Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP presidential nominee, wrote, "When pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action." As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed major environmental bills and called for "all-out war against the debauching of the environment."
But modern Republicans think the environment is big enough to take care of itself. They decried President Barack Obama's moratorium on new deepwater drilling, which was imposed to prevent a repeat of last year's catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Bush administration gave a green light to mountaintop coal mining, which it admitted would mean burying more than 700 miles of rivers in debris. They see preventing pollution as an unaffordable luxury.
But that's intellectually untenable and politically dangerous. What's more, the GOP doesn't have to surrender its principles to confront environmental reality. There is plenty of room for disagreement, for instance, about how to combat global warming.
The method most congenial to personal and economic freedom is a carbon tax. Instead of putting the government behind favored forms of energy, as the administration likes to do, it would create strong incentives for people to find their own ways to reduce emissions.
It would achieve maximum benefits at minimum cost. It could be revenue-neutral, if the receipts were used to pay for other tax cuts.
A carbon tax is hardly a liberal idea. Among its proponents are Gregory Mankiw, who headed the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain's chief economist during his presidential campaign. But Republican politicians have no interest.
During hard economic times, that approach may work. But at some point, voters will conclude that global warming and other environmental problems demand solutions. And Republicans will be left wondering why they didn't come up with any.