Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Traditional Conservativism, Conservation and Climate Change

The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
One of the primary purposes behind my periodic posts about the nature of conservativism has been to show far far afield what commonly passes for conservativism has strayed from the roots of genuine conservative thinking. There is no issue which more clearly demonstrates this drift away from true conservative principles than the issue of climate change.

My purpose in this post is not to argue the scientific case for climate change. There are many great resources which provide all the information one could possibly need. See for example this great summary of evidence from the National Academy of Sciences:

You may also check out the excellent page NASA has developed on the issue, as well as various Department of Defense items related to how the armed forces is adjusting to the realities of climate change.

My purpose in this post is to react to the response I often hear from so-called conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, to the idea of climate change. Basically, these responses take two forms:
1.  Climate change is fiction, or, if it is real, it isn't a big problem, since God promised that "while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22).
2.  Whatever the reality of climate change is, dealing with it would be too expensive.

If you would like to see a congressman express both of these views, check out this video:

Let's take a look at these two points.

First, regarding Genesis 8:22, it is true that the Lord promised that agriculture ("seedtime and harvest"), weather ("cold and heat"), seasons ("summer and winter"), and time ("day and night") shall not cease as long as the earth stands. But this doesn't mean that our actions will have no bearing on these processes. In fact, the biblical imperative to be good stewards of creation (Genesis 1:26-28 and a million other passages) suggests the contrary - that our actions do make a difference. 

Does anyone seriously think the promise in this text gives human beings carte blanche permission to do whatever harm they wish to the planet? While this passage promises us that the fundamental processes of the created order will continue, it should not be twisted out of context to justify negligence on our part if we know that our actions are causing harm to the God's creation.

Second, what about the argument that dealing with climate change costs jobs? Arguments like this make about as much sense as it would for a person who, having been told his overeating and lack of exercise has triggered diabetes, refuses to accept the doctor's diagnosis because he does not want to make any lifestyle changes. The fact that the man may not want to give up sweet tea or may not want to begin exercising is totally irrelevant to whether the problem actually exists.

There is compelling evidence that climate change is real, and that human beings are part of the problem. How to best deal with this problem is a matter for policy debate. But to approach the issue with the attitude that says, "if this is going to mean I have to be more frugal and less wasteful I'd rather not acknowledge the problem even exists," make no sense.

One basic proposal to deal with this issue is commonly called "cap and trade." And many right wing ideologues love to denounce this as a socialist scheme. But the truth is that cap and trade was a policy developed by the first Bush administration to provide a market-based solution to the problem of acid rain. The government capped the amount of emissions allowed, gave companies a certain number of credits, and then companies were permitted to trade those credits for greater/lesser emissions. At the time it was hailed by free market proponents and reviled by wackjob environmentalists (and those people do exist!). And by the way, this market-based solution worked! 

I don't know what solutions will be best for the climate change problem. But I think market-based solutions like cap and trade will be part of the formula, and could in the long run provide a boom to the economy. But if part of the solution requires greater moderation and frugality on the part of the stewards of creation, then what better way to be a conservative is there than by conserving.

The resources of nature, like those of spirit, are running out, and all that a conscientious man can aspire to be is a literal conservative, hoarding what remains of culture and of natural wealth against the fierce appetites of modern life.
Russell Kirk. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot 

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