The “War” In Global Warming

Last month, in an op-ed for Fox News, retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley made a national security-based case for worrying about climate change. Eric Holthaus interviews Titley about his belief that the changing climate will be a main driving force for conflict in the 21st century:

Q. What’s the worst-case scenario, in your view?

A. … You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.

Here’s another one: We basically do nothing on emissions. Sea level keeps rising, three to six feet by the end of the century. Then, you get a series of super-typhoons into Shanghai and millions of people die. Does the population there lose faith in Chinese government? Does China start to fissure? I’d prefer to deal with a rising, dominant China any day.

Titley thinks it’s time for conservatives to start grappling with the problem:

Where are the free-market, conservative ideas? The science is settled. Instead, we should have a legitimate policy debate between the center-right and the center-left on what to do about climate change. If you’re a conservative – half of America – why would you take yourself out of the debate? C’mon, don’t be stupid. Conservative people want to conserve things. Preserving the climate should be high on that list.

Sean McElwee thinks that environmentalists could probably garner more support on the right if they framed the issue differently:

Republican support for environmental causes is stronger than it might appear. Two Ph.D. students at the University of California Santa Barbara, Phillip Ehret and Aaron Sparks, found that a quarter of individuals self-identifying as “very conservative” or “conservative” support environmental regulations, even if they risk harming the economy. A Yale Study finds that 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans favor “regulating CO2 as a pollutant” and majorities from both parties favor investing in renewable energy. If Republican voters are concerned about the environment, haven’t we seen an action?

One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.

One great challenge for environmentalists is finding a way to frame the issue in terms real conservatives intuitively grasp. To wit: If you love this land, why would you want to see it changed irreparably by our behavior? If you believe, as Christians do, that conserving the planet is our sacred duty, why would you treat the earth as disposable? Should we behave like Noah and conserve the earth – or ransack it for material ends? The trouble, of course, is that these deep conservative themes have been displaced on the right by know-nothing hatred of anything defined as “liberal”. And so you get outright mockery of concerns for the planet and too-clever-by-half attempts to deny the reality and moral challenge of climate change.

In the end, that is a crisis for conservatism, as much as environmentalism.