The Right Approach to Climate and Energy policy

By Robert O’Brien and Neil Auerbach[1]

The question in last week’s Republican debate regarding whether human behavior is contributing to climate change sparked heated rhetoric and was not squarely answered by all candidates.   Climate change attributable to rising CO2 emissions is real and deserves a rational policy response from conservatives.   We offer ours below.

An appropriate policy approach requires neither climate denial nor alarmism.  We do not see the rise of CO2 emissions as an immediate worldwide crisis but rather a potential future crisis.  Allegations of a causal link between current weather events and rising CO2 emissions are hyperbolic and designed for maximum media impact.

Fossil fuel advocates properly credit fossil fuels with contributing to improved living standards, higher levels of prosperity, and improved human health.  However, the benefits of our prior fossil fuel use do not justify unbridled future fossil fuel use.  Unchecked increases in CO2 emissions pose serious risks for our future.  Sea level rise stands out as one such risk.  Estimates of potential sea level rise caused by global warming range from a few feet to over 200 feet, a level that adaptation measures cannot handle.  A recent study estimated the global economic harm caused by sea level rise in a “business as usual” scenario could exceed $14.2 trillion by the end of the century, a devastating burden in both human and economic terms.

By far the largest contributor to rising CO2 emissions is China.  While U.S. emissions have dropped nearly 20% over the past two decades, China’s emissions have more than doubled over the same period.  China’s emergence as the leading producer and installer of clean energy has been overshadowed by their insatiable demand for coal.  Any further progress made by the U.S. in lowering CO2 emissions will be nullified by China’s runaway emissions.   The U.S. must push China to reduce CO2 emissions to low U.S. levels immediately, preferably on a GDP parity basis.  Appropriate trade sanctions, tariffs and other tools should be used to bring China into compliance.

India is another prolific CO2 emitter but, unlike China, is a developing country.   We disagree with Nikki Haley equating India and China.  India is a democracy that shares our values and should be assisted by us to reduce its emissions.

To address the risks posed by rising CO2 emissions, we suggest three policy pillars: (1) prioritize decarbonizing energy under an “all of the above” agenda emphasizing support for nuclear, solar and wind; (2) promote an America First agenda for domestic clean energy manufacturing and mining; and (3) promote American leadership in clean fossil fuel extraction and refining.

Decarbonize energy:  We must further develop cheap low-carbon wind, solar and nuclear power aided by federal support, including permitting reform.  Wind and solar power costs have dropped precipitously over the past decade to the point where their costs have fallen below that of fossil fuel-based power, depending on location.  A more sophisticated HVDC grid system would greatly facilitate the smooth integration of even higher concentrations of renewable energy into our power mix while lowering the cost to consumers.

Increasing our energy storage capability will enable further scaling of these resources.

Nuclear energy, especially small modular reactors, offers highly reliable clean energy production at scale and is indispensable to a low carbon energy portfolio.  Permitting reform is essential to removing the roadblocks to expanding and modernizing our nuclear fleet.


America First agenda for mining:  The U.S. should pass a “Future Energy Act” modeled on the “Chips Act” to spur the domestic mining and processing of rare earth elements (REE) and other materials required to manufacture solar, battery, and wind technologies in the U.S.   At the same time, America can work with likeminded allies such as Australia and Denmark (Greenland), which have significant REE deposits.  Failure to mine and manufacture at home will leave us needlessly dependent on China for future green energy power sources.


Increase fossil fuel extraction while lowering emissions:  Fossil fuels are indispensable for the foreseeable future.  America must remain the world’s leading oil and gas producer as it is the bedrock of our national security and prosperity.  We can extract, refine and employ fossil fuels more cleanly than anyone.

There are two viable pathways to offset CO2 emissions from fossil fuels: carbon sequestration and storage (CCS), and direct air capture and storage (DACS).  CCS, which can be deployed on a wide variety of fossil fuel emitting sources, is commercially available and will become cheaper with scale.  DACS is even more intriguing because it enables CO2 to be extracted directly from the atmosphere without connecting to a fossil fuel source.  The technology is feasible and beginning to scale, although at an earlier stage than CCS.  CCS and DACS hold enormous promise for decarbonizing fossil fuels and should enjoy strong federal support, including tax incentives and federal research grants.

These three policy pillars address the risk of rising CO2 emissions while advancing our short- and long-term national interests.  Conservatives and liberals alike should embrace these pillars as good for America and for our planet’s future.



[1] Robert O’Brien served as the 27th US National Security Advisor from 2019-2021. Neil Auerbach is founder and CEO of Hudson Sustainable Group, an investor in sustainable energy, and is a former partner of Goldman Sachs.  Neil is a senior advisor for the American Conservation Coalition.