Do conservatives have a predisposed hostility towards environmental concerns?

With their preference for order, regard for their ancestors’ accomplishments, and instinctive revulsion towards Rousseauian notions of natural perfection, traditionalists recoil against what Pascal Bruckner called the environmentalist left’s “numberless Cassandras…[who] do not intend to warn so much as to condemn us,” while anointing the planet as the “new proletariat” that must be saved.

Yet when considered rationally, environmental issues actually call upon core conservative principles.

In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, philosopher Roger Scruton asserts that pollution and habitat destruction engage “a fundamental moral idea to which conservatives attach great importance: the idea that those responsible for damage should also repair it.” Conservatives oppose externalization of the costs of poor sexual and financial decisions, and likewise should resent their descendants being burdened with someone else’s environmental mess.

Nevertheless there has been a great effort to politicize the environmental issue and convince conservatives there is no real “mess” in the first place. Potential environmental problems raised by scientists are nearly always presented to the public by environmentalist organizations. The right, led by business interests, reacts. Industry-funded experts focus on refuting or blunting the environmentalist message. The same commentators who accuse scientists of exaggerating the dangers of climate change in order to keep research money flowing ostensibly place more confidence in the positions of industry-backed messengers who make arguments that keep their own own money flowing. Whether the accusation of exaggeration reflects partisanship, cynicism, or projection, it’s been very effective at thwarting responsible debate on the right and hardening the liberal conviction that conservatives are anti-science philistines.

This hasn’t always been the case. As historian Patrick Allitt points out in A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, Republicans and Democrats worked together in the 1960s and 1970s to pass sweeping environmental legislation. Allitt writes: “Between 1969 and 1973, in a sustained burst of bipartisan cooperation, they transformed the politics of the environment more drastically than at any time before or since.”

Although President Richard Nixon had shown no interest in environmental issues prior to taking office, political realities forced him to support the National Environmental Policy Act and create a presidential Council on Environmental Quality. Voters needed no scientific explanation of what they’d seen and smelled for decades. Smog killed some 300 people in New York City in 1963. Angelenos lost their beloved mountain views to sickening yellow clouds, while the U.S. Public Health Service classified the hundred-mile stretch of the Trinity River below Dallas as “septic.” Lake Erie, long defiled by raw sewage and agricultural runoff, suffered huge fish kills. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River became an apocalyptic symbol of the times when it caught fire for the ninth time in recent decades.

The EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, took on entrenched industrial powers through a series of high-profile lawsuits. By the time Ruckelshaus banned DDT during in his second year in office, there could be no question as to the EPA’s power and commitment.  

Allitt summarizes the American environmental outlook of the 1970s:

Between Earth Day and 1980, Congress passed twenty-eight major environmental laws, a testament to the breadth and depth of public interest in the issue. The laws stipulated improvements to air and water quality, acted to rescue endangered species and their habitat, abolished the use of lead in gasoline, restricted pesticides, created the “Superfund” to clean up severely polluted chemical waste dumps, and set aside more land for national Parks, forests, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. An unusually high degree of bipartisanship in Congress testified to Democrats’ and Republicans’ shared perception that such legislation was popular with their constituents.

Yet by the mid-1970s, old fissures in the bipartisan front were widening into ugly cracks. Veteran environmentalists couldn’t forget the chemical industry’s attacks on Rachel Carson and her 1962 publication of Silent Spring, which detailed for the first time the ecological dangers of broad, heavy DDT use. Although she made no direct case for a general ban on synthetic pesticides, including DDT, smears of  “communist sympathizer” and “hysterical spinster” followed Carson to an early death from cancer in 1964.

The Reagan Revolution, characterized by the spirit of cutting taxes and regulations, shattered what remained of the alliance. In A Climate of Crises, Allitt distinguishes between “counter-environmentalists,” who generally support environmental protection while opposing certain tactics of environmental organizations, and “anti-environmentalists,” who see environmental protection as unneeded if not malign. James Watt, Reagan’s bellicose secretary of the interior, stood firmly in the latter camp. By the time Reagan replaced Watt with William Clark, the damage had been done. The bitterness that arose from Watt’s moratorium on the creation of national parks, his closing of the regulatory Office of Surface Mining, and the vast increase in leasing of public land for new strip mines remains today.

Around the same time, the environmentalist left deepened distrust with its attacks on Christianity and capitalism and its enthusiastic embrace of abortion. University of California professor Garrett Hardin, whose famous vision of “the tragedy of the commons” is selectively used by both right and left, argued that Adam Smith’s theory, that rational self-interest is the surest means to general prosperity, had outlived its usefulness. Self-interested actors, Hardin argued, discount the collective harm caused by their actions. The solution? “Mutual coercion, mutually agreed on.”

Thanks to alarms raised by scientists, most people in the West enjoy cleaner air and water than did their grandparents. Yet environmentalist overstatement has further eroded trust and goodwill. In The Population Bomb (1968), Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich warned that without drastic population reduction, the world would suffer unprecedented starvation and ecological destruction. The media amplified his message. Like Thomas Malthus before him, who couldn’t have predicted the Industrial Revolution, Ehrlich didn’t anticipate advances in agricultural technology that brought us soaring global food production.

Consequently, conservatives have yelled “Chicken Little” for decades, even when presented with reasonable concerns. Disaster hasn’t happened (to us anyway), therefore it won’t. On the other hand, totalitarian calls for the prosecution of “climate deniers” who “knowingly” defy scientific consensus only offend conservatives who might otherwise be open to measured argument.

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, evangelical Christian, and co-author, along with her husband Andrew Farley, of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions (2011). Despite savage attacks from right-wing partisans, she displays little bitterness. When I spoke with her at her office on the Texas Tech University campus about why conservatives are eager to join the political bandwagon against environmentalism, she said, “We look to politicians and to those in the media whom we trust to share our values. If we share their values on issues of abortion, taxation, or immigration, why wouldn’t we agree with them on the issue of climate change?”

Indeed, a firm position on climate change serves as one more item on the political litmus test—for both sides. Figure out where one stands on climate change and you can probably figure out where he stands on any other social or fiscal issue, too.

Yes, many on the left seem all too eager to use climate change as an egalitarian cudgel. That doesn’t absolve conservatives of their responsibility to consider the best available data, such as the Fifth Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in 2014.  

The Global Assessment is a consensus document, perhaps the most scrutinized scientific report in history. Produced by more than 800 contributors, including many of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, it reflects broad agreement on the reality of anthropogenic global warming. Yet there remains a wide range of opinion as to the likely consequences—from quite manageable temperature changes and sea level increases to inundated cities, vast desertification, and mass extinctions.

Any sound conservative approach must acknowledge that stewardship—honoring the Burkean contract between the living, dead, and unborn—includes culture and economy as well as the environment. Nations with robust economies are more resilient and better able to cope with environmental problems. While the global poor are most vulnerable to climate change, economic calamity poses a more immediate threat. Wealth must exist before it can be used to ameliorate humanity’s worst problems. Weakened industrial nations are less willing and able to develop and share clean technology with poor countries where smoke inhalation, filthy drinking water, and lack of medical care are currently more pressing than climate change.

Yet conservatives must admit that disbelief in utopia implies a belief in limits, including limits to the earth’s carrying capacity, the atmosphere’s ability to absorb pollutants, and what we can know and foresee. The profoundly conservative words of Aldo Leopold, the great hunter, forester, and naturalist, should resonate with the Burkean sensibility: “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

If, as Roger Scruton asserts, those responsible for damage should repair it, we must price carbon emissions. A cap-and-trade scheme, the basis of the ineffective Kyoto Treaty, places most of the burden on producers, not those most responsible for damage—consumers. Carbon taxation seems more prudent, either a Pigovian model in which tax revenue funds development of clean energy production, geoengineering, and other adaptive technologies—a revenue-neutral system, ably described by Andrew Moylan (TAC, Sept./Oct. 2013)—or a “fee and dividend” system supported by some climate advocates, including NASA’s James Hansen.

Imperfections shouldn’t dissuade conservatives, of all people. There’s no denying vulnerabilities in a system in which a tax on destructive activity funds desirable enterprise. An approach that raises money to be returned to taxpayers invites pilfering by a government running a high deficit. While a revenue-neutral model, which substitutes carbon taxation for perceived onerous environmental regulations, is truest to free market principles, we should be extremely cautious about dismantling regulations that have been very effective. In A Climate of Crisis, Allitt writes, “Whatever the merits [of] arguments in the abstract, the historical record shows clearly enough that many manufacturers polluted the air and water until they were forbidden to do so, at which time they stopped.”

Presently, we can’t acutely price carbon emissions because we can’t predict future economic impacts. Still, prudence requires that we do our best and adjust as we learn. Otherwise, from an emissions standpoint, our economy has no corrective feedback between greenhouse gas output and price. Literally, we’re running open-loop. We face similar challenges in pricing the loss of ecosystem function due to habitat destruction.

Policies that remove all tax burden from income earned by zero-emission energy producers—solar, wind, nuclear—seem likely to encourage innovation. But we can ill-afford to ignore carbon emissions until self-sustaining clean technologies meet most or all of our energy needs.

Beyond utilitarian concerns, humane conservatism must encompass awe, love of natural beauty, and deep respect for nonhuman life. Some things transcend markets.

So while the left dreams of earthly redemption and transformation, conservatives should engage the issues honestly, free of ideology, and develop prudent measures to conserve and restore the healthy economy, culture, and, yes, environment we hope to bequeath.

Henry Chappell’s latest novel is Silent We Stood. He lives in Parker, Texas.