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Conservatives and Climate Change: Facts Need To Be Our Guiding Star

I’m glad to respond to Jonathan’s thoughtful and gracious post, which critiqued two pieces (here and here) I wrote on climate change. This is a useful dialogue to have – and it’s a credit to COMMENTARY that it has provided us a forum.

There’s much that I agree with in what Jonathan said, including the quasi-religious faith some people place in the environmental movement; the fact that some climate scientists have acted in a troubling and intellectually dishonest fashion; and the undeniable anti-capitalist agenda being advanced by some who travel under the global warming banner. I briefly touched on these elements in my posts; Jonathan did an excellent job amplifying them.

But there are two statements in particular I want to focus on that go to the core disagreement I have with some on the right on this topic. In Jonathan’s words, “given the apocalyptic scenarios routinely put forward by warming hysterics such as Al Gore​ and the level of invective that the political left has consistently spewed in response to even the most reasonable of questions about their assertions, it has been difficult for conservatives to avoid responding in kind.”

It is difficult, just as it’s difficult to respond to false, even vicious, arguments made on behalf of any cause. Having served two terms in the George W. Bush White House, I have some familiarity with what it means to be on the receiving end of slanderous charges. But our position cannot be that bad conduct on the left excuses bad conduct on the right. If those on the left exaggerate, lie, and crush dissent, should we? Our task is to win the debate on the merits, to employ, as best we can, honest and credible arguments in order to ascertain the reality of things. And if the science shows that Earth is warming and that humans have played a role in that, then we need to accept it, even if that puts us on the same side with some individuals we don’t find particularly appealing. What matters is where the truth lies, not the company we find ourselves in.

The second statement I want to focus on is this one: “Rather than the onus being on conservatives to bow to the dictates of warming science, it is the responsibility of those who wish to convince skeptics to make their case in a more accountable fashion.” To be clear: I’m not in favor of having conservatives “bow to the dictates of warming science.” But I am in favor of conservatives examining, in an independent and dispassionate manner, the best evidence we have on the matter of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). And the case for AGW has, in my estimation, been made. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some climate scientists who have exaggerated the threat or contorted the data. I said as much in my posts. But it’s simply not the case that this field of science is entirely corrupt or that the vast majority of climate scientists are dishonest and/or being intimidated to state conclusions with which they disagree.

I understand the skepticism that exists (I shared in it, in fact, until I began to explore this matter in a more systematic way). I would therefore urge people to read the careful work  of Richard Muller, who was skeptical that global warming has taken place but has now concluded it is real (for more, see here). One might study this report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICPP). Alternatively, read this report by the National Academy of Sciences, which is trustworthy. (The science academies of Britain, China, Germany, Japan, and other nations all believe there is strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring.) In 2006, the Climate Science Program, a federal program under the direction of the Bush White House and sponsored by agencies including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found “clear evidence of human influences on the climate system.” There are several others I could cite.

The point is that these reports are sober, measured and serious. They make a scientific, not a polemical, case for AGW. It’s possible they are wrong. But their case has been made in a persuasive and empirical manner. And while there are some serious scientists who dissent from this finding, and their concerns are certainly worth taking into account, it matters that all the world’s major science academies have said that AGW is occurring, and they have supplied the empirical case for their findings. The challenge for conservatives is to engage the most serious and honest arguments of those who believe in AGW, not simply lock in on the global alarmists. And the temptation conservatives need to resist is to portray the entire climate change movement as consisting of individuals who are more interested in ideology than science.

In saying all this, I agree with Jim Manzi that global warming is a manageable risk, not an existential crisis. And I have argued that there are significant uncertainties on how the climate system will respond a century or more from now. But for some on the right (not Jonathan, it needs to be said) to insist that AGW is a hoax, the product (more or less) of a massive conspiracy, is, I believe, damaging to conservatism. That is something I do care about. And more than that, it is, from what I can tell, a position at odds with where the evidence leads. Contemporary liberalism can do as it will. But for conservatism, facts–those stubborn facts–need to be our guiding star.


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