Using the Environment to Save the Market

Worth A Look, Environment, Frontier Centre

Conservatives’ efforts to convince Canadians they’re serious about global warming continue, with results that are best described as pyrrhic. Media reports on each new Tory environmental initiative — which is to say each old Liberal environmental initiative — are invariably prefaced with some sort of consumer advisory: “In their latest attempt to convince Canadians they’re serious about global warming, the Conservatives today …”

Well, what did you expect? The Tories left the field clear, spotted the Liberals a 10-point lead and only then decided to show up for the game. Either the Tories could deny that global warming was a serious issue, or they could match the Grits policy for policy; but to try to do both, whether concurrently or consecutively, only invites people to question your seriousness.

It doesn’t matter that the Liberal record on global warming is scarcely less appalling. Having allowed the issue to fester for eight months while it tried to decide what, if anything, to put in place of the Liberal programs it had scrapped, the government has now put itself in the position where nothing it does will be seen to be sufficient, or even sincere. At best, it will succeed in convincing just enough Canadians that it is just concerned enough about the issue to allow the public’s attention to pass on to other things.

It’s a pity, really, because it didn’t have to be this way. The Conservatives did not have to adopt a late, reluctant, defensive posture on global warming, or indeed on the environment in general. They did not have to be, or be seen to be, the party of the sharp pencils, so obsessed with costs and profits that they can only be dragged kicking and screaming into an equivalent concern for the state of the planet. They could have, that is, got out in front of the issue. They could have made it their own.

I’m not suggesting they should have gone all touchy-feely and metrosexual, like that creepy David Cameron, leader of the British Conservatives. No one would find Stephen Harper credible in the role, for starters, nor can one imagine greater success attending any attempt to remake the party’s image as heartless bean-counters who organize recycling drives in their off-hours. The Conservative challenge is not to marry the public’s rising concern for the environment with their own traditional (if spotty) advocacy of a free-market economy, in some awkward embrace. It is to make the two issues, environment and economy, one and the same.

Again, I am not talking about an environmental-economic free-lunch of the kind Stéphane Dion is peddling, wherein meeting our carbon-reduction targets somehow makes us all rich. The people who will be making the “megatonnes of money” of which the Liberal leader speaks are a very few entrepreneurs in the international market for tradeable emissions credits. The rest of us will be paying higher prices for everything that uses carbon, either in production or consumption.

But that’s as it should be — especially if you believe in a free-market economy. Or, for that matter, if you believe, as conservatives are commonly supposed to do, in personal responsibility: the notion that each of us is responsible for our own actions, and should bear the costs these impose, on ourselves or others. The economic expression of that is the price system, and the signals these give to consumers and producers about the relative scarcity of different things. A “free-market” enthusiast is, in the main, an advocate of letting prices do their job, undistorted by regulations, subsidies or, so far as possible, taxes.

That’s obviously important for efficiency: When people bear the full cost of things, they tend to use them more sparingly. But it’s no less important for the environment, and for much the same reason. Minimizing waste is the objective, whether your concern is creating wealth or saving the Earth. Indeed, a growing number of environmentalists have got the message on this score, which is why there has been such interest of late in market-based incentives for wiser resource use, like tradeable emissions credits. This rise in free-market environmentalism has in turn contributed to rising public support for action on the environment, as it became apparent that this implied no threat to the market economy. Quite the contrary: It is the fulfillment of it.

This is the great missed opportunity for conservatives, and Conservatives. It isn’t just that, by championing a free-market approach to the environment, they could have taken ownership of that particular issue. It is that the environment could have served as the beachhead for the rest of their agenda. They could have used what is now acknowledged as the market’s essential role in cleaning up the environment to make the case for markets, and for market mechanisms — prices, competition, private ownership — more generally.

For if markets can be harnessed to socially beneficial ends in one area — if markets are not, as they are so often caricatured, mere arenas for private gain, but social institutions, as much as any government or NGO — why could they not perform the same service in others?