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How Conservatives Can Ride the West’s ‘Green Wave’

As Europe's Green parties surge, the Right can help make sure conservation doesn't become a government boondoggle.

The European elections last month saw an ascendance of several different anti-establishment forces, including euroskeptics as well as pro-EU groups. But the success of the Green parties, which performed extremely well in western and northern Europe, amounted to an unexpected surge across the continent.

In Germany, the Greens topped 20 percent of the vote, their best nationwide showing in party history. In the UK, France, Finland, and Austria, parties advocating for radical environmentalism performed well, too. The “Green Wave,” political commentators noted, had crashed on European soil.

This is not an isolated incident by any means. Environmental causes have topped the agenda for voters throughout Europe, becoming both a political and cultural marker of civic and social awareness. Like the 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, who has emerged as a global phenomenon due to her Fridays for Future activism, which calls for children around the world to skip school on Fridays to protest against climate change.

Then there’s the Extinction Rebellion, a near-viral movement that promotes civil disobedience to protect the environment—like preventing families from flying on vacation so they don’t pollute.

All the while, politicians have become more desperate over the issue. In the UK, for instance, a “climate change emergency” was recently declared by Parliament. While it is unclear what that actually means, it could lead to policies towards a “carbon-neutral” economy as soon as within the next decade, much like the Green New Deal and similar plans by Democrats in the United States.

It is difficult to fully comprehend this recent phenomenon, especially considering how much of it is based on the most extreme doomsday predictions. Visiting the website of the Extinction Rebellion, one immediately finds a proclamation that “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” in all-caps, of course, and that time is running out fast. The schoolgirl Greta echoes this when she says we need to “pull the emergency brake” on CO2 emissions and that “I want you to panic.”

It’s difficult to take such alarmism seriously. And yet neither is it helpful to call Greta autistic or a depressed little child who doesn’t understand the world. After all, she is just the messenger.

It’s about time conservatives took up the cause of environmental stewardship. Even if, as Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, wrote recently, the disastrous scenarios presaged by Al Gore never happen. “When it comes to managing large-scale risks, straight-forward economics suggests that we ought to take climate change very seriously,” he said.

Environmentalism, of course, means much more than fighting global warming. It also has to tackle questions of protecting our natural wonders despite serious funding issues; how the major upticks in recreational activities all around the Western world can coincide with the protection of the outdoors; how wildfires are best handled; how endangered species and fish stock can be best protected while not hurting farmers or fishers; indeed, how to transition to cleaner energy without hitting consumers and workers in affected industries.

It is here also that a more optimistic message can be sent. We must find a way to protect the environment without massive government interventions that result in a loss of good-paying jobs.

There’s no reason why the choice should be between the end of the planet and the end of humanity, between environmental degradation and mass poverty. Instead, an environmentalism based on innovative entrepreneurship, private initiative, and decisions at the local level can provide a conservative alternative.

Rather than yet again betting on omnipotent governments when it comes to the environment—something that has never turned out very well historicallyit is important to provide innovators, so-called “enviropreneurs,” the space needed to bring forth actual solutions to climate crises. As Kate Andrews at the Institute of Economic Affairs argues, our problem solvers “will be a young woman in her garage who is going to figure out how we make solar panels affordable or wind more effective—not a bureaucrat.”

Similarly, it will be private individuals and nonprofit groups that can help protect natural wonders and rare species (and have done so). And it will be market mechanisms and property rights regimes that will solve many major (though perhaps not all) catastrophes of “tragedy of the commons”—quite in contrast to, say, the EPA. Indeed, as the Heritage Foundation has found, the freer an economy is, the cleaner it is.

Of course, the jury is out on that, but this is where conservatives can come into the conversation. So far, most of the green space has been given to left-wing political movements that monopolize the discussion. The European elections, the Extinction Rebellion, and the Green New Deal are examples of this.

It is imperative as the “Green Wave” hits to present a positive alternative that sees human ingenuity and cooperation between people who value our environment as the ultimate resources in the preservation of our natural world. It is a cause that conservatives need to champion now.

Kai Weiss is a research fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute.