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Transcript: Rethinking Climate Change and Environmental Issues: A Conservative Approach

Nate Sibley

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Following is the full transcript of the March 19th, 2021 Hudson event titled Rethinking Climate Change and Environmental Issues: A Conservative Approach

Nate Sibley: Okay. Well, hello and welcome to the latest in Hudson Institute’s series of online events during the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m Nate Sibley. I’m a research fellow at Hudson, and I usually focus on the links between corruption, illicit finance and national security, but today we’re going to talk about something a bit different. An issue of equal, indeed existential importance, which is climate change and environmental issues.

I should say at the outset, Hudson is a non-partisan organization, but it’s not a particularly controversial observation to say that the political left-wing has tended to drive the evolution of the environmental movement in recent decades as well as political action around these issues. And that’s reflected not only in the kinds of policies that are put forward as solutions, but indeed the entire culture around environmentalism. But, in recent years, conservatives in many countries have really begun to embrace this issue and begun exploring innovative new policy approaches of their own to begin combating climate change and safeguarding the environment.

So for a transatlantic discussion on this trend, I’m delighted, I’m really honored, to be able to be joined by three conservative parliamentarians from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. First representative, John Curtis, is a Republican who serves in the Congress as US representative for Utah’s third district. He is also a member of the energy and commerce committee on which he serves on a subcommittee for environment and climate change.

Next is Alicia Kearns MP. She’s conservative member of the UK parliament for Rutland and Melton and she also sits on the foreign affairs select committee and the national security committee. And I should say the impetus for this event was a great joint op-ed in The Times of London by Representative Curtis and Ms. Kearns on exactly this issue. So I encourage our viewers to go and read that.

And, finally, joining us from Canada is Greg McClean MP. He’s conservative member of the parliament of Canada for Calgary Center and he’s also the Shadow Minister for Natural Resources. So, that’s another really interesting perspective we have today.

Welcome to you all and thank you for your time today. We have a very limited time indeed. All very busy people. So to begin with I’m just going to ask each of you to talk very generally, if you will, about the conservative approach to environmental issues in your respective countries, as well as any important broader themes or specific policies you wanted to flag. And I wonder if, Congressman, you will be able to kick us off with that?

Representative John Curtis: Excellent. Thank you, Nate. And thank you to the Hudson organization for putting this together. I can’t begin without first acknowledging my two colleagues. So grateful to be with you, Greg and Alicia. Thank you for your good work on this. I often reflect that the United States follows the lead of your countries on this issue and I think you’ve done some great work.

Let me start my remarks by a nod to bipartisanship here in the United States. And if there’s a recent trend on the climate I think this would be what I would highlight, that instead of one party dominating the dialogue and frequently dominating it with extreme ideas, I think you’re seeing, in the United States increasingly, Republicans stepping up and asking for a seat at the table. It went almost unnoticed, which is a tragedy, that last fall when we passed, under the spending bill, we had in there the largest climate legislation in decades here in the United States. We set aside $35 billion for research into green technology.

Most notably is we reduced hydrofluorocarbons by 85% over the next 15 years, that’s by scientists suggested to reduce worldwide temperatures by a half a Celsius degree, just that one item alone, that’s really substantial. There were other things in that bill of importance for the climate, but what’s most important is that it passed by Republicans and Democrats without much fanfare, that this is becoming more of the order of the day.

Now, I might mention a few priorities for Republicans here in the United States. We have four nuclear plants going offline in the very near future. We know that we don’t have the green technology to replace that power here in the United States and it will likely be replaced with coal and other fossil fuels. We’ve got to have a broader discussion about nuclear energy here in the United States and really, quite frankly, around the world and that’s important as well.

We also would like to point out and emphasize that the greatest reduction here in the United States in greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade or decade and a half have actually been because of the use of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, and that if we really want to reduce worldwide carbon emissions, we’ve got to be talking about natural gas instead of coal and even cleaner natural gas instead of some of the more dirty natural gas alternatives.

And so we’re confident as conservatives here in the United States that we have great answers that can dramatically reduce worldwide carbon emissions. And one of our challenges has been that many of my colleagues have not been at the table having this discussion, but I think you’re going to see that change. And I’m really impressed with the new members of Congress and Republican members, and also the attitudes of my other colleagues that have been there some time. I think you’re going to see us being a lot more aggressive with our ideas of bringing these ideas forward.

And I could keep talking, but I would much rather hear from my two colleagues. So I’m going to yield my time to both of them.

Nate Sibley: Thank you so much, Congressman. Ms. Kearns, I wonder if you could pick up there and talk a bit about what the UK Conservative Party’s approach to these issues has been.

Alicia Kearns MP: Sure. Thank you, Nate. And it’s such a pleasure to be here with Greg and John as well. So thank you for having me.

I think I have to pick you up first of all, Nate, on your point, that the left have been driving this and we have to remember that Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader to talk about global warming and to really put this on the world stage. So I think it’s less about that they led the way, but more perhaps we led and then didn’t quite follow through on things. And I think that takes me to where I think we are as conservatives across the world, which is in the UK and allied countries, as you say, it is seen as a left-wing issue, even though that’s not necessarily the most accurate way of looking at it, and we aren’t getting the credit for what I would see as world-leading approaches to tackling climate change.

The narrative is almost certainly against us. I know it is definitely in the UK and yet we, as parties, we are conservatives, we are committed to protecting the environment and tackling climate change. And I think, is [crosstalk 00:06:41] because I think, compared to the left, we see this as a security issue, an economic issue, a diplomatic issue and a social issue. And it’s definitely, I would say, we moved to more solid grounds of perhaps some of the virtue signaling that we see from the left wing parties in our countries.

So I think what we really need, which I think today’s event will help with, is to create a congress of conservative thought on this because, as conservatives, we know that it’s encouraging markets to make small, important changes over time through market mechanisms that makes a difference. It’s about hyper-local approaches through the market economy rather than transforming, shaking magic money trees, as we like to say in the UK, and massive unattainable legislative government overly intervening.

I apologize to everyone. I do have a seven week old baby who is making herself known, but I shall persevere.

Nate Sibley: So today we’re talking about the future of our generations here, so it’s entirely appropriate.

Alicia Kearns MP: So I think, really as conservatives, I think this is a really important time for us to step forward because post-pandemic in all our countries we’re looking at how we build back better. And I think the green agenda is something that Boris Johnson has really said he wants to be at the center of that recovery. So real reductions of climate change whilst protecting jobs and livelihoods. So, for example, he’s put forward the creation of green collar jobs, which is something I absolutely support. I think almost half a million jobs and low carbon businesses and their supply chain are going to be created in the next few years. And we really do have a strong, renewable energy workforce already, but essentially I think what our goal should be as conservatives, and I think it’s going to the heart of environment and climate change advocacy in the UK, is that de-carbonization goes hand in hand with economic growth. And the UK is the one that can prove that because our economy has grown by 75% since 1990, but our emissions have fallen by 43%.

So I think there’s a really important discussion to be had here. And I think that it is important we reclaim this argument from the left because we fit into a very specific space that is very different from them. So I think the more we can work together as groups, the more we can argue, we can go out and make this case, advance the environment through market mechanisms, demonstrate effectiveness of schemes, demonstrate that small amounts of government intervention can yield a massive outcome. And we can refuse to be silenced on our achievements because actually if we don’t speak up about conservative values when it comes to the environment, we will not be recognized for what we’re doing.

So I think it’s an exciting time. I think the pandemic gives an important opportunity to reset, but I think it’s also about embracing our position as conservatives on this and stepping forward into the light on it.

Nate Sibley: No, that’s fantastic. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, full disclosure, I joined … You can hear I’m of British origin. I joined and worked for the Conservative Party after David Cameron’s conference speech, and there’s photos of him up hugging huskies in the Arctic back in 2010. So the UK Conservative Party has been a real leader on this. Great to have your perspective here today.

Mr. McClean, could you pick up and tell us what’s been happening in Canada on this front?

Greg McLean MP: I would love to actually. First of all, thank you everybody for having me. Great to meet you MP Kearns, and great to see you again, Congressman Curtis. Thank you for having me here at the Hudson Institute, Mr. Sibley.

Canada’s in a unique spot here because often we’re a passenger on the US train, and the environmental front we feel in many ways we’ve been leading it, although right now we’re way too far ahead because we talk about carbon leakage in some respects. It’s really punishing the Canadian economy right now to move jobs to the United States because we do have a common trade agreement with the United States, as much as we can call it the common trade agreement. Now, it’s called in my country, it’s called CUSMA, C-U-S-M-A. I think in the United States it’s USMCA. And I don’t know what it’s called Mexico, quite frankly, but it is that it used to be NAFTA. And when NAFTA was envisioned several years ago it was about all our nations prospering together and actually moving together on trade relations.

I think we also need to do that on our environmental relations here, because there’s no sense in one country moving forward while another country’s not moving forward in the same direction. It will lead to decisions being made in business across the border that aren’t necessarily beneficial for the environment all in. So that’s a big step we have to make here, is come to some common ground about how the west, if you will, a common body of thought about how we do things in the western world, how we actually accomplish what we look at as decarbonization in the world.

One of the things that’s always troubled me in this whole transition energy that’s been put forward at this point in time is nobody has shown me how it decarbonizes. We’re going to change energy but we’re going to change energy in ways that make sense, that actually show full cycle we’re reducing carbon. There’s no doubt. I’ve never seen the study that shows me the world is not going to be consuming more energy 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, because all of these artificial intelligence apps, all of this technology, requires power. You guys have seen, I’m certain, how much power Bitcoin is taking in just the transaction engine. So the blockchain is going to be a huge power consumer and there’s all kinds of transactions that are going to move to that distributed ledger system that they represent that is power.

Where’s that power going to come from? Well, let me make it very clear. Here in Canada and the United States right now, one third of our energy comes from so-called green sources and nuclear. So, in the other ways we talk about power, we talk about power that gets us from point A to point B, we talk about hydro, which is one of the clean ones, but if we’re going to triple the amount of hydro, wind and solar, what does that represent at the end of the day as far as our CO2 consumption goes? Because our CO2 production is actually relevant in the fact that hydro requires a whole bunch of concrete, which is a huge CO2 emitter; steel, which is a huge CO2 emitter and, of course, damming up and flooding a whole bunch of land, which is a huge methane producer, which is a greenhouse gas, worse than carbon dioxide.

So what are we accomplishing at the end of the day? We have to find ways to decarbonize that actually look at getting carbon out of the production cycle and either storing it, like carbon capture utilization storage, or reusing it or perhaps not producing it in the first place. Those are where we need to move on the actual reduction. So this whole shift we’re talking about right now has to make sense that we have an objective to decarbonize at the end of the day.

Now, I’m going to take a little bit of credit here for the conservatives because I remember when a prime minister in Canada, Prime Minister Mulroney, and President Reagan, came to an understanding on the Acid Rain Treaty. And actually Mulroney was in power still when President George H.W. Bush ratified that treaty. And as a result we have the Acid Rain Treaty, which reduced the amount of SO2 being spewed into the atmosphere in North America and changed the natural cycle that actually went back to more natural rainfall in North America. But we did that jointly. That happened because we had goodwill between two administrations in Canada, Prime Minister Mulroney was a great friend of the United States, and we accomplished so much together at that point in time, including NAFTA.

Now, NAFTA has deviated the point right now where we’re not even sure what USMCA means at the end of the day. We’ve got pipeline issues that are built into CUSMA, as we call it, and yet it seems that they’re being opened up every day. So what common trading agreement do we have and how are we actually going to translate that into a binational in North America? But if you think about the western world, how we’re all going to approach this carbon reduction effort together? And I think that if there’s one thing I think we should take away on this, it’s that, in our world, results matter. You can talk about virtue signaling all you want, about, “Hey, we need to move to this new formula that has social finance involved and emissions accounting and everything.” At the end of the day what is reducing carbon? Find that formula and get to it as quickly as possible and do it jointly. Thank you.

Nate Sibley: No, that’s great. Thank you. I love that you picked up on the difference that we’re moving from things that we all agree on in principle, but how do you pragmatically get there? And that seems to me where conservatives can make the most useful contributions and where they’re needed the most.

Representative Curtis, I wanted to come back to you and just ask about obviously the big news from the US side this year was President Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. And I wondered what environmentally minded conservatives, such as yourself and others, what is your view of that decision, given that there’s no mechanism built in for enforcement against some of the worst polluters in the world and so on? There was some concerns about this, right? But it’s a complicated issue. So I’d appreciate your thoughts on that.

Representative John Curtis: To me, it’s not very complicated. My two colleagues, both MPs, use the term virtual signaling, and if ever there was a virtue signaling exercise, it’s this. Look, we know China gets a free pass to not only not … Sorry for the double negative … reduce carbon emissions, but to actually increase for decades their carbon emissions. So who are we fooling here? MP McClean was very articulate in talking about our goal is to reduce carbon in the air. So you have to ask your question, does the Paris Accord do that? And it doesn’t. It actually increases it. And I would add to his comments. Look, it’s not only reducing carbon in the air, it’s worldwide carbon. And so, in the United States, we could take our emissions down to zero and that would change worldwide carbon by about 14%. Irrelevant almost in the grand scheme of things.

So unless we engage China and Russia and India in dramatic reductions, such as our three countries have done, we’re really fooling ourselves. So I’m perhaps being a little bit hard on the Paris Accord, but it just really is frustrating to conservatives here in the United States that we shout and say, “Look how great we are,” and then we give a pass to, quite frankly, not only the largest polluters, but those with human rights violations and other problems that are very, very serious that we should be tougher on.

Nate Sibley: What do you say to the argument that it’s okay the US might have its disagreements over the practicality of this and workability of this agreement to do the things that you’re talking about? But it is actually better for the US as a global leader of the free world to be at the table in these discussions and holding China to account when there are these multilateral meetings over the future of the Paris Accord and things like that?

And also just joined to that, are there other ways that the US should be exploring to hold countries like China, who say one thing and do completely the opposite, to account?

Representative John Curtis: So MP Kearns also was very articulate when she talked about the fact that we’re not getting credit, right? United States has been a leader. We’ve reduced global emissions radically over the last 10 years. You take a number of countries combined and we’ve decreased more than they have. And one of the things that I regret about the climate dialogue is what I call the culture of shaming. And that is no matter how good you do, it’s not good enough. And I think that’s what’s happening. And that’s what conservatives in the United States would say, “Wait a minute, we are leading. Look at what we’ve done.” Look at the bill that I just talked about reducing hydrofluorocarbons and investing in R&D. We are leading.

And so let’s point out how we’re leading and use that as a good example. We should lead here in the United States, as my two colleagues in their countries should lead as well. But we are. We’re doing a terrible job of shouting that from the house tops and we need to do better.

Nate Sibley: Just before I move on Representative Curtis, I didn’t tell you I was going to ask you about this beforehand or anything, but you had a really interesting bill in the last Congress, which I thought was just a really innovative example of the things we’re talking about to do with wind turbine [crosstalk 00:19:15]. Could you just really, really quickly just tell us what that is about?

Representative John Curtis: Yeah. So per your earlier question and you really get a chance to answer is, how do we help these countries reduce their carbon emissions? Unfortunately, we have wind turbines in our landfills here in the United States. And so the bill was to, “Let’s get these out of our landfills.” They’re not our latest technology, but they’re still far advanced technology for what a lot of these countries are using. So let’s get them overseas and let’s get them employed and put them to work and get them out of our landfills.

Nate Sibley: No, it’s a great idea and it’s a great example of that innovation and thought leadership that the conservatives are now bringing to the table.

Ms. Kearns, I wonder if you could expand a bit on the national security foreign policy issue that you mentioned. You said, “Conservatives take a slightly different view perhaps than those on the left in the UK to this.” What role can the conservatives … I mean, I work on corruption issues, and one of the things that made conservatives much more interested in those was their realization that actually transnational corruption kleptocracy and so on is a national security threat rather than just a poverty alleviation problem. So do you think that same process has happened with climate environmental issues or what was the genesis of the UK Conservative Party being … Not having the internal dissent that the Republican Party in the US had, for example, on these issues?

Alicia Kearns MP: It’s a very difficult one, but I think it’s because conservatism and conserving the environment and climate change has always really be at the heart of the Conservative Parties since Margaret Thatcher. And when you have an icon of our party who people look up to setting out very clearly in the world stage that this is going to be an enormous issue, and she identified it as an issue because she thought it would lead to further conflict and she thought it would lead to further tensions between countries, it laid very clearly a path for us, essentially a yellow brick road for us, not to have conflict within our own party on this, because if the great Iron Lady says it’s important, then essentially people fall in line pretty quickly is my experience so far.

But I think it’s really interesting because we do look at it from many different perspectives and national security ops is one, particularly for me. And I think climate change is heightening security tensions. There’s absolutely no question about that, but actually it goes back to existing tensions, which is access to resources. Access to resources is at the heart of so many conflicts throughout all of history. It’s long been an issue for natural resources that hasn’t necessarily been labeled as climate change or because of climate change. And you do have some misreporting of this issue. So, for example, people claim that the conflict in Syria was due to a conflict over water, but it’s just absolutely not the case. Were there issues around natural resources between different groups? Absolutely. Was that the cause of what happened in Syria and the conflict that’s just reached its 10th year? No, it is not.

And I think, as conservatives, we need to focus on how, with the national security perspective, rather than just running around banging drums, saying, “This is an issue and it’s causing tensions over natural resources,” we say, “How do we prevent this? What are the technological solutions we can place to prevent the conflict that is going to come for resources?” Because conflict of resources is what has always led to most types of conflict. So we do tend to focus on that and we need to really make sure that we are advancing that and really focusing on it.

And that is where China does come in. And I don’t want to go back to China quite so quickly, but it is a really important challenge because, like John said, “We can’t tackle climate change unless China does.” And China is investing so heavily in coal, it’s using all its natural resource investments to exert influence in developing countries, and yet it’s sitting at the table claiming that it’s going to be tackling climate change. We do need to have constructive engagement with China rather than an unproductive sense of enmity, but there’s a real challenge where if we say we want to work with them on climate change issues, where does that lead us with everything else?

We have to really decide, yes, we need China onboard if we’re genuinely going to tackle this, but what does that mean? Because they’re using their supposed environmentalism as a flag to suggest that they are reaching out internationally, that they are a cooperative partner that can be trusted. And we know that’s not the case. So on climate change, I still think there’s a balance that needs to be reached of how much do we engage with China, on what and how do we not allow them to use it as essentially a free pass to suggest that they’re a fair and decent partner on the world stage because we know they’re just not?

Nate Sibley: Great. Thank you. That will be an evolving conversation for the foreseeable future, not just on environment, but many issues, I suspect.

Mr. McClean, I couldn’t let the event go past without talking about President Biden’s other big decision on his first day in office, which was to effectively cancel the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the US, hugely controversial projects, lots of conservation groups and other groups opposed to it. You took a slightly different view. I was watching the webcast that you did with Representative Curtis the other week, and I wondered if you could talk a bit about what your view of the pipeline was?

Greg McLean MP: Well, it’s an interesting pipeline because it’s been in the works for over 10 years and people have to realize that it’s not something that we took lightly. There’s a huge resource up in Northern Alberta, my province, that actually needs egress to market. And those pipelines, we’re a landlocked province, we need pipelines in order to get our resource to market. Our federal government has not been constructive in getting us pipelines to tide water, if you will. So our main partner, trading-wise, is the United States as far as oil goes.

So this is a pipeline that was in the works for 10 years. President Obama kicked the can down the road on it for seven, or was it eight years? Before he finally said, “No, we’re not going to do it.” Even though every input he’d had from every government organization, the Department of State, John Kerry’s office, said, “Yes, this pipeline is good for America.” The US Corps of Engineers said, “Yes, this pipeline works well across all of the US territory.” So it is something that passed every legitimate and analytical hurdle you had to get through in the United States, and yet somehow President Obama still said, “No, we’re not going to do it,” for some tangential reasons. And he’s obviously got a political base he’s playing to here. That political base is what’s going to destroy us at the end of the day. As far as countries go, we need to make long-term decisions that are not virtue signaling decisions.

Now, you look at Keystone XL. It actually had a permit to be constructed issued by President Trump, and that was already built across the border. So it’s the first time you’d actually had a pipeline infrastructure built across the border that still had to be built, much of it in the United States, and yet it was canceled after a permit was issued. So it is a little consequential and a little different than we’ve done before. First day in office, he did that. So he obviously played out to his campaign promise, and we can’t take those things lightly either, but there is a cost to that. People have to realize there were billions spent on this pipeline as far as getting it to the stage it was at. And suddenly a new president is coming out, saying Okay, that pipeline is never going to flow any oil. That has some huge economic consequences that fall down the chain as far as our energy production goes, but it was also a very environmentally friendly, if you will, pipeline. It had zero emissions all the way through its route.

So the transportation of oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast was zero emissions. So it was powered by windmills and solar panels, all the bells and whistles about what we need to get done here. It also had indigenous engagement throughout the pipeline, so these are how these first nations in Canada, indigenous organizations, benefit from this new infrastructure that’s going to produce energy, but the United States is going to need to source from somewhere else anyways. And it is still the same type of oil it has to source because they’re built to refine a portion of heavy oil on the US Gulf Coast. We need that oil to get there. It’s still going to get there from Canada.

Before COVID started happening, over 400,000 barrels of oil a day were being shipped by train from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. That’s a significant amount of oil. This pipeline, Keystone XL, was going to take up about twice that amount. But we’ve got a good resource here, by the way, whose carbon footprint goes down year by year by year, because it’s a proven resource and it’s actually a manufacturing technique of taking sand saturated oil and getting the sand out. And obviously as you improve the process in that, you make it more efficient, and making it more efficient, you get more CO2 out of the production mechanism.

So, like I say, you’re trading off clean transportation of beneficial oil, highly transparent public companies, for what we call dictator oil coming from all kinds of regimes around the world that aren’t necessarily as transparent about how they produce their oil, how it benefits the people or what the carbon footprint of that resource is. So, in my opinion, it’s a huge loss for Canada, the US and the world environment.

Alicia Kearns MP: Actually, if I may now, I think this goes to the heart of the left versus the right, because we’ve had a similar issue in the UK. And the way Greg just talked through that was going down to brass tacks. What is really going to make a difference? In the UK we were currently proposing to reopen a coal mine solely for metallurgical coal, because we need it for our steel production. The left has been up in arms saying, “We must shut, this can’t open. It’s absolutely wrong. We’re trying to cut climate change. How can that happen?” But all that’s going to happen now that the decision’s being referred and it looks like it might not happen, is we’re going to keep shipping in this coal from Australia, from places around the world. So not only are we shipping in this coal anyway, but we’re now having all the millions of air miles or however it gets here by boat, we’re essentially exporting the problem to make the left feel better about themselves in the UK, because they haven’t opened a coal mine.

And I think that’s the heart issue. We look at the economics, the brass tax, what is really going to make a difference, and too often the left it’s about flying flags and saying, “Well, didn’t we do well,” and clapping themselves in the back when actually they’ve made the problem worse.

Nate Sibley: No, that’s great.
Greg McLean MP: That’s what we call a [inaudible 00:29:51] transfer, right-
Alicia Kearns MP: Yeah.
Greg McLean MP: … at the end of the day, because you’re still producing the same resource just somewhere else. So you feel good about it but, in the end, your consumption decision doesn’t change at all.
Alicia Kearns MP: Exactly.
Nate Sibley: No, and it’s a great … The pipeline and the mine in the UK are great examples of that approach to thinking through what might be the unintended consequences of what seem like principles, things to raise concerns about.

And that brings us to the end our time today, unfortunately, I could keep going around with you all day but, as elected officials, you have presumably other and even more important things to do. And so I want to end by thanking you so much for your time, for your insights and for your leadership in this really important and very dynamic area of conservatism across the Atlantic and around the world. And, as Ms. Kearns said, I hope this event is a small contribution to the emerging conservative congress around the world that will produce the innovation and the energy that we need to reach pragmatic, practical solutions to these really existential challenges we all face.

So thank you all for your time, and I hope to welcome you all back to Hudson Institute soon, hopefully soon in person as well, because we’re getting there hopefully as well. So thank you all.

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