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Conservative positions on climate that fall within the range of rational debate

Dan Farber, professor of law | November 12, 2010

Some of the comments on my previous posting chided me for overlooking conservatives who are taking reasonable views about climate change.  At present, it seems to me that climate denial is the dominant conservative position, as reflected in the views of Republican members of Congress, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc.  But it’s unfair to tar all conservatives with the same brush, and particularly unfair to academics, who are often more nuanced than public figures.

Earthrise from the moon

The Earth as seen from the moon. (NASA photo, July 1969, Apollo 11 Mission)

Views among conservatives do differ. Indeed, at least a few may agree that the U.S. should take immediate aggressive steps to address climate change. Consider Judge Richard Posner’s views, although maybe he’s too much of a maverick to count.

As I will discuss below, in the end I don’t think ideology should drive views on this issue.  But first I want to discuss a couple of conservative positions that are quite different than mine but still fall within the range of rational debate.

Option 1: Global Treaty with Slow Fuse. Seek a cap-and-trade program or carbon tax on an international level (including China and India) that is initially very modest  but ramps up over time as potential harm from climate change becomes nearer.  In the meantime, take very limited if any steps toward mitigation. This option is supported by a preference for market-based mechanisms. It also reflects prudence about the possible long-term risks of climate change for society, coupled with a belief that one of the greatest favors we can do for later generations is economic growth.  The reason for adopting the scheme now is to provide stable expectations for business, although the real effectiveness of the scheme is delayed.

Option 2: New Technologies. Invest heavily in developing new energy technologies that will power a radical shift toward a low-carbon society in the middle of the century. In the meantime, adopt “no regrets” policies or policies with minimal net costs, such as energy efficiency rules that pay for themselves in reduced in power costs, or reductions in petroleum use that are also justified by the national security interest in energy independence, or removal of inappropriate restrictions on nuclear power.

A rational conservative position might also embrace adaptation planning so as to be ready for the contingencies created by climate change in the U.S.  Indeed, people who think that climate change is real but not manmade should still take adaptation seriously. In addition, it seems to me that conservatives might well support providing the poorest countries with assistance in adaptation, both on humanitarian grounds and to avoid potential destabilization that could cause national security issues.

Both options could also be coupled with exploration of geo-engineering strategies to bridge the gap until cheap carbon-free energy is available.  Geo-engineering is not tenable as a permanent solution, however, because it does not address ocean acidification and allows a growing overhang of greenhouse gas accumulation.  That overhang could pose catastrophic risks if the – system were to fail or had to be abandoned for some reason. In any event, the risks of geo-engineering are not yet well-enough known to justify sole reliance on this strategy at this point.

Both options address the climate problem and propose possible solutions; neither one would be nearly aggressive enough to satisfy environmentalists. Both positions are taken by some (mostly academic) conservatives.  Neither one is outside the range of reasonable debate – I think they are wrong in serious ways, but they do open the door to a genuine policy debate.

In principle, it seems to me, the issue of climate change should not be ideological.  Virtually everyone, of whatever ideological stripe, believes that people have a duty not to engage in actions that create unreasonable risks of harm to others.  In terms of climate change, the dispute is about the magnitude of the risk (both in terms of probabilities and effects) and the cost of abating it (which is relevant to the “unreasonable” risk determination).

Thus, the issues are essentially factual, not ideological.   We naturally all come to those issues with our own perspectives.  That’s fine, so long as our ideological lenses merely color the facts rather than blocking them from view entirely.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet, a Berkeley Law-UCLA Law collaboration.

Comments to “Conservative positions on climate that fall within the range of rational debate

  1. From my own lay research into the matter, it seems like ocean acidification is the bigger near term problem. Coral reefs are bleaching now. The low-lying coastal town where I grew up is still there, minus a bit of erosion cause by boats travelling down the Intracoastal Waterway.

    As for conservatives, here is my conservative case for a carbon tax. Last I checked Ron Paul and the ultra constitutionalists want to replace the income tax with tariffs and excises. Such is a carbon tax plan. Maybe they’ll figure that out…

  2. If you want to get action on Global Warming you are going to have get Republicans and Tea Party types like myself on board. That’s the reality of the political situation, and we are looking to make even further gains in 2012. Our biggest concerns are cutting the deficit, breaking the hold of the ruling class on our government and economy, reducing the size of the welfare state, making this country competitive in the world economy and returning manufacturing back here from China. When the national debt is down to manageable size, when we not endangering the economic welfare of future generations and we can domestically produce computers, iphones, ipads, tennis shoes, etc here again, then we will have the resources to deal with Global Warming (assuming it exists, which I am not convinced since there have been warmer temperatures around the middle age). When this country is back to being an economic superpower then we can talk about absorbing the cost of whatever measures need to be taken to deal with Global Warming. We need leverage over China and India to get them to agree to any treaty and we won’t have that the way things are going. Basically what I’m saying is that I would be happy to help you with your crisis if you would assist us in rebuilding this nation. You cannot fix global warming right now because you have transformed our society into a welfare state, crippled the economy (real unemployment is around 20%), given us $15 trillion or so national debt with unfunded mandates up to an estimated $100 trillion. So this is not a particularly good time to go about proposing policies that will raise taxes, raise the cost of energy, make us less competitive, hurt private enterprise and continue with the destruction of the middle class. First you agree to real reforms, like fixing the insane IRS code, making the Bush tax cuts permanent, allowing individual to opt out of social security and ending government run Ponzi schemes then we can help you out. This may be your only choice as conservatives are going to make even more gains in the next election cycle.

  3. Many new “conservatives” elected to Congress are outright anti-conservationists in the pocket of fossil fuels on which the world spends $557 billion per year in subsidies. They often deny flood trends outright, let alone the increasing costs associated with extreme weather. Cap and trade will only delay real solutions which at this point are comprised of only two possibilities: a multilateral treaty to shift fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy, and competing directly with OPEC by undercutting the cost of transport fuels by synthesis of paraffins using off-peak wind power.

    • Mirabile dictu, “a multilateral treaty to shift fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy” by the alchemy of some as yet to be invented green energy technology. And while we’re at it, let’s make a public investment of a trillion dollars in warp drive (using our Bank of China credit card) so we can visit the peace and justice planet of Gaia just beyond the Neutral Zone.

      But seriously folks, how about a multilateral treaty to reduce human population? I’d say 6 billion down to 1 billion in 100 years is a worthy achievement, and a more attainable goal than replacing fossil fuels.

  4. Global treaties are unworkable. The developing world engages in them to the extent that they get something for nothing out of the first world. Beyond that, they don’t much care about the fate of the planet. Just look at the condition of many developing countries: Brazil slashes and burns the rain forests and accommodates most of its citizens in shantytowns build on unsanitary landfills ringing fetid megalopolises. India is one enormous open sewer where two thirds of its population live in the open like homeless people. China may be envied for its wealth and growing economy but it’s environment is a disaster. Half of my Chinese in-laws are dead or dying of cancer from industrial pollution. My last trip there, I had to stay inside the air quality was so poor. A shroud of smog extends hundreds of miles into the countryside.

    US trade and social policies are fabricated in elite University opinion factories, who childishly think the globe must unite to save the world; my guess is that there isn’t a single one world liberal who hasn’t taken more than a few rides on a certain Mary Blair designed Disney Ride at an impressionable age. The rest of the world is mainly composed of ethnically homogeneous, utterly self serving nations who want to be top dog — especially the Chinese, who are waiting for payback against the West and their historic Asian enemies. I’m sorry, but human kind is composed mostly of apes, not angels, and the US needs to pursue policies in the interest of its citizens. Their most potent weapon against carbon pollution is food production. They should downsize food production to sustenance levels and let the rest of the world downsize to meet their own productive capacities.

    • “But first I want to discuss a couple of conservative positions that are quite different than mine but still fall within the range of rational debate.”

      Are these conservative positions? And what are Farber’s credentials to discuss global warming, anyway? He is a lawyer, not a climate scientist. He’s not even an intellectual property lawyer. His books have nothing to do with new energy technologies or climate change. He is a self-appointed opinionista, much like you or me.

  5. Unfortunately, fact and data based issues ARE ideological for most people, after all, only 5% of Americans are scientifically literate.

    At Wonderfest Nov 7th, in Stanley Hall on campus, Dr Jane Long, Associate Director at Large, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, told us she’d been on a ten-day trip with other scientists, several congressmen, and conservative business leaders. The businessmen told her they did not believe in climate change because they HATED Al Gore. Over the ten days, she and her scientist colleagues were able to persuade them that climate change was real, with evidence, data, and how their conclusions had been reached – after all businessmen do have to be rational, read balance sheets, and make budgets – they can be persuaded. And they were. In fact, they were so horrified at what was likely to happen that they wanted to do something. What they came up with was making a film by conservatives, for conservatives, hopefully better than the latest Lomborg production that should be added to the next edition of “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”.

    Sadly, most political debate and the positions people hold are based on the gossip and hatred spouted by FOX, Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, and conservative think tanks.

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