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Why are conservatives so radical about the climate?

One interesting fact heading into the mid-term elections: Almost none of the GOP Senate candidates seem to believe in the idea that humans are heating the planet. A few hedge their bets—John McCain says he’s no longer sure if global warming is “man-made or natural.” (In 2004, he told me: “The race is on. Are we going to have significant climate change and all its consequences, or are we going to try to do something early on?”) Most are more plainspoken. Marco Rubio,  for instance, attacks his opponent Charlie Crist as “a believer in man-made global warming,” explaining, “I don’t think there’s the scientific evidence to justify it. The climate is always changing.” The most likely cause of that change, according to Ron Johnson, who is leading the Senate race in Wisconsin: “It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity.”

The political implications are clear. Climate legislation didn’t pass the current Congress, and it won’t have a prayer in the next one. If the Republicans take the Senate, James Inhofe has said that the Environment and Public Works Committee will “stop wasting all of our time on all that silly stuff, all the hearings on global warming.” And in the House, Representative Darrell Issa says that he would turn his Oversight and Government Reform Committee over to the eleventeenth investigation of Climategate, the British e-mail scandal. But, for the moment, it’s less the legislative fallout that interests me than what this denial of climate change says about modern conservatism. On what is quite possibly the single biggest issue the planet has faced, American conservatism has reached a near-unanimous position, and that position is: pay no attention to all those scientists.

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The few exceptions prove the rule. Ronald Bailey, the science writer at Reason, converted a few years ago to belief in global warming and called for a carbon tax. His fellow libertarians weren’t impressed: Fred Smith, the head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, suggested that Bailey had been “worn down by his years on the lecture circuit.” Jim Manzi, a software exec and contributing editor at National Review, wrote a piece asking conservatives to stop denying the science. Even though he’s also downplayed the risks of warming, it was enough to earn a brushback pitch from Rush Limbaugh: “Wrong! More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not likely to significantly contribute to the greenhouse effect. It’s just all part of the hoax.” For the most part, even Manzi and Bailey’s own colleagues pay them no mind: National Review maintains a Planet Gore blog devoted to—well, three guesses.

In any event, the occasional magazine column has had no impact at all. Only 10 percent of Republicans think that global warming is very serious, according to recent data. Conservative opinion has been steadily hardening—for decades Republicans were part of the coalition on almost every environmental issue, but now it’s positively weird to think that as late as 2004, McCain thought it would make sense for a GOP presidential candidate to position himself as a fighter for climate legislation. And all of that is troubling. Because we’re going to be dealing with climate change for a very long time, and if one of the great schools of political thought in this country has checked out completely, that process is going to be even harder. I don’t have any expectation that conservatives will mute their tune between now and November—but it is worth thinking in some depth about what lies beneath this newly overwhelming sentiment.

One crude answer is money. The fossilfuel industry has deep wells of it—no business in history has been as profitable as finding, refining, and combusting coal, oil, and gas. Six of the ten largest companies on earth are in the fossil-fuel business. Those companies have spent some small part of their wealth in recent years to underwrite climate change denialism: Jane Mayer’s excellent New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers is just the latest and best of a string of such exposés dating back to Ross Gelbspan’s 1997 book The Heat Is On. But while oil and coal contributions track remarkably close to political alignment for many senators, they are not the only explanation. Money only exerts political influence if it can be connected to some ideological stance—even Inhofe won’t stand up and say, “I think global warming is a hoax because my campaign treasurer told me to.” In fact, some conservatives have begun to question endless fossil-fuel subsidies—since we’ve known how to burn coal for hundreds of years, it’s not clear why the industry needs government help.

Another easy answer would be: Conservatives possess some new information about climate science. That would sure be nice—but sadly, it’s wrong. It’s the same tiny bunch of skeptics being quoted by right-wing blogs. None are doing new research that casts the slightest doubt on the scientific consensus that’s been forming for two decades, a set of conclusions that grows more robust with every issue of Science and Nature and each new temperature record. The best of the contrarian partisans is Marc Morano, whose Climate Depot is an environmental Drudge Report: updates on Al Gore’s vacation homes, links to an op-ed from some right-wing British tabloid, news that a Colorado ski resort is opening earlier than planned because of a snowstorm. Morano and his colleagues deserve their chortles—they’re winning, and doing it with skill and brio—but not because the science is shifting.

No, something else is causing people to fly into a rage about climate. Read the comments on one of the representative websites: Global warming is a “fraud” or a “plot.” Scientists are liars out to line their pockets with government grants. Environmentalism is nothing but a money-spinning “scam.” These people aren’t reading the science and thinking, I have some questions about this. They’re convinced of a massive conspiracy.

The odd and troubling thing about this stance is not just that it prevents action. It’s also profoundly unconservative. If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.


Trying to figure out what is happening in the conservative movement requires more than just recording inanity. John Raese, who is leading the Senate race in West Virginia and who says proudly that he was “a tea partier before the Tea Party existed,” recently declared that “one volcano puts out more carbon dioxide than everything that man puts out.” This doesn’t tell you anything about volcanoes. (Actually, humans emit about one hundred times more carbon than volcanoes.) It tells you that, buried beneath the nonsense, there’s a powerful structure of argument, one that needs to be taken seriously.

Part of the conservative creed has always been that markets, left to themselves, accomplish most tasks more efficiently than government regulation. That’s true, of course, just as it’s true that markets don’t do everything you want. (That’s why we have cheap deregulated airlines and yet retain the Federal Aviation Administration.) But conservatives have grown more insistent on the deification of markets in recent years; Rand Paul is ever less an outlier. If markets do damage, that’s okay—it’s creative destruction à la Schumpeter.

But even if you accept that process absolutely within the economic sphere (and very few of us do, which is why Rand Paul just might lose), it doesn’t follow that it works outside of it. Destruction of the planet’s fundamental physical systems isn’t creative—it’s just destruction. If Microsoft disappears, innovators will take its place. If Arctic ice disappears, no young John Galt is going to remake it in his garage. The essential question is: Is the environment a subset of the economy, or is it the other way around? Or, more combatively, you really think you can out-argue physics? Hayek’s good, but atmospheric chemistry is a tough opponent.

If conservatives acknowledged the crisis, they could make a powerful contribution to the solution. One option for tackling global warming is for the government to regulate just about everything. Or, we could limit government’s role to simply imposing a price on fossil fuel that reflects the damage it does. This wouldn’t even need to be a traditional tax: One proposal gaining ground is to take every dollar produced by such a levy and rebate it to each citizen, using government as a kind of pass-through. You’d get the signal from your electric bill to start insulating, and the numbers on the gas pump would urge you in the direction of a hybrid car, but most people would come out ahead. It’s a plan designed with real deference to a conservative understanding of human nature.

Instead of that kind of debate, though, most of the movement has decided to describe any regulation of carbon as eco-fascism. (Recently, for instance, a British green group released a purportedly tongue-in-cheek video in which environmentalists blow up people who don’t believe in global warming. According to some right-wing websites, the video wasn’t merely a vile political stunt but a preview of impending government policy.) As Christine O’Donnell put it in her attack on the nanny state, “You’re not the boss of me.” But here’s the thing: Carbon dioxide mixes easily and freely in the atmosphere. If the climate change you caused followed you around like Pigpen’s cloud, then no problem. But it doesn’t—your Navigator drowns Bangladeshis. Given the magnitude of the changes now underway, and the way they will foreclose individual choices unto the generations, it’s possible to argue that this is the greatest attack on freedom we’ve ever witnessed.

In response, there’s a kind of right-wing nationalism that demands we take no action until China, India, and the rest have played their part. But that doesn’t even make mathematical sense—China’s per capita emissions are one-quarter of ours. If leadership in the world means anything, then that imposes certain burdens on us. But it feels like resentment is becoming the leitmotif of conservatism, in a way that makes it ever more cramped and ever less noble. In this worldview, environmentalists are seen as scolds or even traitors. A recent poll asked right-wing bloggers to name the worst people in American history. President Obama came in second. The victor? Jimmy Carter, ten spots ahead of John Wilkes Booth (Al Gore was thirteenth, tied with Al Sharpton, Noam Chomsky, Jane Fonda, and Harry Reid). If Jimmy Carter was the worst guy the country ever produced, we’re doing pretty well—but surely it was his nagging reminders that there were limits to our national power that account for his ranking. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an embarrassed piece earlier this fall about the failure of conservatives to take climate change seriously—it was the ’70s, “a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms,” that turned many of them off, he concluded. That’s not much of an argument—it’s like saying “conservatives mostly got it wrong on civil rights, so let’s never listen to them again about liberty and freedom.”


I hold out no particular hope that anyone in the conservative movement will listen to me. But I do hold out some hope that, over time, the conservative intellectual tradition will come to grips with climate change.

There are already parts of the generally conservative body politic that have begun to get the message. Our religious institutions, for instance, which send hundreds of thousands of Americans overseas every year to do relief and mission work. Those good-hearted people are starting to understand that development can’t happen in a world wracked by increasing climatic chaos. The leaders of many evangelical seminaries and some of the country’s largest churches have signed a letter calling for action on global warming with “moral passion and concrete action” and explaining that “Christians must care about climate change because we are called to love our neighbors.”

The military has also started to pay close attention. Earlier this year, the Quadrennial Defense Review noted that climate change could “act as an accelerant of instability or conflict.” The authors were looking ahead to destabilizing events similar to this year’s flood on the Indus—the sharpest blow that Pakistan has suffered in years (which is saying something) and precisely the kind of catastrophe every climate model predicts will become more common in a warmer, wetter world.

What missionaries and militaries have in common is that they have to deal with reality. In fact, that was always the trump card of conservatism: It refused to indulge in sentimentality and idealism, insisting on seeing the world as it was. But, at the moment, it’s the right that is indulging in illusion, insisting, fists balled up and face turning red, that the reports from scientists simply can’t be true.

I understand why those reports are bad news. Dealing with climate change really will be the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. (Too many progressives are clinging to their own illusion that we can simply rip the internal combustion engine out of our economy, toss in a windmill, and carry on as before.) The only thing harder than dealing with it will be not dealing with it and inheriting a world radically changed.

Conservatives in much of the rest of the world have figured this out. The new Tory government in England is doing at least as much as its Labour predecessors; in Germany, Angela Merkel is presiding over one of the greatest renewable-energy buildouts ever. And eventually, I imagine, American conservatism, too, will come around and make its vital contributions to the task of figuring out what needs to be done to protect the civilization we should cherish. But we don’t have until eventually. We have, the scientists say, a very short time to make very big changes. So let’s hope the fever passes quickly.

In the meantime, many of us are rolling up our sleeves and getting down to work. On October 10, in thousands of communities around the country, we’re holding a Global Work Party to put up solar panels and dig community gardens and lay out bike paths. We don’t think we can stop climate change this way—that will take action to reset the price of carbon. But we do think we can show the way. Not with a Tea Party, but with a work party. Which, in a different era, would have appealed to conservatives above all.

Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and founder of His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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