Conservatism and Climate Science

Objections to liberal environmental orthodoxy have less to do with the specifics of the research or the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry than with fundamental questions about hubris and democratic values.

It is not news to say that climate change has become the most protracted science and policy controversy of all time. If one dates the beginning of climate change as a top tier public issue from the Congressional hearings and media attention during the summer of 1988, shortly after which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was set in motion with virtually unanimous international participation, it is hard to think of another policy issue that has gone on for a generation with the arguments—and the policy strategy—essentially unchanged as if stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, and with so little progress being made relative to the goals and scale of the problem as set out. Even other areas of persistent scientific and policy controversy—such as chemical risk and genetically modified organisms—generally show some movement toward consensus or policy equilibrium out of which progress is made.

There has always been ideological and interest group division about environmental issues, but the issue of climate change has become a matter of straight partisan division, with Republicans now almost unanimously hostile to the climate science community and opposed to all proposed greenhouse gas emissions regulation. Beyond climate, Republicans have become almost wholly disengaged from the entire domain of environmental issues.

This represents a new situation. Even amidst contentious arguments in the past, major environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1990 passed with ample bipartisan majorities. Not only did the first Bush Administration engage the issue of climate change in a serious way, as recently as a decade ago leading Republicans, including two who became presidential nominees, were proposing active climate policies of various kinds (John McCain in the Senate, and Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts).

It is tempting to view this divide as another casualty of the deepening partisanship occurring almost across the board in recent years, which has seen formerly routine compromises over passing budgets become fights to the death. This kind of partisan polarization is fatal to policy change in almost every area, as the protracted fight over the Affordable Care Act shows.

Yet the increasing partisan divide about nearly everything should prompt more skepticism about a popular narrative said to explain conservative resistance to engaging climate change: that conservatives—or at least the Republican political class—have become “anti-science.” As a popular book title has it, there is a Republican “war” on science, but science has little to do with the partisan divisions over issues such as health care reform, education policy, labor rules, or tax rates. And if one wants to make the politicization of science primarily a matter of partisan calculation, a full balance sheet shows numerous instances of liberals—and Democratic administrations—disregarding solid scientific findings that contradict their policy preferences, or cutting funding for certain kinds of scientific research. Examples include the way many prominent liberals exhibit blanket opposition to genetically modified organisms, some childhood vaccines, or, to pick a narrow case, how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored recommendations of its own science advisory board on endangered species controversies. A closer look at what drives liberal attitudes about some of these controversies will find that their reasons are similar or identical to the reasons conservatives are critical of policy-relevant science in climate and other domains—neither side is very compelled by science that contradicts strongly held views about how politics and policies ought to be carried out. In other words, the ideological argument over science today merely replicates many of the other arguments between left and right today based on long-standing philosophical premises or principles.

Drawing back to a longer time horizon, one discovers the counter-narrative reality that government funding for science research often grew faster under Republican than Democratic administrations. Ronald Reagan, for example, supported the large appropriation for the super-conducting supercollider; Bill Clinton cancelled the project for fiscal reasons. George W. Bush committed the U.S. to joining the international ITER consortium to pursue fusion energy, but the new Democratic Congress of 2007-2008 refused to appropriate the U.S. pledge.

President Obama lent some credence to the popular narrative with the brief line in his first inaugural address that “We will restore science to its rightful place.” Rather than write off this comment as a partisan shot at the outgoing Bush administration, we should take up the implicit challenge of thinking anew about what is the “rightful” place of science in a democracy. So let me step back from climate for a moment to consider some of the serious reservations or criticisms conservatives have about science generally, and especially science combined with political power. My aim here is both to help provide a fresh understanding of the sources of the current impasse, and to suggest how the outline of a conservative climate policy might come into view—albeit a policy framework that would be unacceptably weak to the environmental establishment.

Modern science and its discontents

The conservative ambivalence or hostility toward the intersection of science and policy can be broken down into three interconnected parts: theoretical, practical, and political. I begin by taking a brief tour through these three dimensions, for they help explain why appeals to scientific authority or “consensus” are guaranteed to be effective means of alienating conservatives and spurring their opposition to most climate initiatives. At the root of many controversies today, going far beyond climate change, are starkly different perspectives between left and right about the nature and meaning of reason and the place of science.

From the earliest days of the scientific revolution dating back to the Enlightenment, conservatives (and many liberals, too) were skeptical of the claims of science to superior authority based on cracking the code of complete objectivity. Keep in mind that prior to the modern scientific revolution, “science” comprised both material and immaterial aspects of reality, which is why “natural philosophy” and “moral science” were regarded as equivalent branches of human knowledge. The special, or as we might nowadays say the “privileged” dignity of the physical or natural sciences, the view that only scientific knowledge is real knowledge, was unknown. Today science is the most powerful idea in modern life, and it does not easily accommodate or respect “nonscientific” perspectives. This collective confidence can be observed most starkly in the benign condescension with which the “hard” sciences regard social science and the humanities in most universities (and the almost pathetic fervor with which some social science fields seek to show that they really are as quantitative and thus inaccessible to non-expert understanding as physics).

Even if the once grand ambition of working out a theory of complete causation for everything is no longer seriously maintained by most scientists, the original claim of scientific pre-eminence, best expressed in Francis Bacon’s famous phrase about the use of science “for the relief of man’s estate”—that is, for the exercise of control over nature—remains firmly planted. And even if we doubt that scientific completeness can ever be achieved in the real world, the residual confidence in the scientific command and control of the behavior of matter nonetheless implies that the command and control of human behavior is the legitimate domain of science.

The scientific problem deepened with the rise of social science in the 19th century, and especially the idea that what is real in the world can be cleanly separated from our beliefs about how the world should be—the infamous fact-value distinction. The conservative objection to the fact-value distinction was based not merely on the depreciation of moral argument, but more on the implied insistence that the freedom of the human mind was a primitive idea to be overcome by science. B.F. Skinner’s crude behaviorism of 50 years ago has seen the beginnings of a revival in the current interest in neuroscience (and behavioral economics), which may also portend a revival of a much more sophisticated updating of the Skinnerian vision of therapeutic government. If we really do succeed in unlocking as never before the secrets of how brain activity influences behavior, moral sentiments, and even cognition itself, will the call for active modification against “anti-social” behavior be far behind?

But even well short of that old prospect, one of the most basic problems of social science, from a conservative point of view (though many liberals will acknowledge this point) is that despite its claims to scientific objectivity, it cannot escape a priori “value judgments” about what questions and desired outcomes are the most salient. This turns out to be the Achilles heel of all social science, which tries to conduct itself with the same confidence and sophistication as the physical sciences, but which in the end cannot escape the fact that its enterprise is indeed “social.” We can really see this social dimension at work in the “climate enterprise”—my shorthand term for the two sides, science and policy, of the climate change problem. The climate enterprise is the largest crossroads of physical and social science ever contemplated.

The social science side of climate policy vividly displays the problem of fundamental disagreement over “normative” questions. Although we can apply rigorous economic analysis to energy forecasts and emission control pathways, the arguments over proper discount rates and the relative weight of the tradeoff between economic growth and emissions constraint cannot be resolved objectively, that is to say, scientifically. Climate action advocates are right to press the issue of intergenerational equity, but like “sustainability,” a working definition or meaningful framework for guiding policy is nearly impossible to settle. The ferocious conflicts over assessment of proposed climate policy should serve as a healthy reminder that while the traditional physical sciences can tell us what is, they cannot tell us what to do.

This is only one of the reasons why the descent from the theoretical to the practical level leads conservatives to have doubts about the reach and ambition of supposedly science-grounded policies in just about every area, let alone climate change. In environmental science and policy, environmentalists like to emphasize the interconnectedness of everything, the crude popular version of which is the “butterfly effect,” where a butterfly beating its wings in Asia results in a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Conservatives don’t disagree with the interconnectedness of things. Quite the opposite; the interconnectedness of phenomena is in many ways a core conservative insight, as any reader of Edmund Burke will perceive. But drawing from Burke, conservatives doubt you can ever understand all the relevant linkages correctly or fully, and especially in the policy responses put forth that emphasize the combination of centralized knowledge with centralized power. In its highest and most serious form, this skepticism flows not from the style of monkey-trial ignorance or superstition associated with Inherit the Wind, but from the cognitive or epistemological limitations of human knowledge and action associated with philosophers like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper (among others), which tells us that knowledge is always partial and contingent and subject to correction, all the more so as we move from the particular and local to the general and global.

Thus, the basic practical defect of scientific administration is the “synoptic fallacy” that we can command enough information and make decisions about resources and social phenomena effectively enough to achieve our initial goals. Conservative skepticism is less about science per se than its claims to usefulness in the policy realm. This skepticism combines with the older liberal view—that is, the view that values individual freedoms above all else—that the concentration of discretionary political power required for nearly all schemes of comprehensive social or economic management are a priori suspect. Today that older liberal view is the core of political conservatism. Put more simply or directly, the conservative distrust of authority based on claims of superior scientific knowledge reflects a distrust of the motives of those who make such claims, and thus a mistrust of the validity of the claims themselves.

This practical policy difficulty might be overcome or compromised, as has happened occasionally in the past, if it weren’t for how the politics of science currently fall out today. In a sentence, the American scientific community—or at least certain vocal parts of it—is susceptible to the charge that it has become an ideological faction. Put more directly, it seems many scientists have chosen partisan sides. Some scientists are quite open about their leftward orientation. In 2004, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote a shocking admission in the New York Review of Books: “Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time.” (With political judgment this bad, is it any wonder there might be doubts about the policy prescriptions of scientists?) MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, a Republican, but as mainstream as they come in climate science (Al Gore referenced his work, and in one of his books Emanuel refers to Sen. James Inhofe as a “scientific illiterate” and climate skeptics as les refusards), offers this warning to his field: “Scientists are most effective when they provide sound, impartial advice, but their reputation for impartiality is severely compromised by the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures. Until this profound and well-documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank.”

This partisan tilt—real or exaggerated—among the scientific establishment aggravates a general problem that afflicts nearly all domains of policy these days, namely, the way in which policy is distorted by special interests and advocacy groups in the political process. Hence we end up with energy policies favoring politically connected insiders (such as federal loan guarantees for the now-bankrupt Solyndra solar technology company) or subsidizing technologies (currently wind, solar, and ethanol) that are radically defective or incommensurate with the scale of the climate problem they are intended to remedy. The loop-holes, exceptions, and massive sector subsidies (especially to coal) of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill of 2009 rendered the bill a farce even on its own modest terms and should have appalled liberals and environmentalists as much as conservatives.

Here the political naiveté of scientists does their cause a disservice with everyone; the energy policy of both political parties since the first energy shocks of the 1970s has been essentially a frivolous farce of special interest favoritism and wishful thinking, with little coherence and even less long-term care for the kind of genuine energy innovation necessary to address prospective climate change on the extreme range of the long-run projections.

Is “conservative climate policy” an oxymoron?

To be sure, few or no Republican office holders are able to articulate this outlook with deep intellectual coherence, but then neither are most liberals capable of expressing their zealous egalitarian sentiments with the rigor of, say, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. And this should not excuse the near complete Republican negligence on the whole range of environmental issues. But even if social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is correct (and I think he is) that liberals and conservatives emotionally perceive and respond to issues from deep-seated instincts rather than carefully reasoned dialectics, the divisions among us are susceptible to some rational understanding. Can the fundamental differences be harmonized or compromised?

The first point to grasp is that conservatives—or least the currently dominant libertarian strain of the right—ironically have a more open-ended outlook toward the future than contemporary liberals. The point here is not to sneak in climate skepticism, but policy skepticism, as the future is certain to unfold in unforeseen ways, with seemingly spontaneous and disruptive changes occurring outside the view or prior command of our political class. One current example is the fracking revolution in natural gas, which is significantly responsible for U.S. per capita carbon dioxide emissions falling to their lowest level in nearly 20 years. No one, including the gas industry itself, foresaw this coming even as recently as a decade ago. (And if the political class in Washington had seen it coming, it likely would have tried to stop it; many environmentalists are deeply ambivalent about fracking at the moment.) And one key point is that the fracking revolution occurred overwhelmingly in the absence of any national policy prescription. The bad news, from a conventional environmental point of view, is the fracking revolution, now extending to oil, is just beginning. It has decades to run, in more and more places around the world. This means the age of oil and gas is a long way from being over, and this is going to be true even in a prospective regime of rising carbon taxes. (The story is likely to be much the same for coal.)

More broadly, however, it is not necessary to be any kind of climate skeptic to be highly critical of the narrow, dreamlike quality the entire issue took on from its earliest moments. Future historians are likely to regard as a great myopic mistake the collective decision to treat climate change as more or less a large version of traditional air pollution, to be attacked with the typical emissions control policies—sort of a global version of the Clean Air Act. Likewise the diplomatic framework, a cross between arms control, trade liberalization, and the successful Montreal Protocol, was poorly suited to climate change and destined the Kyoto Protocol model to certain failure from the outset. If one were of a paranoid or conspiratorial state of mind, you might almost wonder if the first Bush Administration committed the U.S. to this framework precisely as a way of assuring it would be self-defeating. (I doubt they were that clever or devious.) There have been a few lonely voices that have recognized these defects while still arguing in favor of action, such as Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and Steve Rayner of Oxford University. Two years before the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen talks, Prins and Rayner argued in Nature magazine that we should ditch the “top-down universalism” of the Kyoto approach in favor of a decentralized approach that resembles American federalism.

If ever there was an issue that required patient and fresh thinking, it was climate change 25 years ago. The modern world, especially those still billions of people striving to escape energy poverty, demands abundant amounts of cheap energy, and no amount of wishful thinking (or government subsidies or mandates) will change this. The right conceptual understanding of the problem is that we need large-scale low- and non-carbon energy sources that are cheaper than hydrocarbon energy. Unfortunately, no one knows how to do this. No one seems to know how to solve immigration, poor results from public education, or the problem of generating faster economic growth either, but we haven’t locked ourselves into a single policy framework that one must either be for or against in the same way that we have done for climate policy. Environmentalists and policy makers alike crave certainty about the policy results ahead of us, and an emphasis on innovation, even when stripped of the technological fetishes and wishful thinking that has plagued much of our energy R&D investments, cannot provide any degree of certainty about paths and rates of progress. But it was a fatally poor choice to emphasize, almost to the exclusion of any other frameworks, a policy framework based on making conventional hydrocarbon energy, upon which the world depends utterly for its well-being, more expensive and artificially scarce. This might make some emissions headway in rich industrial nations, although it hasn’t in most of them, but won’t get far in the poorer nations of the world. Subsidizing expensive renewable energy is a self-defeating mugs game, as many European nations are currently recognizing.

While we stumble along trying to find breakthrough energy technologies with a low likelihood of success in the near and intermediate term, a more primary conservative orientation comes into view. The best framework for addressing large-scale disruptions from any cause or combination of causes is building adaptive resiliency. Too often this concept gets reduced to the defeatist concept of building seawalls, moving north, and installing more air conditioners. But humankind faces disasters and chronic calamities of many kinds and causes; think of droughts, which through history have been a scourge of civilizations. Perhaps it is grandiose or simplistic to say that the whole human story is one of gradually increasing adaptive resiliency. On the other hand, what was the European exploration and settlement of North America but an exercise in adaptive resiliency? This opens into one of the chief conservative concerns over climate change and many other problems: the pessimism that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the British historian Thomas Macaulay wrote in 1830, “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” The 20th century saw global civilization overcome two near-apocalyptic wars and numerous murderous regimes (not all entirely overcome today), and endure 40 years of nuclear brinksmanship that threatened a nuclear holocaust in 30 minutes. To suggest human beings can’t cope with slow moving climate change is astonishingly pessimistic, and the relentless soundings of the apocalypse have done more to undermine public interest in the issue than the efforts of the skeptical community.

One caveat here is the specter of a sudden “tipping point” leading to a rapid shift in climate conditions, perhaps over a period of mere decades. To be sure, our capacity to respond to sudden tipping points is doubtful; consider the problematic reaction to the tipping point of September 11, 2001, or the geopolitical paroxysms induced by the tipping point reached in July 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The climate community would be correct to object that the open-ended and uncertain orientation I have sketched here would likely be adequate for preparing for such a sudden change—but then again neither was the Kyoto Protocol approach that they so avidly supported.

Right now the fallback position for a tipping point scenario is geoengineering, or solar radiation management. There might ironically be surprising agreement between environmentalists and conservatives over geoengineering, albeit for opposite reasons that illustrate the central division outlined above. Liberal environmentalists tend to dislike geoengineering proposals partly for plausible philosophical reasons—humans shouldn’t be experimenting with the globe’s atmospheric system any more than we already are—and partly because of their abiding dislike of hydrocarbon energy that geoengineering would further enable. Environmentalists have compared geoengineering to providing methadone to a heroin addict, though the “oil addiction” metaphor, popular with both political parties (former oil man George W. Bush used it) is truly risible. We are also addicted to food, and to having a roof over our heads. But conservatives tend to be skeptical or opposed to geoengineering for the epistemological reasons alluded to above: the uncertainties involved with the global-scale intervention are unlikely to be known adequately enough to assure a positive outcome. Geoengineering may yet emerge as a climate adaptation tool out of emergency necessity, but it will be over the strong misgivings of both left and right alike. This shared hesitation might ironically make it possible for research on geoengineering to proceed with a lower level of distrust.

President Obama’s recent call for a new billion-dollar climate change fund aimed at research on adaptation and resiliency appears in general terms close to what I hint at here. Whether a billion dollars is a suitable amount (rather, it seems the opening bid for any spending initiative in Washington these days) or whether the fund would be spent sensibly rather than politically is an important but second order question.

The final difference between liberals and conservatives over climate change that is essential to grasp is wholly political in the high and low sense of the term. Some prominent environmentalists, and fellow travelers like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, periodically express open admiration for authoritarian power to resolve climate change and other problems for which democratic governments are proving resistant precisely because of their responsiveness to public opinion—what used to be understood and celebrated as “consent of the governed.” A few environmental advocates have gone as far as to say that democracy itself should be sacrificed to the urgency of solving the climate crisis, apparently oblivious to the fact that appeals to necessity in the face of external threats have been the tyrant’s primary self-justification since the beginning of conscious human politics, and seldom ends well for the tyrant and the people alike. For example, Mayer Hillman, a senior fellow at Britain’s Policy Studies Institute and author of How We Can Save the Planet, told a reporter some time back that “When the chips are down I think democracy is a less important goal than is the protection of the planet from the death of life, the end of life on it. This [resource rationing] has got to be imposed on people whether they like it or not.” Similar sentiments are found in the book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. One of the authors (Shearman) argued that “Liberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the USA, unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens… There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties.”

I can think of no other species of argument more certain to provoke enthusiasm for Second Amendment rights than this. The unfortunate drift toward anti-democratic authoritarianism flows partly from frustration but also from the success the environmental community has enjoyed through litigation and a regulatory process that often skirts democratic accountability—sometimes with decent reason, sometimes not. But this kind of aggrandized hallucination of the virtues of power will prove debilitating as the scope and scale of an environmental problem like climate change enlarges. I can appreciate that many climate action advocates will find much of what I’ve said here to be inadequate, but above all liberals and environmentalists would do well to take on board the categorical imperative of climate policy from a conservative point of view, namely, that whatever policies are developed, they must be compatible with individual liberty and democratic institutions, and cannot rely on coercive or unaccountable bureaucratic administration.

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Cite this Article

Hayward, Steven F. “Conservatism and Climate Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 3 (Spring 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring 2014