Conservative Environmentalism

The author of a new paper on the subject is interviewed by the Washington Post.

An excerpt.

“When it comes to the environment, Republicans these days tend to have a pretty good idea what they’re against — just about everything the Obama administration is doing. But it’s not quite as clear what they’re actually for.

“It would look something like this, oddly enough. (James Poulson/AP)

“Jonathan Adler wants to change all that. The law professor at Case Western University has just published a big new essay, titled “Conservative Principles for Environmental Reform,” that tries to lay out a positive vision for how the right should approach various green issues.

“In the essay, Adler critiques many of the traditional regulatory approaches to issues like endangered species. Clumsy regulations often have unintended consequences. But historically, he notes, conservatives have failed to come up with an alternative. There’s either “moderate me-too-ism,” which involves embracing regulations on a lesser scale. Or there’s “reflexive opposition” — the current GOP stance — which often means ignoring actual environmental problems.

“Instead, Adler argues that conservatives should favor a different approach, one based on property rights. The best example of this? Fisheries. For years, government regulators tried in vain to tackle the problem of over-fishing. More recently, however, “catch shares” have caught on, in which fishermen own a portion of the overall fish haul each year and have incentives to manage the fisheries. It appears to work remarkably well.

“I talked to Adler by phone this week about his ideas for conservative environmental reform and whether they could apply to issues like climate change. A transcript is below.

“Brad Plumer: You argue that our current environmental regulatory system was put in place back in the 1970s and needs an upgrade. But no one on the right is really offering an alternative. Twenty years ago you had moderate Republicans embracing, essentially, lighter regulations. And nowadays the GOP seems to oppose any and all environmental moves. Why does that need to change?

“Jonathan Adler: If environmental protection is important — and I believe it is — then we should make sure we’re doing it in an effective way. The reactionary posture denies that environmental values are important at all.

“I think the change that has to happen mirrors what conservatives did in the welfare debate [in the 1990s]. One thing that shifted that debate is that conservatives began engaging the issue. They weren’t just focused on cutting the budget. They made the case that if one was compassionate, if one did care about the poor, one had to question the status quo. And there was a conservative approach that had a lot to offer.

“In the environmental debate, by contrast, the two approaches I discuss in the essay — moderate “me-too”-ism and reactionary obstruction — both accept that the way we measure our environmental values is by traditional centralized regulation. And I think that’s wrong as a practical matter. That’s not the only way to advance environmental values.

“I also don’t think the current Republican approach reflects the way that many people who think environmental regulation has gone too far actually feel. Your average farmer or rancher isn’t opposed to clean air and clean water. They just object to the way things are done. Back in the 1990s, I was involved in commissioning some polling that found that if you give people an alternative, they’re willing to consider it. But if the only choice they’re presented is more regulation or total opposition, many people will side with the first.

“We saw the same thing in the welfare debate. Many people said I don’t like the traditional welfare system, but so long as the choice is between that and leaving people out in the cold, I’m going to accept welfare.

“BP: So let’s talk about potential alternatives. Your favorite example is property rights for fishing.

“Atlantic coast fisheries are still trying to limit overfishing of menhaden with traditional catch limits. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“JA: Fisheries are really the best example. Back in the 1970s, we saw command-and-control approaches fail. First regulators adopted limits on catch. When those didn’t work, they limited the type of gear you could use, or the type of boats you could use. Each set of regulations altered the incentives faced by fishery participants and they responded accordingly, still trying to maximize return. And there was no meaningful gain in conservation. Instead, there was a decline in efficiency, a decline in the quality of catch. We were moving backward in many respects.

“Then various countries started to experiment with property-based fisheries management, and we got superior economic and environmental results. The United States has now begun to move in that direction and the results are significant.

“That story to me points out several things. One is to never ignore the fact that any regulatory intervention won’t work if we don’t pay attention to the way it alters incentives. And two, the gold standard of how to align incentives is to replicate what a fairly complete system of property rights would produce.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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