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Opinion: Gianforte’s thoughts on climate require innovation; but where’s the incentive?

Dick Barrett

As Amanda Eggert recently reported in the Missoula Current, some Republican politicians, including Governor Gianforte, have finally had to face the fact that the climate is warming, that the main culprit is human carbon emissions, and that action to address the climate crisis is urgently needed.

After years of denialism, this Republican about-face would be welcome if it weren’t accompanied, as it is, by indifference, if not downright opposition, to any form of government policy to rein in emissions.

Gianforte and his fellow Republicans claim that the key to reducing emissions is private sector innovation and entrepreneurship, and that is pretty obviously true. After all, since most emissions come from private businesses and individuals, it’s going to have to be private businesses and individuals who figure out how to continue to function while spewing out a whole lot less carbon than they do right now. That’s what all the innovation Gianforte is talking about amounts to: figuring out how to do things differently.

The problem, however, is not a lack of capacity to innovate, or government’s stifling of innovative drive. It’s lack of incentive. The entrepreneurs that Gianforte is relying on don’t just innovate at random, or out of the goodness of their hearts. They innovate because they expect to make money from it.

Like all of us, they respond to incentives, in this case monetary ones. And if there is no money to be made in reducing emissions, entrepreneurs will have no incentive to find new ways of doing just that.

Occasionally, of course, a money-making innovation will serendipitously reduce emissions. A much touted example is enhanced oil recovery, in which carbon dioxide is injected into the ground to make getting oil out of the ground easier. But there’s no incentive in those operations to guarantee that the injected carbon dioxide will stay in the ground after it’s done its job.

And of course there’s no incentive in the first place not to pump the oil out of the ground and burn in up in cars. On the contrary: what the market is providing is the incentive to pump and burn as much oil as can be profitably pumped and burned, and the resulting emissions be damned.

So yes, the private sector has to provide the innovations that will avert the climate crisis. But government has to provide the incentive for the private sector to innovate. There are lots of ways for the government to do that, and some are no doubt better than others. Gianforte claims that government regulations can stifle innovation, and poorly designed regulations can surely do that.

A government regulation that required us to trade in our cars for donkey carts would not be a good idea. But what about a carbon tax or cap and trade system? All those policies do is tell polluters that they have to pay to pollute, and that creates the needed incentive to innovate: figure out how to most efficiently to reduce emissions and you’ll cut costs and make more money.

Governor Gianforte prides himself on being a scientist and an astute entrepreneur. Rather than digging in his heels and withdrawing Montana from a climate agreement with other states, he should display some leadership and use those talents to create government policies that will incentivize and unleash robust private sector climate action.

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