This claim might not seem strange from the standpoint of etymology (after all, ought not conservatives to be above all concerned about conservation?) but it might well baffle anyone who knows the American political scene of the last decade or two. Isn’t a silencing of the climate change doomsayers a signature conservative victory? After all, isn’t most of the supposed climate change “science” just thinly disguised politics? Specifically, isn’t climate change just a Trojan horse to expand government power over the market and more of our lives?
A great many Christian conservatives have become so accustomed to hearing these lines (themselves aggressively peddled by certain political interest groups) that they almost reflexively accept them. And indeed, for as long as Barack Obama was in the White House, it was easy to complacently dismiss climate change as “their agenda.” But after the three warmest years in history, and with a wholesale shake-up in Washington, apathetic dismissal is no longer an option. Thinking Christians must at least give serious thought and attention to the issue, whatever conclusion they come down to about the appropriate response.
Of course climate change is political.
Among Christian conservatives at least, nothing is so great a bar to sober evaluation of the climate issue than the fear that “it’s all political”—that the science is hopelessly biased in order to drive political priorities, and liberal priorities at that.
The first thing to say to the claim that “it’s all political” is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good.
Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there scientifically—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politically. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly.
The second thing to say, then, is that the politics do not run all one way. Those who don’t want to see regulation in response to climate change, whether to protect their own pocketbooks or on ideological grounds, have had every incentive to politicize the issue and have poured extensive funding into both research and public relations on the skeptic side.
Indeed, although there are certainly entrenched political interests that can profit from climate change alarmism, it is a common misconception to think that the average government (including the US government) has a strong incentive to play up the problem. The reasoning seems to run that because (a) governments want to increase their power and (b) if climate change is a problem, they get to increase their power, then, ergo (c) governments have an interest in exaggerating climate change.
But whereas premises (a) and (b) may be sound as far as they go, they forget that even more than growing their power, governments are concerned to try and retain the power they currently have, and are fearful of losing it. One of the surest ways to lose power in a democracy is to demand short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards, as any forceful response to climate change will do. So it is that if one actually looks at the history of scientific lobbying and government action on climate change over the past two decades, the scientists have generally been considerably more worked up and more vocal than the politicians, particularly in the West.
A third thing to say, however, is that while much of the chatter in popular media over the issue is nakedly politicized, and often exaggerated for partisan reasons, it is not all that hard in the age of the Internet to get beyond this to hard data sources and sober analysis of that data. Take some time to educate yourself with resources like the Category 6 Weather Blog or SkepticalScience.com before considering the political implications.
Should fear of big government drive conservatives to act against attempts to address climate change?
But what about the point that there’s no way to fix climate change without making big government even bigger, and therefore conservatives have good reason to be wary?
Well, to this I should first point out that while unhappiness with a treatment often makes us want to deny the diagnosis, this is hardly rational behavior. If you’re diagnosed with lung cancer and you don’t like the sound of the chemotherapy, you shouldn’t just plug your ears and pretend you don’t have cancer after all. All the more so if the lung cancer is because of your smoking habit, and you’re determined to keep up the habit. There may, perhaps, be sound reasons to question the diagnosis or doubt the doctor, but if so, they should be quite independent from your feelings about the treatments (as hard as such objectivity is, human nature being what it is). Just so in the present case: If conservatives worry that the necessary political response to climate change will be anathema to their principles, that question must be kept separate from the question of whether human-caused climate change is a reality. One must first do one’s best to arrive at a sober diagnosis of our condition before tackling the issue of treatment options. And here, there really is little dispute among the scientists.
But conservatives need not despair, for the response to anthropogenic climate change need not be anathema to conservative principles. To be sure, if we wait around and do nothing, and are faced with a massive, slow-motion natural disaster, then we’re likely to see some very totalitarian political solutions emerge after all.
But proactive government action, while painful, would fall well within the realm of things that, on conservative principles, are a core function of a just government. After all, free markets do not always work perfectly, and in particular, markets are notoriously bad at pricing in externalities (that is, costs of doing business that can be passed off on society as a whole, or future generations, rather than being borne by the producer). And in such situations, regulation to correct the pricing error and the injustice is one of the essential services that government must render to the market and to society. CO2 emissions are just such an externality, albeit on a massive scale, and thus there is no reason for conservatives to resist treating them as such, even if we may favor less intrusive and more market-friendly solutions than some liberals would propose.
What is not an option is the “let’s just adapt and innovate our way out of the problem as it becomes more serious—let the market cope with the consequences of the problem that the market created.” This ends up being no more than a de facto Darwinian survival of the fittest that is inimical to a Christian ethic. For market-provided coping mechanisms will of course be expensive on the front end, and available only to those who can pay. The market will certainly provide options for rich people with beachfront villas (turn them into floating houses?), but not necessarily for poor people in harborside slums.
Whatever conclusions we reach, apathy cannot be one of them. We who worship the God who created this marvelous planet with its intricate, delicately-balanced ecosystems, and who put us here to protect it, should take these issues more seriously than anyone. It is one thing to be a thoughtful skeptic, quite another to be a lazy or complacent one, for the stakes are much too high for that. As Trump seeks to stack the highest levels of government with appointees who seem determined to casually shrug and say “well who knows what’s causing the warming?” we have a duty to demand more—to demand truthfulness from our government officials, even if the truth turns out to be uncomfortable for us to hear.
See a fuller version of the arguments in this piece here.
Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.