Distributed Mind

Conservatives and Environmentalism

It's interesting to see how conservatives deal with environmental issues. Take, for example, everyone's favorite dinner topic ,anthropogenic global warming.

As I recall, up until about ten years ago, no conservative would even admit there was any global warming, regardless of supposed cause. Eventually, that position became largely untenable, and most conservatives took to (1) merely denying anthropogenic global warming while (2) simultaneously pointing out that global warming wouldn't be all bad. Incidentally, denying anthropogenic global warming seems to have slipped more into denying conclusive evidence of anthropogenic global warming (attempting to take the intellectual high road). In addition, the claim has been added that it would be too expensive to prevent global warming and cheaper to fix later. (There's also the absolute last ditch argument that it's not the government's job to prevent environmental catastrophes, but... Well, need I say more?)

These arguments all have several things in common. The first is that these arguments didn't sound all that bad when they were first made (the actual quality of the arguments is a different story). The second is that they have steadily moved to agree more with the environmentalist position of the mid-1990s - momentum is almost exclusively in one direction on this issue. Based on those two properties, you might see that these arguments look suspiciously like rationalizations; that would be the third thing they all have in common.

Now, I'm not saying they are rationalizations, I'm saying they sound like rationalizations. Actually, I could go further and say I think that they are rationalizations. The problem is we can't say for certain they are - rational arguments based strictly on evidence but with a strongly skeptical perspective might look similar. Note I'm also not saying they are good arguments, just that I can't prove they're irrational.

Furthermore, I think if we looked at many other environmental issues we'd see a similar pattern. For all the complaints about economy-killing pollution regulation, for example, we seem to have survived somehow. Car emission and fuel standards, I think we can safely say, were not stringent enough - the conservatives blew that one big time. About the only issue environmentalists really look conclusively incorrect on was nuclear power, and even there there remain problems, just most of them will only really be an issue long after we're all dead. (There's also the DDT thing, but the word "conclusively" is not evoked by that debate, nor am I familiar enough with the details to even attempt to sound reasonable about it.)

What I'm trying to say with all of this is... It's true environmentalism makes bold claims. And it's true that those claims can't always be proven (which is not to say they are not rational). And it's even true those claims occasionally affect the way some people want to live their lives. But, environmentalism has a pretty good track record, and converesly the opposite is also true: anti-envrionmentalism has a bad track record (I bet a lot of people who have been opposed to gas milage standards could go back in time and change their position). But what really strikes me is that anti-environmentalism seems to be merely reactionary, not rational but rationalization. I can't prove it, but the history of its battles suggests it strongly.

Incidentally, it seems that conservative opposition to environmentalism is based largely on opposition to governmental regulation. This outweighs the desire to preserve that one would tend to expect out of people who do after all call themselves "conservatives" (and in other places and times that indeed would have been the case, I'm sure). People who take a cautious approach to resources which can't be readily replaced tend to view the environment as a public good and hence one that can be protected by the government. On the other hand people who take a cautious approach to laws which supposedly can't be readily repealed tend to view the environment as an issue of private property and hence something that should not be regulated by the government. The problem is we have to put up with the earth a lot longer than the laws. Governments that have lasted more than a few hundred years are rare (and at 220, we're getting up there), and laws that have lasted that long are even rarer. On the other hand, we're more than capable of inflicting envrionemental damage that last much longer than that, besides the immediate effects of pollution and such.

As a final gripe, I get really sick of people denouncing environmentalism because of Mother Earth-types and neo-pagans. I try not to evaluate all conservatives on the basis of Pat Robertson, and I'd like the same courtesy.

Alright that's mostly what I wanted to say. But, since I brought up global warming, and since it seems to be the topic du jour, let me add a few thoughts on that.

First, I agree, as everyone does, that anthropogenic global warming is not "proven" though we need to keep in mind that most things in science aren't "proven" per se. Of course, anthropogenic global warming isn't even up to the standard of a looser definition of proof like relativity or something like that; it's definitely something that requires going farther out on a limb than that. But, and I want to stress this, that doesn't make it irrational. It doesn't even make legislating on the basis of the theory irrational. Actually, probably the opposite is true.

Also, I don't want to claim that I "believe in" anthropogenic global warming. I don't "believe in" things in science. I just don't have reasons to doubt them. I'm not signing on to some doctrinal statement here. In fact, I would not be surprised if anthropogenic global warming turns out to be wrong. I've always given it worse odds than a lot of people. On the other hand, I sure ain't betting against it, both because I do believe (there's that word finally) in the general quality of physical scientists in the world and because of the potentially cataclysmic effects if they're right. I don't think, by the way, one should blindly believe scientists (and especially in some fields - not all disciplines are held to equal standards, but also given the ability of scientists to buy into weird theories) and I even realize that some scientists doubt anthropogenic global warming. But in so far as this is unfortunately an issue where it seems to be impossible to remain neutral - if only because policy decisions must be made - I'm going to go with the people who I know to be most credible. And I generally am inclined to trust climatologists more than New Gingrich, especially on something they specialize in. True, they could turn out to be wrong (which even they admit, I'm sure), but short of becoming a climatologist myself, I'm going to have to rely on their judgment to an extent.

Also, I think everyone needs to look deep into their intellectual soul and ask themselves why they think we ought to assume anthropogenic global warming is happening or not. I happen to think that a large portion of conservatives would have to admit, if they were really being honest, that they don't buy into the the idea largely because they don't like it's implications and not because they have any real basis for doubting it. At the same time, I'm sure that because of their initial bias some conservatives may have discovered interesting and good reasons to doubt global warming that they might not have seen if they hadn't been so skeptical. I'm not sure what to say to those people, other than they'll have to be patient with those of us who are still waiting for more climatologists to come around to their way of thinking.

Ironically, had conservatives just left the whole global warming thing alone in the '90s, there would have been no partisan backlash and they would probably have found it easier to promote skepticism now. If global warming really does become the religion they're accusing it of becoming (and in some ways they probably are correct with that complaint), a large part of the impetus for that will probably be traceable to their opposition. But isn't that always how politics works? (I suppose we could blame the 60s for modern conservatism, for example...)

And absolutely finally, a quick shot at all those arguments I brought up way back in the opening: Nearly everybody believes global warming is happening, so I don't need to address that (other than to say, sure, it's always a good thing to have a better understanding of the data, and it's not completely nailed down just how much warming is happening or even that it's 100% certain it is, though it seems to be pretty close to that). Obviously the arguments about the source of global warming are the crux of the whole thing, so I won't dealt with those. But global warming is not as far as I can tell a good thing. Oh sure, it's probably alright if you live in Montana, but if you live on a coast line it's pretty bad. Some bad predictions about agricultural impacts have also been made. The mere existence of this argument suggests both a large amount of ignorance about global warming and a certain provincialism. Next, I've already said a little about why denying conclusive evidence is not useful. That also has to do with the next argument, which is that global warming is too expensive. I've never actually heard a good argument for why fixing the problem is supposed to be so expensive (actually I've never heard any argument - it always just seems to be stated as a fact) but worse this argument seems to completely ignore the history of regulation to the small degree I am familiar with it (that is, regulation usually ends up costing way less than predicted and sometimes ends up actually causing higher profitability). But even if one were to buy into it, first, the potential economic effects are also large, but more importantly, the thing is you're staking a certain percentage of your economic growth against the fate of billions of people - it hardly seems a fair approach.

[Update, May 31: I was not entirely correct when I said I had not heard an argument for why global warming was supposed to be too expensive to fix. Bjorn Lomberg's Copenhagen Consensus had something to say about that.]

posted at 04:39:28 on 05/29/07 by ben - Category: Politics


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