Conservatives, conservation, and climate change

In recent years, especially in debates over climate change, the environment has become increasingly identified as a liberal or left wing cause, while conservatism has been associated with unrestricted support for economic development, regardless of environmental consequences. This is not a natural or inevitable association. Conservatism and the conservation movement have a great deal in common historically. Obviously, the very words “conservative” and “conservation” share a common etymology in the Latin conservare, meaning to keep, to guard, or to preserve. But many on both right and left would question whether conservatives and the conservation movement are seeking to conserve the same things – political conservatives are champions of the political and economic status quo, including a system of free market capitalism that sees the environment simply as a stock of resources for economic transformation, while conservationists seek to radically upend the free market system in order to preserve the natural environment that is challenged by capitalism and technology. These at least are the stereotypes that both sides have of each other.

But looked at from another angle, conservatives and conservationists have much in common. Both seek to preserve a common heritage and pass it on intact to future generations. For political conservatives, the emphasis is on the social elements of that heritage, the shared history, traditions, and morals that have shaped our society and which conservatives believe will best preserve a decent and humane society. Environmentalists emphasize our natural heritage, clean water and air, the diversity of ecosystems, which have enabled human societies to grow and flourish and which will threaten the quality of human life if they are lost or diminished. But both are seeking to protect important elements of our common inheritance to preserve them intact for the future. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton has written, “Conservation and conservatism are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.”

For many conservatives, belief in the conservation of our natural environment is ultimately rooted in religious faith. The Judeo-Christian tradition sees the world as the product of a divine Creator, and humanity as having a duty of stewardship over that creation. While some on the right ridicule environmentalists for taking a new age or mystical approach to the natural world, it is the Psalms that proclaim that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and it was Saint Francis of Assisi who praised the Lord through Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and Mother Earth.

Another element unifying conservatism and conservationism is a deep attachment to the land or place. Conservatives and conservationists alike are deeply attached to particular landscapes and to the lifestyles attached to them. Politically conservative and environmentally conservationist instincts are often closely entwined in those who are deeply attached to the land, like farmers, hunters, and anglers. And the conservative and conservationist instinct often combines in the desire to preserve natural spaces. In the United States, for instance, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, a lifelong hunter and sportsman, achieved one of his greatest legacies in the preservation of some 230 million acres of public land, including five national parks and 18 national monuments. And the reform minded Roosevelt was far from the only Republican environmentalist – it was under Richard Nixon that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded, while George H.W. Bush signed on to the international conventions on biodiversity and climate change. In Canada, Banff National Park was established under Sir John A. Macdonald, while Brian Mulroney was honoured as Canada’s greenest Prime Minister for his environmental legacy, including an acid rain treaty with the U.S. and the creation of eight national parks.

If there is a distinction between conservative and environmentalist views on preserving lands and places, it is that the environmentalist may be tempted to see habitats and ecosystems as merely part and parcel of our universal heritage as a planet, which should be preserved as a common endowment for all people (and indeed all species), while conservatives believe deeply in the value of private property, and hold that respecting private property rights is the best way to preserve natural spaces and protect our environment. But in this, the conservative instinct is on solid ground. As any comparison of privately owned versus rented housing will attest, people tend to care for what is theirs and take more efforts to preserve it than what they are merely renting or borrowing from others. As the saying goes, nobody ever washed a rented car.

Free market economists, building on the economic analysis of property rights, have proposed solutions to the problem of environmental damages being inflicted on others. The two main approaches are those of Arthur Pigou and Ronald Coase. Pigou argued that where the economic activities of people or firms inadvertently impose damage on others (so called externalities, such as air or water pollution), the others should be compensated by means of taxes or fees imposed on the polluter. Coase held that negative externalities are often best dealt with not by taxation, but by proper assignment or reassignment of property rights to allow affected parties to negotiate a satisfactory solution. Environmental economics has built on these two sometimes competing, sometimes complementary approaches to dealing with the problem of externalities, but both at their heart rely on markets and property rights to solve environmental problems, and both are effectively conservative responses to environmental challenges (especially in comparison to the alternative of state mandated regulation of economic activity).

Oil pump jack operating in sunflower field

So conservatism has an ethic of conservation deep in its historic roots – its belief in seeking to preserve and pass on our common heritage to future generations, the doctrine of stewardship of a divinely created order that animates many religious conservatives, attachment to the land and place which has given rise to a whole economic and political doctrine based on property rights, and markets which can be used to develop practical economic solutions to environmental problems.

Why then, especially when it comes to the greatest environmental challenge of our era, the question of climate change, is there so much resistance by conservatives? We see this resistance both in the form of many conservatives denying that there is a problem – questioning the science that indicates human activity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions is having an impact on global climate – and more broadly in resisting taking policy actions that will reduce emissions.

There is no question that political conservatives tend to be more skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change than those on the left. This isn’t because conservatives are any less scientifically literate than liberals or leftists, but perhaps because they tend to be naturally suspicious of those who are promoting this scientific consensus most vocally in the public square – not the generally apolitical climate scientists working on the periodic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports – but environmental activists who seem to oppose all economic growth, left of centre politicians like Al Gore, and reflexively leftist Hollywood celebrities. It is easy for conservatives to dislike or dismiss the message when those are the messengers.

But scientifically grounded conservatives who have dispassionately considered the evidence more often than not end up finding that on this issue the scientific consensus is correct. Jerry Taylor, the former research director of the libertarian Cato Institute (now with his own organization, the Niskanen Center), and Ronald Bailey, science editor of Reason magazine, come to mind. Perhaps most impressively, Berkeley physicist and energy expert Richard Muller, who had been a public skeptic of mainstream climate science claims (including helping to debunk the notorious “hockey stick” graph), took it upon himself to put together his own research team of a dozen scientists and re-analyse all of the IPCC data (and more data sources previously unanalysed) and concluded, despite their initial inclinations, that the mainstream view was correct: greenhouse gas emissions have caused warming, and human activity is the main cause.

But if the political left may have been quicker to embrace the scientific case for climate change, they have often been wrong about their proposed solutions. The answers to climate change won’t come from suffocating international bureaucracy, or from anti-growth polemics from the likes of Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, or Bill McKibben.

The challenge for conservatives is not to resist climate science because of the bad policy solutions proposed by the left, but to draw on the resources in its own tradition to come up with more effective answers. In the face of efforts to regulate the global economy by insisting on severely restricting or banning fossil fuels and imposing global economic redistribution, conservatives should insist on solutions that build on market forces and property rights, whether Pigou-inspired carbon taxes (which conservatives should insist be used to reduce other taxes) or Coase-inspired emissions trading. While I am convinced that revenue neutral carbon taxes are the best solution currently available, there is also a conservative property-rights based case for emissions trading – but both of these solutions (or a combination of the two) are to be preferred to efforts to ban certain kinds of energy production or building a global superstate to manage our economies.

Conservatives have deep reasons within their own tradition to be concerned about the environment and climate change, and free market economists have developed many of the best policy solutions to deal with these challenges. But if conservatives don’t live up to their own conservationist ethic and won’t act on climate change, then unfortunately we can expect far worse policy solutions that do not respect property rights or markets to be adopted. So let’s hope the conservative movement remembers its own heritage and philosophy and works towards finding the right kind of solutions for the problem of climate change.

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Mark Cameron is executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity.

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