Thursday, January 1, 2009

What is a Conservative?

When it comes to climate change, and to the environment generally, what does being a conservative mean?

It's resolution season, as well as the time for posting lists of predictions and top-10 retrospectives of the past year. The hard-working folks at Climate Progress posted their list of the top stories of 2008, and I'm going to quote in its entirety their #2 because it almost certainly will be a top story of the coming year as well:

Conservatives go all in on climate denial and delay. While the grim implications of the science and observational data discussed above have become painfully obvious to everyone else, conservatives simply refuse to accept reality. For instance, even though a very warm 2008 makes this the hottest decade in recorded history by far — and even though 2008 was about 0.1°C warmer than the decade of the 1990s as a whole (even with a La-NiƱa-fueled cool winter) for some deniers, “2008 was the year man-made global warming was disproved.” Seriously.

The entire conservative movement, including pundits, think tanks, and politicians, now appears willing to stake the future of humanity on their willful ignorance.

That’s why the deniers are winning, especially with GOP voters or rather only with GOP voters.

Doubtless there are conservatives who disagree with some or all of these positions, but broadly this is the position of the movement, embraced by most conservative leaders and promulgated endlessly in a passive and uncritical media. Politically, this position looks like a loser because a majority of voters both in the United States and worldwide think climate change is an urgent problem that needs immediate action. There are many writing now in the aftermath of the November elections about what is next for the conservative movement and its primary political embodiment, the Republicans. It makes for sometimes interesting reading, but it misses the point--policy must be the focus of any climate change discussion. For political reasons leaders may wish to argue policy on such things as flag burning, GLBT rights, stem cell research and the rest, where resultant policies do certainly affect people; however, climate change is a policy question of another kind--it affects the very existence of everyone on Earth, and for generations to follow. Climate change policy is too important to be treated as another football by the likes of Sen. Sensenbrenner, Inhofe and others for scoring political points.

Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security....

Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.

The politics of the conservative position rely on a willful rejection of science, of facts, and a whole-hearted and exultant embrace of ignorance. The result is an obstinacy couched as standing on principle; but what principle is it? Is it truly a conservative principle, or something else?

Conservatism used to stand for something altruistic and prudent and reflected in the root of the word--conserve what we have. Eschew grand schemes. Keep it small and simple. Conservatism doesn't suffer changes unless they are truly essential to preserve our health, our safety, or our prosperity. None of these broader ideals are evident in the conservative approach to climate change, which is little more than playing politics, using many parts of the standard political toolkit--misinformation (it's not a big deal!), fear peddling (we can't afford it!), faux patriotism (government action is socialism!), mendacity (climate change is unproven!), and especially the creation of strawmen (look how cold the weather is this winter!) and bogeymen (liberal elites!) to distract from real issues, real economics and real science. The public and the voters aren't buying this tired old charade so much anymore.

A real conservative principle would seek to preserve core societal values as embodied in our governing documents: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Instead, over time, the core conservative principle has become more one of preserving the status quo, and nowhere is this more clear than in the economic area. How is it a conservative principle to protect the right of environmental degradation by the coal or oil industries and externalize the costs on all of us? What conservative principle tolerates the destruction of public lands for private profit, using public subsidies and threatening the very viability of communities? Since when is it more conservative to subsidize private interests even at the expense of our national security?

Is it a conservative principle to oppose any change that creates costs for private interests? Sometimes it seems so, especially when the subject turns to taxes, against which conservatives endlessly inveigh. No one likes taxes of course, and government must not impose costs without very good reasons. Climate change is a good reason because it threatens something more important than profits (and yes, there are things more important.) Now, I don't wish to provoke an argument of political philosophy here about capitalism, free markets, taxes, the abject failure of laissez-faire economics, and so on, although such an argument needs a more vigorous and broad-based airing in the dominant media than it is getting.

The key point is, that if conservatives truly deplore and resist the creation of economic costs on people and businesses by government, then they should be in favor of action on climate change. Government inaction on climate change will impose substantially larger costs on all of us than would result from a fact-based, scientifically-informed proactive policy. There are ample current examples of how a failure to pay for an ounce of prevention has resulted in the need for a pound of cure: exhibit one is our ongoing financial system implosion and the cost of the Splurge. More costs will surely be borne by ourselves and our descendants before economic stability is restored. Shall we learn nothing from this? One lesson plain to me and to many many others is that a doctrinaire opposition to change is dangerously simplistic; we absolutely must not assume that doing less always means doing better.

Change, as I've said before, is more than a slogan, it's an unavoidable reality. If conservatism means a resistance to change, any change--unless it is one that facilitates a reversion to any earlier and presumably better age--then understanding the conservative principle at work here becomes suddenly simpler. The result of preventing any meaningful action to arrest climate change will be continued resource depletion, wealth destruction (for all but the depleters), an exponential increase in numbers of a landless and desperate underclass, and a corresponding explosion in the number of people no longer able to provide for themselves the very basics of survival.

These conditions represent the New Dark Ages and the triumph of political system based on class ownership--feudalism. Has conservatism become synonymous with atavism?

While history can be instructive it does not provide eternal solutions to our problems. The examples of Easter Island and the Mayans show the folly of ignoring reality. Conservatives and others need to discard unexamined shibboleths, and embrace needed changes so that we can preserve the values we all believe.

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