How to Win the Climate Change Debate

We’re playing Jenga with the conservative movement.

If you don’t know what Jenga is, it’s a game where little two-inch blocks are cross-stacked on each other, making a tower, and each turn players try to remove a block without causing the structure to collapse. A player loses when he remove the block that causes the tower to fall.

If liberalism were a Jenga game, the Democratic Party has added so many blocks that the tower is unstable at best. This is a welcomed change from 1950 when Lionel Trilling very famously wrote in "The Liberal Imagination" that "[i]n the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition."

Conservatives are lucky. Despite our recent intra-movement bickering, we have a strong, consistent, and viable philosophical tradition. We are a movement grounded in ideas; liberalism today is more or less just emotion. We, of course, used to be rather artificially divided — Adam Smith’s libertarian disciples vs. Edmund Burke’s traditionalist disciples. Thanks to Frank Meyer and other "fusionists," conservatives realized that in fact the ends of traditionalism and libertarianism were shared, and the resulting movement grew into an intellectual and political powerhouse, fueled by the minds of conservatives we all admire like William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater, and eventually articulated into practical policy that the average American can understand and relate to by Ronald Reagan.

In America, our movement is poised to gain strength and influence with simple understanding and adherence to the interdependent principles eloquently assembled by the men and women of our conservative heritage, on whose shoulders we must acknowledge we are standing. Burke, Nisbet, Babbitt, Kirk, Weaver, Eliot, Lewis, Smith, Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, Kendall, Meyer, Chambers, Goldwater, and Reagan: this is conservatism. Are we forgetting?

I don’t think so. However, I do believe that we imperil our movement if we cling to principles in our credo and proceed to neglect their practical application in certain policy circumstances. Today, conservatives still employ our principles, acknowledge their interdependence, and argue strong policy positions with this solid foundation. As well we should. But where our dogma is strikingly absent, indeed often flagrantly rejected by our own, is in the policy debate over climate change. Each of the five following principles are vital to our movement, each continues to exhibit itself in conservatism, each is interdependent in some way, and each is being systematically removed from our tower of intellectual tradition to justify inaction in dealing with climate change. I’ll avoid summarizing the mounting evidence supporting our anthropogenic interference with the global climate; I’ll avoid responding to the sprinkling of dissenting scientific views on the problem; and I’ll even avoid proposing conservative climate change policies. My aim here is to present a call the conservative conscience — that perhaps the movement shouldn’t be so seemingly hostile to confronting our changing climate, gainfully and productively, as conservatives.

1. Eternal Society

In the work most often recognized as the fons et origo of the conservative movement, Edmund Burke in "Reflections on the Revolution in France" observed that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Our obligation to recognize the intergenerational existence of man and society is indeed at the root of conservatives’ defense of everything from continuing the War on Terror to abolishing the estate tax to making Social Security solvent. It also implicates a sense of duty in the conservative conscious to steward the natural world in which future generation will live. Our societal partnership not only entails due diligence and a humble respect for the traditions, intellectual and otherwise, of generations past, but also must include precautionary action to ensure we do not vitiate the living conditions of generations to come.

2. Rejection of Secular Humanism

The conservative distaste for secular humanism should not be confused with conservative brands of humanism, like those offered by T.S. Eliot or Irving Babbitt. Rather, we oppose the substance of the "Humanist Manifesto" upon which penned is John Dewey’s signature — that ossified post-Enlightenment “calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness” which catalyzed in the West a trend of “worshipping man and his material needs,” as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said to Harvard graduates in 1978. Here, science is the only language of truth. Conservatives value a sober acquiescence to the “moral ought,” and are pious toward creation — man and nature. Conservatives reject the religion of science, just like we reject misanthropic nature-worshipping religions. The implication for climate change is that conservatives cannot rely solely on science to quell “uncertainties” or on future technologies to clean that which we soil today. Conservatives are compelled to approach the question of how best to steward our world with a modest reverence toward what we were given — regardless of shades of scientific uncertainly. As Russell Kirk wrote “there is nothing more conservative than conservation.”

3. Free Market

I often worry that conservatives confuse favoring the free market with favoring business. Perhaps the distinction would be inconsequential if business actually lobbied for free-market reforms, but that is not always the case. Business today is often a well-endowed driver of protectionist trade-barriers and government hand-outs. (Cotton is surely not grown in Arizona because market pressures.) Conservatives’ embrace of free enterprise isn’t even grounded in the resulting prosperity of a free system. Such reasoning would in fact counter conservatives’ disdain of materialism and the “soulless corporation,” to again borrow from Professor Kirk. Rather, the free market is a venue for individuals to exercise freedom with minimal government interference. That freedom should only be limited when it may impede the freedoms of others, as is the case when the market itself cannot value the negative societal externalities of trade, such as traffic congestion or pollution. Even Milton Friedman acknowledged a proper place for the government in internalizing negative externalities or “neighborhood effects.” The conservative recognizes the societal cost of greenhouse gas emissions, and should focus on the most efficient way to determine and then internalize their price. Command and control regulation is the liberal way, not our way.

4 & 5. Prudence & Responsibility

From Aristotle to Burke to Kirk, prudence is the most important political virtue. Requisite to the conservative’s belief in minimal government interference above that required to sustain tradition and maintain order is faith in the prudential judgments of individuals and business. Without state encouragement of prudent society, conservatism’s emphasis on the freedom of men would seem foolish and even dangerous. Responsibility is basically the civic aspect of prudence; both are corollaries to freedom. Since Aristotle and Aquinas, the rocks at the foundation of the conservative movement have argued that men must take consequences into account when making a choice, so an understanding of the responsibility to accept these consequences is a necessary part of prudential judgment. Freedom doesn’t work without responsibility and prudence, and because hardly all large emitters of greenhouse gases are good corporate citizens like DuPont, the conservative must here envision a proper role for the state. Where is the conservative discussion of the climactic consequences of U.S. inaction in limiting warming gases?

In Jenga, the only way avoid losing is to not play. Yet we have no choice but to roll the dice, day after day with climate change, to borrow an analogy from Steven Schneider. We have an inspiring and powerful intellectual heritage — the five principles above undergird our movement but do not in themselves define it completely. The integrity of our movement depends on engaging with United States policy on climate change. It’s all too rare to see conservative thought applied to climate change — and the problem is effectively being left to liberals to dominate. I hope that conservatives learn to view climate change through the lens of our principles, not through the distorted smokescreen put up by industry and doubters that call themselves “conservative.” George Will once wrote that environmentalism is a “green tree with red roots”; it’s about time conservatives reflect on our principles and nourish the green tree — with red-state roots.

How long can conservatism stand if we continue to play Jenga with our movement by conveniently ignoring our principles and playing dead on an issue that’s increasingly peppering the media landscape? I don’t know, but what’s certain is that conservatives can make climate change our issue if we just hold steadfast to what makes us conservatives — and act on it.