When it comes to global warming, conservatism in this country is at a crossroads. Increasing numbers of business leaders, evangelicals, and conservative opinion-leaders are calling for action to reduce the risks associated with climate change, but the best-known conservatives continue to doubt the science of global warming, attack those who would act to reduce emissions, and deride those concerned by the threat to the planet.
To many sympathetic observers, it’s puzzling. As Kerry Emmanuel pointed out in an essay for the Boston Review earlier this year, conservatives didn’t have to react this way:
One can easily imagine conservatives embracing the notion of climate change in support of actions they might like to see anyway. Conservatives have usually been strong supporters of nuclear power, and few can be happy about our current dependence on foreign oil. The United States is renowned for its technological innovation and should be at an advantage in making money from any global sea change in energy-producing technology: consider the prospect of selling new means of powering vehicles and electrical generation to China’s rapidly expanding economy. But none of this has happened.
In recent weeks, a few brave voices on the right have challenged the movement’s aversion to environmental action. One has even rediscovered the root connection between the word "conservative" and the concept of "conservation."
In a speech reprinted on the American Enterprise Institute’s site, Steven Hayward pointed out:
If you were the proverbial Being from Mars dropped onto the American scene, nothing would seem more natural than to assume that environmentalism would be a conservative enthusiasm. Among other obvious things, conservative and conservatism share the same etymological root with conservation and conservationism, and while conservationism and environmentalism may not be identical, they are clearly blood relatives.
More pointedly, in a Sunday column for the Dallas Morning News two weeks ago, Rod Dreher — the author of "Crunchy Cons" — wrote:
Conservatives are supposed to be cautious by nature and in principle. But when it comes to global warming, conservatives are the loudest voices advocating recklessness. What, exactly, is conservative about sneering at overwhelming scientific evidence?
Unfortunately, to date, these sort of thoughtful rhetorical questions have been drowned out by the catcalls, false claims, and threats from the skeptics on the right. They include:
Ann Coulter, who in a column last week preposterously claimed:
There are more reputable scientists defending astrology than defending "global warming," but liberals simply announce that the debate has been resolved in their favor and demand that we shut down all production.
Almost as unlikely was prominent right-wing pundit Jonah Goldberg’s insistence on Talk of the Nation that global warming was a problem we can easily solve at some vague point in the distant future.
Neal Conan: A lot of people will say you are betting your grandchildren’s future on your present prosperity.
Goldberg: No, I am willing to bet my grandchildren will be so prosperous that these sorts of problems will be able to be solved very quickly.
Then there was Dick Cheney. In an interview in Australia, he declared that the hundreds of scientists around the world who wrote the the fourth IPCC report on global warming — which found a 90 percent probability that global warming was caused by humans — were simply wrong:
Where there does not appear to be a consensus … is the extent to which that’s part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man, greenhouse gases, et cetera.
And James C. Dobson, founder of the powerful Focus on the Family religious group, who last week called on the National Association of Evangelicals to "fire or silence" Rev. Richard Cizik for preaching that Christians have a Biblical responsibility to protect the earth.
What’s downright strange about this "see no carbon, hear no carbon, speak no carbon" stance is the contrast to the eagerness of American business to act on the issue now. As a recent Wall Street Journal story [subscription required] on the electrical utility industry pointed out:
Faced with growing demand for electricity and the environmental consequences of generating it, states and utilities are considering new regulatory regimes that remove the incentive for selling more power — and give utilities a financial stake in saving energy.
The ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for new power plants. Many energy experts predict the U.S. will need hundreds of new plants in coming years to satisfy demand. State and industry officials increasingly believe that by changing the financial incentives for utilities, they can significantly increase the efficiency of the grid and make many of these power plants unnecessary, saving billions of dollars in the process.
And in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, both business leaders and enviros described a sea change in corporate strategy, as illustrated by the huge TXU buy-out that is expected to transform a corporate villain into a leader for the environmental cause.
"We’ve gotten beyond green-washing," said David G. Hawkins, head of the climate program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who helped negotiate the TXU sale. "Businesses are realizing that global-warming solutions have to be a core element of a business strategy."
It’s not just Democrats and environmentalists who want to see real leadership on this issue. It’s also the CEOs of some of this nation’s largest corporations, including Alcoa, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, and General Electric.
Is it just me, or are the stakes so high and so consequential that those who arrogantly sneer at pleas for action on global warming now appear slightly insane?