Sign Up

The Conservative Case for a Proactive Climate Policy

Why might taking a leadership role on climate change help conservatives preserve the civil liberties they fear environmentalists will take away?

August 28, 2012

Why might taking a leadership role on climate change help conservatives preserve the civil liberties they fear environmentalists will take away?

Climate activists have an image of an grim, dystopian future that spurs them to action. It is a future of disappearing glaciers, stranded polar bears, parched cropland and deluged coastal cities.

Climate skeptics see this as pure scaremongering. Theirs is a world where global warming is a myth, or at least something we can’t do much about and probably shouldn’t lose sleep over. Climate activists, for their part, consider this stance utterly naïve and completely irresponsible.

With their irreconcilable differences, the two camps would appear to inhabit different planets.

And yet there is one fascinating parallel: Conservative skeptical activists, for their part, are frequently motivated as much by a vision of a dystopian future as are climate activists.

Except that their source of cataclysm is of a completely different nature. Conservative skeptical activists fear a world in which governments around the globe use the real or imagined threat of climate change to justify an extraordinary expansion of their powers.

Carbon is, of course, central to virtually all economic activity. Any effort to systematically reduce our carbon emissions will necessarily mean some kind of intrusion of government into the marketplace. Systems of taxes and permits have been proposed, as well as the establishment of international institutions.

In the worst-case scenario of the conservative skeptical activists, efforts to mitigate climate change are seen as leading toward the establishment of a one-world government, universal socialism and the end of cherished civil liberties.

Each set of activists thus has its own frightening vision of the future, and each vision is reinforced and given legitimacy by its own echo chamber of media reports and authorities and its own set of shared values.

This gives both sides a voice of conviction and authority, as well as a strong tinge of desperation. In their interminable skirmishes on the Internet, each side views itself as the last line of defense in preserving the world as we know it — a world with honeybees or, alternatively, a world with national sovereignty.

So far I have focused on the symmetries of the debate. One prominent asymmetry is that the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is on the side of climate alarmism.

In order to view their own position as plausible, conservative activists must be prepared to view the scientific community as incompetent — or worse. And it is clear that many are prepared to view things that way.

Still, no climate skeptic would wish to simply throw science and the scientific method overboard. On the contrary, skeptics view themselves as the champion of better science. So they must draw a line somewhere between the official science they accept and the official science they reject.

Occasionally, you will find a skeptic who argues that there is no real warming trend or that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases caused by human activity do not contribute meaningfully to climate change.

But these days, the most respectable intellectual position among climate skeptics is one that accepts most of what the official science has to offer, while still holding out a reason to delay action. It is argued that climate change is happening, and that human activity is undoubtedly a factor, but that other factors have not been adequately explored.

Climate activists — and mainstream scientists — dispute the idea that there are still great gaps in our knowledge. But in the minds of conservative activists, this position suffices to justify the argument that the right course of action is no action at all.

If we are holding out for new data and new lines of evidence, in this view, perhaps the best we can do at present is to “do no harm” in terms of intrusive regulation.

This appears to be Mitt Romney’s current position. A year ago, in New Hampshire, Romney endorsed the mainstream view that man-made global warming is a real problem that requires action.

Today, tilting toward the position of Paul Ryan and skeptical elements in the Republican base, he says “scientists will figure that out ten, twenty, fifty years from now.”

But “ten, twenty, fifty years from now” we may be dealing with an entirely different set of issues. As Bill McKibben recently noted, the best science available today tells us that the window for effective climate change mitigation is closing fast.

As that happens, the scientific and policymaking agenda will shift from mitigation (preventing potentially catastrophic climate change) to adaptation (that is, coping with the results).

Conservative nightmare

As that transition looms, the advocates of doing nothing may want to reconsider their worst-case scenario. Their efforts to hold governments in check on the climate issue for fear of complete overreach (for example, stifling economic activity and exploding bureaucracy) may blow up in their own collective face.

What if the climate models are indeed not purely fanciful? What if the record-breaking extreme weather we have been experiencing this past year is not a statistical aberration, but a portent of worse to come?

What if we really are forced to adapt to drastic climate change to deal with failed harvests, unprecedented mass migrations and international conflicts over scarce water resources?

Is that a world in which free markets can thrive and traditional liberties can be preserved? Is that not a recipe for failed states — where private property and constitutional liberties become a dead letter — and their twin, totalitarian states?

Under pressure from climate stresses, even the most robust constitutional democracy may find its character altered. When faced with more severe or more frequent floods and extreme weather, people will become accustomed to looking to central authorities for aid and direction.

New public works projects like building levees will expand the role for the public sector, and will necessarily be financed by public debt — or taxes. National life will be more crisis-prone. There might be drought, new agricultural infestations, displaced internal populations, and security problems caused by mass migrations and failed states abroad.

Tough challenges like these could hardly fail to increase the role and reach of government. So would maintaining order if the economy tanks. If crises pile on quickly, the power of the executive is likely to expand — and both economic and personal liberties are bound to suffer.

Arguably, they would suffer far more under this sort of reactive adaptation scenario than under some sort of proactive international accord on the model of Kyoto.

In other words, the costs of eternal delay could be very real — not just in economic and environmental terms, but in the very dimension that so worries conservative climate skeptics, citizens’ liberty.

Viewed in that light, American conservatives ought to be the ones leading the charge to preserve our current way of life from climate-induced threats.

If they chose to take a leadership role on the issue, conservatives could ensure that the means match their values as well as the end. That is, they could ensure that the most market-friendly mitigation and proactive adaptation measures are enacted, and that bureaucracy is not expanded unduly.

And they would also win by restoring the United States’ international prestige, improving U.S. security, and putting the U.S. private sector at the forefront of a new generation of world-leading energy technologies.

Achieving all of these things in one fell swoop, complex as the maneuver would no doubt be, could be all American conservatives’ very American Dream.

Thus, I wonder: Will American conservatives be willing to accept this grand challenge, to struggle and compromise and expend real effort in a bid to preserve the American way of life? Or will they double down on “wait and see”?

We will likely find out in Tampa, when the Republican Party nominates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as their standard-bearers.

This essay was written as a response to L. Ronald Scheman’s essay, The Cheney Test for Climate Change, published by The Globalist on August 10, 2012.


The costs of delay could be very real — not just in economic or environmental terms, but in the dimension that so worries conservative skeptics, citizens' liberty.

Activists on the skeptical side are frequently motivated as much by a vision of a dystopian future as are climate activists.

In the worst-case scenario of the climate skeptics, efforts to mitigate climate change are seen as leading toward the establishment of a one-world government.

Individual liberties might suffer far more under a reactive adaptation scenario than under a proactive international accord on the model of Kyoto.