countries contributed to over half of the continent’s particulate air pollution. This is just one of many pollution statistics compiled by their socialist system.

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Competitive markets can help the environment. Capitalism creates economic growth. And according to the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy on Sustainability, there is a strong positive relationship between economic prosperity and environmental protection. That makes sense. Those with greater wealth can afford and invest in more sustainable activities.

Market competition also improves resource utilization. For example, the efficiency of North American sawmills has improved to such an extent that wood waste has fallen from 55 percent in the 1930s to 0.8 percent in 2012. And the industry is still innovating by looking for ways to increase wood reuse and recycling.

It is possible to develop an environmental policy based on conservative values. Far too often we look to government for solutions. In return, we get layer upon layer of costly regulatory burdens. Not only do they reduce our ability to thrive, but they are often poorly designed and fail to meet their environmental goals.

By recognizing that conservative values ​​complement rather than oppose environmental protection, we will be better able to engage with conservatives and encourage them to join an impartial effort to protect the environment and fight climate change. Such efforts will not only be more effective, but sustainable over the long term, whether conservatives or progressives are in office.

Jerome Gessaroli teaches at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and is a visiting fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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