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A thoughtful conservative perspective on climate

Posted on 29 December 2011 by Tom Smerling

Peter Wehner has impeccable conservative credentials, having served under Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and most recently, as deputy assistant to Pres. George W. Bush.  He resides at the "Ethics & Public Policy Center," a neo-con think tank.

After a long look at the evidence, Wehner concluded that the scientific consensus on climate is correct.    He wrote two interesting posts titled "Conservatives and Climate Change," in the neo-con magazine Commentary, which prides itself in intellectual conservatism.

Wehner makes a nod to scientific uncertainties and the potential dangers of excessive government intervention, and he firmly rejects alarmism.    Climate hawks will find plenty to argue with, but these caveats are worth considering because a) most have some merit, and b) they clarify exactly where many conservatives get stuck.  If we don't address conservative reservations and fears directly, we're failing to get at the roots from which science denial stems.

More importantly, Wehner explicitly separates the question "Is it happening?" from "What should we do?" -- in itself a major step forward -- and for the most part he accepts the science.   His gutsy stance is particularly welcome following the recent recantations by born-again climate agnostics Romney, Gingrich and Huntsman.

Check out these excerpts (The full posts are here at Part I & Part II)

"The world is getting warmer. The warming is almost certainly caused, at least in large part, by human activity. And rising temperatures could pose a future risk, though how significant of a risk is open to interpretation. . . This is not a liberal invention; it’s physics.

Conservatives should be part of that conversation.    There’s an intellectually credible case to be made that it’s unwise to embrace massive, harmful changes to our economy in the face of significant uncertainties . . .  [yet] to acknowledge global warming does not necessarily lead one to embrace Al Gore’s environmental agenda.

But rather than offer constructive ideas on how to deal with global warming, some conservatives simply deny global warming has occurred. Their concern is that admitting global warming is real opens the door to government restriction on liberty, so it’s simply better to keep the door bolted shut. . .

[Yet] the problem for those who deny global warming is empirical:    Earth’s temperatures have increased and human activity has contributed to it.   To deny this is to deny reality, to subordinate truth to ideology.    And in the long run that can only damage conservatism."

It seems to me that anybody who cares about climate should listen respectfully and engage with people like Wehner who say it is time for conservatives to join the conversation about market-based solutions, rather than pretend that the problem doesn't exist.

Neo-cons are a particularly interesting group in this debate, because they pride themselves on intellectual honesty.   If enough people like Wehner speak up, it makes it easier for rank-and-file conservatives to accept the science without feeling they are betraying their identity or their cause.   

That's exactly why climate misinformers will try to quickly squelch Wehner  for breaking ranks -- and why advocates of an evidence-based approach should rally to his defense.   Check out the comments below his Commentary posts.   Amidst the usual skeptical talking-points and misperceptions about uncertainty, you'll see other commenters stating openly that their main concern is government overreach, and expressing a degree of open-mindedness when they state "I need more evidence" or "I'm still unconvinced." 

Isn't this exactly the audience we need to be engaging with?

[Update 12/22/11:   The debate continues to rage at Commentary online. Editor Jonathan Tobin answered Wehner by arguing that "Conservative Skepticism is Rooted in Environmentalist Hysteria."   Oddly, Tobin tossed in some of the flimsiest arguments possible ("Warming may be good") and indulged in the very hyperbole and ad-hominism that he accuses the "warmers" of.   Wehner replied immediately, with another carefully-reasoned, thoughtful piece that -- citing the IPCC, National Academies of Science, and the US Climate Science Program -- urges conservatives to focus less on the other sides' perceived behavior and more on "those stubborn facts" about climate.   See "Conservatives and Climate:  Facts Should be Our Guiding Star."] 

(This is a cross post from ClimateBites, posted 12-20-11.)

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Comments 51 to 75 out of 75:

  1. "needed themselves" should be "needed to teach themselves" (sorry)
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  2. triggered by this article, I looked at the US-Rep-page and found something very surprising (at least for me here in old Europe) - namely within the FAQ's on climate change: here we go: I discovered: they just do not deny! I am wondering if the T-party knows about this part of their homepage - and I am wondering whether this - mine - entry here might change the content of the climate FAQ's :)
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  3. “The importance of the ultra-conservative vote, championed by a religious, anti-evolution electorate, is not lost on the contenders seeking their party's nod to face Obama.” Source: “How Science Has Become Taboo for Republicans Seeking the White House,” AFP/Alternet, Dec 30, 2011
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  4. @52 -- awesome! I hadn't looked there before. That webpage, with the Reagan quote in the top corner, needs to be slipped in to many more blog discussions.
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  5. Regarding religion ... I think the most relevant bit is the problem of acceptance of Evolution. When we find the recipe for allowing Evolution to be taught in science classes without inclusion of religious apologetics and pseudo-scientific 'balance', that will be very informative for getting climate science accepted in the religious right worldview. Both are resisted not because of their facts, but because of the implications linked to those facts. Climate science may have an advantage relative to Evolution in that regard, since the challenge of the implications is a bit less direct. But I fear there are some who are working hellish hours trying to forge those links very strongly in the mindset of the religious right population. A less relevant but maybe more interesting observation about religion is the success of evangelical protestantism. I've never studied this stuff with any rigour, but a friend explained to me that it's quite 'capitalistic'. Nobody has been granted superior access to God (there's no Pope). Instead there are multiple interpretations (competitive market), and the interpretation that sells best (superior product for price) should be the one that receives more investment (belief). That is, the market of ideas is controlled by consumer choice. A belief in this system must be associated with a distrust of marketing, or at least a belief that marketing is a poor determinant of which ideas succeed. Most important is the match of a product with what feels right in the heart. Think about what this means for climate science! How we market science (facts, education, expert knowledge [high priests in ivory towers], abstraction from implications) is not going to work. What works for these people is gut-feeling, participatory empowerment, and .... I'm not sure what else. What else?! In any case, every time we hear the twin complaints: "there is no consensus; science isn't about consensus" lines, I suspect they have deeper meaning than a scientist at first would sense. Both are losing arguments in communication of the science with the evangelical right; what's needed is an appeal to something that satisfies them spiritually or brings them some form of happiness. Otherwise they ain't buyin'.
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  6. Communicating Climate change: at this years AGU-Fallmeeting Susan Hassol showed a way of doing ... quite interesting... and with BEST it seems there are things crumbling ...
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  7. it seems that there are some things overlooked at the US-Rep's homepage (to put it clear: I am NOT a Republican, I am from Europe and quite in opposition to the standpoint of the US-Reps, however: Justice must be!) therefore: another piece of evidence ... :) here they analyse the World War II start of infrared investigation - very interesting - politically...
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  8. "rdr95 @47 as absurd as some trends in post modernism are, they are not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is a fundamentalist brand of Christianity that is very common in the United States.." Perhaps, but I suspect that the increase in such fundamentalist beliefs would correlate with the rise in postmodernist philosphy. The ability to dismiss facts underpins fundamentalism; postmodernism supplies that. It also underpins the beliefs of many of the Republican elites, who are not religious fundamentalists at all (but have no problem using fundamentalists for their own ends). Postmodernism is the foundation upon which modern 'conservatism' is based. Fundamentalism is just a handy tool used by these 'conservatives'.
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  9. Rather than speculate on what motivates many Christian Fundamentalists in the US to reject what the scientific community is telling us about manmade climate change, why not read what they have to say in their own words. The best place to start this learning process is the website of the Cornwall Alliance In their own words: “The Cornwell Alliance is a coalition of clergy, theologians, religious leaders, scientists, academics, and policy experts committed to bringing a balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development. The Cornwall Alliance fully supports the principles espoused in the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, and is seeking to promote those principles in the discussion of various public policy issues including population and poverty, food, energy, water, endangered species, habitat, and other related topics.” The Cornwell Alliance’s “Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming” is particularly telling. Do organizations like the Cornwell Alliance exist in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, elsewhere?
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  10. What makes dealing with climate change so difficult (for Americans)? "Nobody wants to feel bad about the future. Everybody wants to be hopeful." The nation was settled by "insanely hopeful immigrants," Otto said, and Americans still have a strong sense of opportunity, including the idea that hard work pays off and that people get what they deserve. "It doesn't mean that we're bad or stupid. It just means that it's just hard. It's hard to get our minds around and embrace, because it means maybe we've screwed up somehow and nobody wants to feel that way. But the great thing about Americans is that because of that hopefulness, once we get through this painful process of self-reflection ... then we really kick it in and we can solve problems like nobody else." -- Shawn Lawrence Otto Source: Book* examines America's turn from science, warns of danger for democracy,” McLatchy Newspapers, Dec 27, 2011 * "Fool me twice: Fighting the assault on science in America" by Shawn Lawrence Otto.
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  11. A Rocha is active in NZ with a no-nonsense approach to climate change as this. Backed by evangelical luminaries like John Stott and Eugene Peterson.
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  12. It appears our friends at Republicans for Environmental Protection don't have much clout in the Republican-led House of Representatives. How bad was 2011 for America’s wildlife, air, water, land and public health? After taking 191 anti-conservation votes, even the House of Representatives’ own members called it ”the most anti-environment House in the history of Congress.” Non US readers may have heard that the Democratic Party controls the US Senate. Indeed, there is a slight Democratic majority; however, the peculiar rules of that august body require 60 votes out of 100 (rather than a simple majority) to get just about anything done. Since most Republican Senators vote 'nyet' as a bloc, nothing gets done. It may not be a good system, but its the only one we've got. Nah, its not a good system.
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  13. muoncounter, #62: "however, the peculiar rules of that august body require 60 votes out of 100 (rather than a simple majority) to get just about anything done." That's true when the party in the White House is different from the party in the Senate. That's not the case now. If the Democrats had solidarity it wouldn't matter what the Republicans voted in the Senate. It's a bipartisan failure.
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  14. Scratch #63, at least to the extent I forgot about the filibusterer; I was thinking of the veto. That being said, the Democrats still have a hard argument claiming lack of power in the Senate. The way committees are set up, things are stacked in their favor.
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  15. Robert Murphy#63: "the Democrats still have a hard argument claiming lack of power in the Senate" Nonsense. The filibuster is the Republican Party's Golden Ticket to obstructionism. And let's not forget about the magic 'hold' that any one Senator can put on pending legislation and nominations to fill what are essentially non-political, administrative jobs. a particularly egregious case was when Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) placed secret holds on 70 of President Obama's nominations to win terms more favorable to his state on an Air Force contract to build aerial refueling tankers. One man, one vote went the way of the flintlock musket. Call this 'tyranny of the minority'.
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  16. John Hartz@59 That declaration by the Cornwell people shows just how dangerous religious fundamentalism can be in the Christian sphere. Islamist fundamentalists threaten death by terrorism; Christian fundamentalists threaten death by species extinction. The difference is only in degree, not kind. Homo Sapiens? I think not.
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  17. "Joining Lincoln in pushing for putting off climate legislation until next year are Senators Ben Nelson, D-Neb, Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D."
    ( It's true that Republicans have pulled ahead of Democrats in science denial and also true that the mechanics of the Senate allow anyone from any party to stop legislation, but I would please ask people not to believe that one party rule will result in effective legislation because it didn't and IMO, it won't. A bipartisan approach is likely to be more effective because it can potentially create a consensus on energy security, industrial policy (stop offshoring CO2 emissions), and similar considerations.
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  18. 67, Eric, Agreed. I am disappointed with how quiet and complacent the Democrats have been on climate change, although the current economic fears, exacerbated by the way the Republicans trumpet and prey on those fears, are a big reason. I'm not sure the Dems wouldn't have done more if they had more wiggle room, or that they won't do more during the next administration, when (a) climate change is more obvious and (b) either Obama is in office but no longer facing re-election, or a Republican is in office and the Dems can at least make it into an important issue and force a Republican president or House (or Senate?) to actively and publicly halt legislation. But the fact is that the only way this will really get done is if both parties cooperate. Unfortunately, the current Republican congressmen and women appear to be beholden to business and fossil fuel interests, so it will take something of a cosmic earthquake to shake them into taking the issue seriously.
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  19. Treehugger just did a piece on Republicans who are pushing for their party to recognize climate change,along with a video piece by Mother Jones:
    Behold: I present to you irrefutable, 100% verified videographic evidence that Republicans who understand the threat posed by climate change – and want public policy to address it – do indeed exist.
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  20. Suggested reading: “National Association of Evangelicals on global warming: ‘Care, understand, and respond’ “ by J. Drake Hamilton, Fresh Energy, Jan 5, 2012 To access this article, click “here.
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  21. Thoughtful conservatives, if any actually exist, must speak out against this revolting behavior. Over the last six months – I’ve always had a low level of hate mail – that’s what goes with the game, but ever since I had an interview in the Guardian – how to talk to a climate sceptic…and another article in the LA Times – ever since those pieces came out my hate-mail has increased exponentially. I open up my mail in the morning and delete 10, read one, delete 10 more, read one. There are blogs that are devoted to blogging about how I’ve lied about X, Y and Z. Somebody filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission in the UK stating I had lied, by saying that winter temperatures in Texas are getting warmer, which they certainly are. The abuse, the virulence, the hatred is astonishing. And much of it is coming from people who share much of the same values as I do, and that’s what is so hurtful about it. It’s a wholestyle rejection – you can be right for 99/100, but if you differ on point 100 you deserve anything that people give you. Add a new line to this one: First they came for the scientists and I did not speak out, as I was not a scientist.
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  22. I think thoughtful conservatives should worry about that mc, because if the parts of the movement that are responsible for that kind of behavior toward Kayhoe continue to have free reign, the aims of conservatism will suffer in the long run. That behavior runs against basic norms of behavior, fairness and discounts the reality of nature itself.
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  23. John Hartz@70....Great find! Predictably, the first comment casts aspersions on the morality of climate scientsis, calling them corrupt, but the message is heartwarming. Nice counter to mc's post. Equilibrium restored!
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  24. Stephen Baines#73: Equilibrium? Has anyone who accepts the reality of climate science made death threats to deniers? Against their families? All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Ball is in your court, conservatives; speak out against evil or do nothing.
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  25. mc, you misunderstood me. I wasn't saying there was "equilibrium" with respect to the tone of debate or the methods being employed. I was referring to the equilibrium in my own soul that depends on a vague persistent hope for some real dialogue across these boundaries, in spite of the craziness that is going on.
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