Jerry Taylor Presents on Libertarian Climate Policy and the Green New Deal

Sean Gannon, Staff Reporter

Former climate change denier Jerry Taylor held a lecture at Whitman last Thursday, offering a libertarian argument for substantial climate policy and explaining why the Green New Deal is misguided and will prevent much-needed action. Taylor’s market environmentalism, rebuffed by a heckle from an audience member marks the core rift between climate advocates: should we bundle climate and social policy together in response to rising temperatures, or will that only make critical climate policy harder to pass?

Before Taylor became a prominent libertarian climate advocate and started his own think tank, The Niskanen Center, Taylor worked at the free-market Cato Institute for more than a decade. He frequented television news programs to insist that climate policy is economically destructive and for the most part, unnecessary.

“For most of my time at Cato, I took what is today the conservative orthodox line on climate, which is that it’s unclear how big a problem it is, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and there’s probably more of a chance that it’s going to be a relative non-problem than it will be a problem,” Taylor said in an 2015 interview with Vox’s David Roberts.

What changed Taylor’s mind on climate change was science and rethinking Libertarian principles.

“The scientific evidence became stronger and stronger over time,” Taylor said. “And while one can do some gymnastics to continue to defend the ‘there’s nothing to see here, folks’ argument, it became harder and harder.”

After accepting scientists’ predictions and rethinking how they would infringe on personal and property rights, Taylor realized that the government has a role to play in protecting its citizens from the looming climate threat.

“Libertarians believe in protecting persons and property from invasion by other parties. The only role of government in the libertarian world is to protect the persons and property of individuals. It doesn’t matter whether the threat comes from a burglar, a rampaging gang, or a smokestack.”

Taylor’s libertarian roots, which he admits blinded him to global warming’s reality when he was at Cato, is also what guides his climate advocacy: to curb rising carbon levels that will infringe on private property, Taylor favors the market-focused carbon-tax who’s revenue would be used to lower other taxes, and would be leveraged to replace many EPA regulations.

Taylor’s climate orthodoxy contrasts the in-fashion environmentalism imagined in the Green New Deal (GND); an uber-ambitious resolution that sees rising temperatures not just as an economic risk, but a dire social crisis that ought to be met with a “broad societal shift,” as third-year ES-Politics major Leah Koyle put it.

For all the excitement, Taylor sees the GND as an irrational, and self serving, response to the costs of global warming, calling it “10 parts New Deal, 1 part climate.”

“Your strategy to overcome that problem [high immediate costs] is to bury the costs of climate action in a cornucopia of benefits for left-leaning interest groups and to make climate change a central part of the larger progressive program for societal transformation,” Taylor wrote in an open letter to Green New Dealers.

This climate policy debate was distilled to a word when Taylor rhetorically asked the audience what social welfare policy has to do with climate policy. “Everything!” a young audience member called out, a common sentiment from Progressives who feel this is the only appropriate response to the financial and social precarity forewarned by global warming — and feel it’s time to try a new method.

“[Taylor’s] basically reverting to traditional environmentalism. And we’ve seen historically, that just hasn’t worked,” Koyle said, who does not call herself a Green New Dealer. “I think broadly speaking, you can’t disentangle social policy from climate policy — no matter how much you want to.”

Jamie Zwaschka, a second-year ES-Sociology major, represents the competing group of young climate advocates who recognize Taylor’s urgency, and would sooner talk about political feasibility than pie-in-the-sky idealism.

“You just have to be realistic,” Zwaschka said, referencing the no-compromise spirit of the GND and it’s leader, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “And at that rate we’re not going to get anything passed,” she said.

What can get passed is a carbon-tax, Taylor believes, by building the interparty coalition of support the GND shuns. But the carbon tax, although favored by economists, is politically toxic — it stirred the yellow jacket riots in France and was rejected twice in Whitman’s climate-friendly home state. The Progressive opposition to Washington’s initiative marked Taylor’s fear; that climate advocates, divided over these two competing strategies, will be unable to capitalize on the overton window opened by a potential 2020 Democratic win.

Koyle appreciates Taylor’s focus on political feasibility, but doesn’t think Taylor has found the answer.

“I think that [Taylor’s] idea of coming up with a centrist policy that is adoptable on both sides, but is also gonna do something [to slow carbon emissions], is what we need,” she said. “But I don’t think we know what that is yet.”