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A Better Climate Playbook

By Wesley L. Donhauser
Wesley L. Donhauser ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Adams House. He the president of the Harvard Republican Club.

At this year’s Harvard-Yale game, fans came to watch the teams in one of America’s oldest football rivalries. They were treated to a political stunt instead.

Dozens of Harvard and Yale students stormed the field at halftime to demand each school purge its endowments of fossil fuel assets and holdings of Puerto Rican debt, delaying the game by nearly an hour.

As president of the Harvard Republican Club, I share the protesters’ concern about climate change. Rising greenhouse gas emissions pose serious risks to the U.S. economy and must be addressed. However, in both style and substance, the divestment protesters missed the mark. Their approach won’t solve the climate problem and could even distract from the market-based solutions that will actually make a difference.

At its core, the divestment movement misconstrues the climate challenge. It unjustly demonizes fossil fuel companies as the sole culprits of climate change and falsely suggests that divesting endowments of their shares will improve the situation. It ignores the fact that we all use and benefit from fossil fuels on a daily basis — from the energy that powers pregame tailgates to the vehicles that carry students home after games.

It also ignores that divestment is essentially an act of financial theater. At its best, divestment has no impact on global emissions. (Even if divestment succeeded in weakening publicly-traded fossil fuel companies, there is compelling evidence that would increase emissions by shifting production to foreign, state-owned firms with worse environmental records.)

Instead of punishing fossil fuel companies, we should set clear incentives so that all parties — energy companies, businesses, and consumers — are encouraged to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. We need a commonsense national policy that brings all stakeholders together, not moralizing that drives them apart.

That is why the Harvard Republican Club joined student groups across the country in 2018 to endorse the carbon dividends climate solution. Advanced by Republican luminaries James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz, the carbon dividends plan would establish a gradually rising price on carbon to drive clean energy development across the economy. It would rebate all of the revenue to Americans in the form of dividends, ensuring that the vast majority — especially the most vulnerable — win economically from the U.S.’ climate response.

This simple, market-driven approach has earned remarkably broad support, including the backing of environmental non-governmental organizations and businesses, as well as the endorsement of thousands of economists — among them, an impressive 27 Nobel Prize winners.

And most importantly, the carbon dividends plan has drawn support from major fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. Contrary to what the divestment movement claims, climate advocates should not want these companies to fail. Instead, we should want these firms, propelled by the right incentives, to leverage their engineering expertise, innovative cultures, and vast research and development budgets to develop — and deploy — the technologies of the future. That is the path to protecting the environment and growing the economy at the same time.

The numbers speak for themselves. Assuming a starting carbon tax rate of $40 per ton (which the aforementioned companies support), the carbon dividends solution would deliver more than three times the emissions reductions of Obama-era regulations, easily exceeding the U.S.’ commitment under the Paris Agreement. Divestment, by contrast, offers little more than hot air.

At the Harvard Republican Club, and at college Republican chapters across the country, we are taking the climate issue seriously. According to a recent survey from Luntz Global — founded by famed Republican pollster Frank I. Luntz — 85 percent of Republicans under the age of 40 believe the GOP is hurting itself with younger voters due to its climate stance. (The poll also found that young conservatives support the carbon dividends solution by a seven-to-one margin.)

As young people, we know what is at stake for our economic prospects and for our generation. We also know that we need to focus on real solutions that unlock the innovative power of American business. While I commend the divestment protesters for their commitment to the cause, nobody wins from climate efforts that demonize the companies needed to help solve the problem.

Particularly at two of America’s leading universities, we should aspire for a more elevated understanding of the climate challenge — in all its complexity and nuance. We should seek solutions that are not only workable but also grounded in sound economic principles.

At the Harvard Republican Club, we will continue to discuss these important issues and bring people to our side through the merits of our arguments, rather than our ability to cause inconvenience. For those willing to engage in this important conversation, I and fellow young conservatives across the country stand ready to meet you there.

Wesley L. Donhauser ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Adams House. He the president of the Harvard Republican Club.

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