How climate change ate conservatism's smartest thinkers

Ross Douthat perfectly encapsulates the big problem with conservative thinking on climate change: They have no evidence

Climate Change
(Image credit: (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Photos courtesy iStock))

Climate change remains perhaps the single largest policy weakness of the Republican Party, and that's saying a lot. Thus, since the publication of the new "reform conservatism" book, the reformers have gotten a lot of flak for almost totally ignoring the subject.

Ross Douthat grappled yesterday with the issue, arguing that reform conservatives have been given short shrift to their attention on climate change, but that he's basically okay with doing nothing about the problem. Here's the conclusion:

These answers are obviously subject to revision — trends can change, risks can increase, cost-benefit calculations can be altered — but for now they're what reform conservatism offers on this issue. We could be wrong; indeed, we could be badly wrong, in which case we'll deserve to be judged harshly for misplacing priorities in the face of real perils, real threats. But on the evidence available [at] the moment, I'm willing to argue that we have our priorities in order, and the other side's allegedly forward-looking agenda does not. [The New York Times]

There are two problems with this. Just like Clive Crook, Will Wilkinson, and Walter Russell Mead, Douthat doesn't seriously engage with the evidence. Earlier in the article, he constructs a lengthy Rube Goldberg analogy to "insurance" salesmanship to cast doubt on every portion of the climate hawk case, but he doesn't take the obvious next step of trying to work through what that means on a quantitative basis.

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Douthat implies that based on his careful read of the evidence, world society can take more carbon dioxide than the greens say. But he doesn't even gesture at how much more. Is the international agreement that warming should be limited to 2 degrees too low? If so, what's a good limit? If climate sensitivity measurements are lower than we thought (and they almost certainly aren't), how much lower should we assume?

Without numbers, Douthat's case is nothing more than vague handwaving that reads very much like he has cherry-picked a bunch of disconnected fluff to justify doing nothing. Because even if we grant all his assumptions about climate sensitivity and probable dangers of warming, it changes little about the climate hawk case, which depends critically on how fast we're emitting carbon dioxide. Saying we can chance 3 to 4 degrees of warming and that sensitivity is much lower than previously thought might give us enough space to push CO2 concentrations up to 5-600 ppm or so. But right now we're barreling towards 1000 ppm and beyond.

This is the major problem with how the vast majority of reform conservatives think about climate change (with a few exceptions). They neither articulate a clear view of what kind of climate goals they would prefer nor demonstrate how their favorite policies would get us there. Instead, like Douthat, the few conservatives who even talk about climate (like Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru, who he mentions) are constantly saying whatever policy is on deck at the moment is no good. It's too inefficient; it's too expensive; it's trampling on democracy; we should be doing technology instead, etc, etc.

These folks may well be arguing in good faith for their best policy. But because it has become nearly impossible to legislate anything through the sucking mire of United States institutions, consistent advocacy against every single climate policy amounts to little more than putting a patina of credibility on the denialist views of the Republican majority.

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