On February 7, we lost one of our most revered and beloved statesmen, George Shultz. His absence is a loss for both the country and the world, and his legacy of service and diligence will be remembered. Shultz’s lifetime of service was an example of patriotic and conservative leadership, not least in his support for immediate and forceful action against climate change. 

Shultz was no progressive green. He was a life-long Republican and a conservative. After military service and graduate studies, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, and was influenced by renowned free-market economists Milton Friedman and George Stigler. Steeped in free-market thinking, he served in the Nixon Administration, returned to the private sector, and then served in the Reagan Administration as Secretary of State, helping the President forge a relationship with the Soviet Union and free half a continent from communist rule. Decades later, he would embrace a carbon tax as a prudent, even a conservative, response to climate change.

As a public servant, Shultz dealt with real-world problems, even as some members of his party were not quite ready to embrace those problems as real. Shultz would later recount how President Reagan told skeptics about the need for an insurance policy against the chance that chemicals would destroy the ozone layer (turns out the science was right). Acting out of prudence, Reagan and Shultz negotiated with industry and countries worldwide to eliminate the chemicals most responsible for degrading the ozone layer. Even though it required government intervention, conservative leadership helped save the ozone layer and maintain a livable planet. 

Among his peers, Shultz was known for having a sense for the long-term. And he recognized that of all the problems facing the United States, climate change is perhaps the greatest long-term threat to both our national interest and national security. In particular, he had a keen awareness of the worldwide scope and pervasiveness of climate change, observing in 2019: 

There is a new ocean being created in the Arctic. Why? The ice mass over Greenland is melting fast. Why? The Great Barrier Reef and other reefs in the Caribbean are all deteriorating. Why? And the answer is always the same. There is no question, no question, that the earth is warming, and there’s no question that there are consequences.”

George Shultz

Science tells us the consequences of warming will be felt throughout and beyond the 21st century. Warming will directly impact physical phenomena like temperature, rainfall, and sea level, but it will have far greater social consequences than climate records can possibly capture. Its most troubling effects will drag down economic growth, create a new front in the Arctic for strategic contests with Russia and China, and risk calamity in places where a combination of heat stress, humidity, and scarcity will drive large waves of migration. Preventing every ton of emissions that we can is in the long-term interest of America and the world. 

And it will behoove politicians and their supporters in both parties to present solutions. Behind his great success, Shultz was a pragmatist; he knew how government and politics work. He knew that if conservatives don’t have a climate solution that matches the scale of the threat, they will lose to progressives on politics, and the U.S. will lose on policy. His preferred approach, a carbon tax, would use market mechanisms favored by conservatives of the Friedman era to achieve the low-carbon economy promised by the left–which is also highly popular with the American public. 

Shultz argued that such a tax should be matched with dividends given back to American households, keeping government budgets from growing and reducing the net tax burden felt by most American families. Supporting such a policy, especially from the conservative side, would be in the best tradition of the Republican leadership Shultz witnessed and practiced throughout his career. After all, he pointed out, 

It was a Republican president that created the EPA…It was a Republican president that did the Montreal Protocol. It was a Republican president that did the cap-and-trade system that dealt with acid rain, so we’re the party that has done something.

George Shultz

In his final essay for the public, Shultz recounted his century of lived experience’s central lesson: trust in each other is the key to our combined success. Without trust between the government and the governed, there is breakdown. In February 2021, the perils of losing trust in our politics are obvious. We should fight against that society-wide loss of trust. In Shultz’s words,

If, as a leader, you want people to be trustworthy, then let them know that you trust them. The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and do you know what happens then? Their followers trust them back. And next? With that bond between them, they can do big, hard things together. And doing big, hard things together is how you change the world for the better.

Shultz’s conservatism offers important lessons for how we should approach climate change. Top-down solutions offered by the left, such as the Green New Deal, are quick to tell people how to live or how to earn a living, even while they offer big promises about government benefits that politicians know they cannot deliver. A more conservative model can expand the role of trust in our politics. Our leaders have to be honest and forthright with their constituents when discussing  climate change costs and what should be done to address them. Meanwhile, they can trust the American people to govern themselves when everyone is fairly responsible for those costs. 

Leaders who embrace that model can promise effective and transparent governance without overpromising. Citizens can be trusted to do the right thing for themselves and the future. If we do it right, we might find that improving our country is a hugely beneficial side effect of the urgent and inescapable need to take collective action against climate change. 

George Shultz was a member of the Niskanen Center’s Advisory Board from 2015 until his death.

Photo credit: Christopher Michel under CC by 2.0.