Economic Freedom Is Great for the Planet

Data show that free economies are cleaner than those dominated by central planning.

The Biden administration’s Earth Day summit is being heralded by progressives as the United States’ triumphant return to the global stage on climate after years of neglect under President Trump. The summit is “an opportunity for the U.S. to come back onto the scene to show it is taking climate change seriously,” according to David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative.

But today’s progressives who believe global treaties and central planning will stop climate change, and inspire China to stop polluting, are wrong on the politics and policy. Just ask Bill Clinton.

In his 1992 Earth Day speech, then-candidate Clinton said, “I believe it is time for a new era in environmental protection, which uses the market to help us get our environment back on track—to recognize that Adam Smith's invisible hand can have a green thumb.”

Sadly, many modern progressives prefer to use the climate debate to wage a proxy war against capitalism. They argue that the best way to combat climate change is through a “degrowth” agenda that seeks to decrease the economic activity that demands energy consumption. Proposals like the Green New Deal to advance unrelated socialist policies like government-run health care, free college, and universal basic income.

Clinton and Adam Smith were right. Countries that have embraced free markets, property rights, limited government and lower taxes have significantly cleaner environments. Those are the findings of a new paper from an organization I co-founded, the Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions.

Author Nick Loris examined economic data and case studies from nearly 180 countries and notes that free economies are twice as clean as unfree economies. He cites Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which measures a country’s environmental health and ecosystem vitality using more than 30 environmental indicators and assigns scores ranging from 0 to 100. Mostly free economies scored an average of 71.72 while mostly unfree economies scored 35.17.

Loris describes a process Adam Smith would recognize, “Economic growth initially leads to greater unwanted industrial byproducts as industrialization results in pollution and people and institutions prioritize jobs and income over the health of the environment. Over time, however, that wealth means more resources are available for environmental protection … People with more wealth can afford products and technologies that make life easier, healthier and cleaner.”

George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux put it succinctly: We are “cleaned by capitalism.” 

House Republicans are wisely mounting a counteroffensive this week with dozens of their own bills that counter the left’s “free stuff” agenda with a serious freedom agenda. And they can point to real and recent results. Emissions went down during the Trump era, including after he withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017, because Republicans embraced economic freedom measures, among them improving the environmental review and permitting process for federal agencies. The U.S. reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2.9 percent in 2019, after a small spike in 2018. And much of the most recent data analyzing this is from 2019, so any decreases can’t be explained away by any reductions in air or car travel caused by the pandemic.

Progressives want to frame the climate debate as a fight about environmental justice.  There is no greater source of environmental injustice in the world today than central planning. Socialist policies are reliably cruel, especially to poor and marginalized communities. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez devastated his nation’s economy and environment with his socialist experiment, a trend that has continued under his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Loris explains, “Hugo Chavez replaced specialized industry expertise with cronies. His regime diverted revenues that a private company would invest in new capital, technologies and skilled labor to remain competitive toward military and social programs instead.” The country has now become so poor that even though it is awash in oil, people are dismantling equipment to sell the metal scraps just to survive. As Emanuelle Ottolenghi has written about in The Dispatch, the illegal mining happening under Maduro is leading to deforestation and dangerously polluted waterways.

According to a November 2020 New York Times report, “When it rains, oil that has oozed into the sewage system comes up through manholes and drains, coursing with rainwater through the streets, smearing houses and filling the town with its gaseous stench.” One observer, Francisco Barrios, noted, “There are no jobs, no gasoline, but the oil is spilling everywhere.”

And don’t forget that the most notorious environmental disaster in history, Chernobyl, was a failure of central planning and ideological extremism more than nuclear technology. As the lead character in HBO’s magnificent series notes, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”  

Today, the left is incurring a debt to the truth with anti-scientific alarmism and economic policies that put party purity over effectiveness.

By becoming champions of climate realism conservatives won’t be ceding ground but will instead seize the high ground. Science, math and history tell us that economic freedom is beneficial for people—and the planet.