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Small Change

Beyond Radical

What conservatives could bring to the climate conversation

by Bill McKibben

Published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion magazine



I REMEMBER, LONG AGO as a college reporter, interviewing the Libertarian candidate for president in a Boston hotel room. He held forth at great length on the Libertarian platform, which could basically be boiled down to “leave me the hell alone,” a position he defended with admirable vigor and complete consistency. Abolish marijuana laws—it doesn’t hurt you. Abolish consumer protections—if a business cheated its customers, word would spread and the business would soon vanish. Abolish taxes, or most of them anyway—let people pay for the services government currently rendered, if they wanted them.

I was a smartass, and kept pushing the envelope. Should people be allowed to own guns? Of course. Should they be allowed to own bazookas? Of course. Should we each be permitted to own our own nuclear weapons?

He paused, looked at me, and said, “Every ideology has its flaws.”

I’ve thought about him a few times in recent years, as I lamented the fact that we’ve had so little useful bipartisan debate about global warming. Many libertarians—and much of the larger conservative movement—have let down the intellectual process by refusing to engage on the most important issue of our time, and it’s making it much harder to solve the problem. I don’t mean, of course, that they haven’t opposed action on climate change—the think tanks and websites at the center of organized conservatism have done that successfully for twenty years. But it’s been only by the disgracefully anti-intellectual tactic of denying that there’s a real problem.

Libertarians, for instance, have always insisted that they’re more rational than the rest of us, weighed down as we are by religious superstition or other forms of sentimentality. Their magazine, after all, is called Reason. But Reason and its ideological cousin the Cato Institute have spent twenty years plumping for any global warming skeptic they can find or fund—their position, apparently, is that the atmospheric chemists and physicists who, by application of the scientific process, have reached broad consensus that we are warming the Earth have somehow managed to screw up the math. It’s embarrassing to read—no argument is too absurd or too trivial. It is completely unReasonable.

And the same holds for more standard-issue conservatives, many of whom continue to insist that global warming is a “hoax,” that more carbon dioxide would be “good for plants,” that Al Gore is out only to line his pockets, and on and on. Here’s Rush Limbaugh: “Despite the hysterics of a few pseudo-scientists, there is no reason to believe in global warming.” And here’s the result: only 13 percent of Republicans in Congress believe humans are warming the planet. Only 29 percent of Republican voters view global warming as a serious threat. As the Gallup pollsters put it: “It would appear that the vigorous conservative campaign against climate-change advocates (especially Al Gore) has contributed to leaders of the Republican Party adopting a highly skeptical view of global warming.”

Which is too bad for three reasons. One, it marks the end (at least for now) of the bipartisan cooperation on the environment that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and produced everything from Teddy Roosevelt’s national parks to the Clean Water Act.

Second, it damages the useful idea that is classical conservatism—the idea that stability and tradition are to be taken seriously. It’s hard to imagine anything less conservative than rapidly increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and just seeing what happens—especially after, say, the Arctic has spectacularly melted. At this point, not trying to rein in coal and gas and oil combustion pretty much defines radical. It makes anything Abbie Hoffman ever dreamed of seem bashful.

And third, by refusing to engage the reality of the problem, conservatives as a whole have contributed nothing to the search for workable solutions. This is unfortunate, because their help would be useful. We are standing on the edge of large-scale government intervention in our economies, and we could benefit from the analytical focus that conservatives have brought to similar discussions in the past. For instance, Congress may approve stiff caps on carbon sometime this year. Should that happen, the price of fossil fuel will rise sharply, and consumption will then likely begin to fall. There’s no other way to make change on the scale that we need in the time frame we have. But making Exxon pay for the right to emit CO2 is only half the equation. The next question is, what happens to the large pool of money that this will create? A typical answer would be to treat it like tax revenue and let Congress spend it on something—more corn-based ethanol, perhaps. But instead, some environmentalists have proposed an entirely different idea: bypassing Congress and sending a check each year to each American for their share of the sky. That would mean we’d still get the price signal at the pump, but would, in the end, be made roughly whole. It represents a small-government solution, and it should be discussed and refined by people from all sides of the ideological spectrum.

But the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Cato, and all the rest are still engaged in essentially trying to shoot the messenger. The conferences and op-eds and newspaper ads are endless; they’ve been trotting out the same small band of nonscientists for decades, and trumpeting the same round of alternative explanations (sunspots!) long after they’ve been discredited by actual, you know, research. Chemistry and physics, however, have proved remarkably immune to the spin (maybe the laws of nature haven’t bookmarked the right websites). The molecular structure of CO2 traps heat. That just turns out to be a fact of the planet we live on.

Why the endless opposition? I know that some people believe libertarians and other conservatives have punted on climate change simply because they’re in bed with the fossil fuel companies—that they’ve taken lots of money from dirty energy and now do the bidding of their masters. This is undoubtedly true of plenty of individual politicians, but one hopes—fervently—that it isn’t true of the millions of thoughtful people and groups that need to be a part of a crucial debate. I think, instead, that history explains some of the resistance. The global warming scare arrived on the scene at the end of the Reagan years, at the absolute high-water mark of conservative confidence, and so it seemed a real threat to the movement’s ascendancy. I think the syllogism in many minds went like this: markets solve all problems; markets aren’t solving global warming; Q.E.D., global warming isn’t a problem.

That may have been emotionally comforting, but it had obvious logical weaknesses, the biggest of which was simply: markets could help solve the problem, in fact faster than any other force. But only if we supplied them with one crucial piece of information: that carbon is dangerous. That it carries a cost. Establishing this has essentially been the battle for twenty years, and it shouldn’t require a repudiation of conservative principles. It requires only a subordination of ideology to the laws of chemistry and physics.

I’m not a libertarian, because I think they’ve conflated “human nature”—their sense of the individual über alles—with the effects of the last couple hundred years of consumer society. I think humans are at their best when they’re social creatures; that’s why I’m a Methodist, not a Randian. But I don’t disdain libertarianism, nor conservatism. How could any environmentalist, who at heart is interested in maintaining as much as possible of the world we were born into? But each day that they remain in sly and subtle opposition to scientific fact draws them further into intellectual disrepute. It’s been a tough couple of years for laissez-faire ideology—Alan Greenspan pretty much dumped Ayn Rand overboard when he told Congress earlier this year that his worldview had been “flawed.” But at this rate, it’s going to be a tough geological epoch too—for all of us. 

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Bill McKibben is working on the behalf of the rest of us, on climate change issues, mostly organizing around the world for 350.org.

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