Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why is conservatism unable to come to grips with climate change? Part two.

At the end of part one I posed this question:

Why did global warming became, along with healthcare, the major lighting rod for conservative mythmaking? After all, if anyone ought to understand that preserving our environment for our children and the generations to come is a moral imperative, it's a conservative. If anyone should understand that radical change to an environment that has sustained us for ten thousand years of human civilization is likely to do severe harm, it's a conservative. If anyone should respect the opinions of the vast majority of working scientists and national and international scientific federations, it's those authority-loving conservatives.

Part of the problem, as I described in part one, is the extinction of the responsible conservative. But the problem runs deeper than that.

We're going to try and have some empathy for the conservative viewpoint in this post, which is a bit of a departure for this blog. Imagine you are a conservative in the 1960s. The environmental movement is just getting off the ground. Joni Mitchell is singing about paradise and parking lots*, and Rachel Carlson has savagely indicted DDT in Silent Spring.

As environmentalism becomes established, two opposing narratives take shape: on the environmental side, there is an argument that our industrial society in its present form is unsustainable, because it is in the process of degrading our environment past the point at which it will sustain our modern lifestyle -- or even our lives. On the other hand you have conservatives (and many on the political left, as well) who defend the status quo by denying the impact of human activities on the environment, praising the wealth-generating faculty of capitalism and predicting that restrictions on it will hobble development.

Recall that this is before global warming takes shape as a political issue, although not before it takes shape as a scientific theory, a process that was already well underway, having begun with Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier's description of the greenhouse effect in 1824 (parenthetically, we note that given that elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations can be measured directly, and the gas' origin demonstrated conclusively via radioisotope studies, the science necessary to prove the theory of AGW has been established for almost two hundred years.)

It's easy to see how conservatives would tend to drift to the status-quo side of the argument: environmentalism represented (and continues to represent) a challenge to an absolutist argument for the morality of unrestricted capitalism. And it is hard to miss an undertone of hostility to unrestricted capitalism (and to the established order generally) in the writings and speeches of environmental activists -- there is sometimes evident a certain glee at the prospect of a civilization-shaking cataclysm, and the warnings of disaster, the vivid pictures painted of the consequences of "peak oil," for example -- can come off as less salutary advice and more wish fulfillment.

Hard-core leftism is a frustrated ideology in the West, and it has had to watch capitalism, whose demise it has often predicted, go from strength to strength, as the moneyed interests that serve it have, far from suffering the fruits of their (very real) crimes against the poor, prospered greatly by their association with it.

So there is a certain amount of frustration there, which gets expressed in predictions of climate disaster, much as we find in the Biblical screeds, written by people hunted and persecuted by the Roman regime on behalf of the poor and voiceless, in which the meek inherit the earth and the rich struggle to squeeze themselves through tight spaces.

But now, today, we have the reality of anthropogenic global warming to deal with: a potentially catastrophic disruption of the climate and the food webs that keep us alive, and the primary way to address it is by re-making a large swathe of our economy. So on this particular issue, the hard left was right. And many conservatives are not handling that well.

A similar "cosmology event," on a much smaller scale, afflicted liberalism when the surge significantly decreased violence in Iraq. Deaths of Iraqis and deaths of American and allied soldiers both precipitously declined. This was exactly what conservatives had predicted, and liberals had scoffed at. More troops? More troops will only feed the violence! Yet eventually one had to admit, if one was honest, that the surge had been a very conspicuous success.

Obviously one did not have to change one's mind about the rationale for the war or the prospects of ultimate success or the morality and practicality of sacrificing thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars fighting an insurgency our own invasion created. But on the narrow point of whether the surge was a good idea, if you were reality based, you had to concede that. But it was hard.

It is similarly hard for the conservatives to concede that the people they have been apt to dismiss as sore losers and over-dramatic doomsayers seem to have nailed this one, as the scientists, after sifting the evidence, have soberly laid out a picture that is worse than anything we imagined.

But it's past time for them to get over it, and deal with reality. They are not now standing against a leftist environmental movement, but against science and scientists, and against reasonable people of all stripes, including people like Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher, and the editors of the Economist, to name a few people and institutions that cannot easily be mistaken for pawns of the coming World Socialist Order.

It's time conservatives re-directed their ideological vitriol into battles over how best to solve this problem, and not over whether the crushing body of evidence for AGW is sufficient to accept the reality of the problem. It is. And we must. A political movement can err in its solutions for our problems, but to hide from the problems themselves, to deny their very existence when that existence becomes awkward to their self-image, betrays a fatal unseriousness that disqualifies its followers from positions of trust.

* I cannot tell a lie: Big Yellow Taxi didn't drop until 1970. Just go with the vibe, OK?


  1. I enjoyed this article, thanks. I think it is important to remember that the conservative "side" of politics is just as fractured on the issue as the left. While the "deniers" may be loud, they do not speak for all social and religious conservatives. It's important not to conflate climate change denial with a conservative world view. There are many who accept the science and are willing to see positive steps to mitigate the impact of climate change.

    Indeed, this is a core conservative "value" in the Burkian tradition - protecting and cherishing the institutions of our society while acknowledging that change happens through and iterative and organic process.

    Preventing climate change is aligned with core conservative values. It's the radical ideologues who trash this tradition.

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