Science, Climate And Skepticism

I have to say that one of the most depressing features of the decline of conservative thinking in the US has been the resistance to the overwhelming data behind carbon and climate change. I don’t get it, however much I try. Check out Jon Chait’s takedown of George Will’s and Charles Krauthammer’s “arguments” on the subject. It’s deeply dispiriting. And it helps explain why the GOP is such an extreme outlier among right-of-center parties in the Western world on this issue.

greenpower.jpgThere is an obvious role for conservatism here at every stage. I favor maximal skepticism toward scientific theories that might prompt us to change our lives and societies in radical ways. If there were any use for a conservatism of doubt, it would be to counter such over-reach. The calls for skepticism in this field are absolutely legitimate, given the scale of the consequences. I also favor maximal skepticism in figuring out the best way to deal with such change – a debate well worth having, but which has languished because the US right won’t even agree to the premise.

But the truth is: on this question, scientific skepticism has been abundant, while the data on the core reality continues to mount. In many ways, the skeptics have garnered more media attention than the climate-change consensus-mongers. And of course there’s always a chance that we’ll stumble upon some new evidence or theory that would throw this entire edifice into doubt (it happens). And it would be awesome. But, at this point, the overwhelming scientific consensus is clear enough, and the argument behind it powerful. The world’s climate is changing; and it will mean huge challenges for humanity’s habitat. I simply cannot see why any sane person would not wish to try and mitigate that change or prepare for such an eventuality. It’s not about ideology so much as simple prudence. Even if you view the likelihood of a much warmer planet as small, its huge potential impact still makes it worth confronting. Low-probability-high-impact events are like that. And conservatives, properly understood, attend to such contingent problems prudently; only ideologues or fools decide it would be better to do nothing and hope for the best.

More to the point, the efforts to counter climate change are mainly win-win. If solar power could run the planet, wouldn’t that be great?

So why all the mockery? If we managed to discover a new low-carbon fuel that would provide us with energy at minimal environmental cost, why wouldn’t that also be a wonderful thing? Ditto wind power or carbon capture technologies. Sure there will be waste and dead ends in a green economy. We should be attuned to that as well as the need to mitigate change for the fossil fuel industries, and the people who work in them, as best we can. But there will be lots of technological and economic gains as well. So I just don’t see the core reason for conservative resistance. (Cue the groan chorus from Corey Robin, et al.)

Then there is the fashionable tendency among conservatives to describe the habits of mind of environmentalists as alien or weird: i.e. the Greens are like the early Nazis in their love of nature; enviros treat the planet as a God; it’s all about therapy; or some secular version of sin. These observations can carry some insight, of course (the Nazis were pretty green), as well as some cheap points. Here’s what Krauthammer came up with on that theme:

And you always see that no matter what happens, whether it’s a flood or it’s a drought, whether it’s one — it’s warming or cooling, it’s always a result of what is ultimately what we’re talking about here, human sin with the pollution of carbon. It’s the oldest superstition around. It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans. If you sin, the skies will not cooperate. This is quite superstitious, and I’m waiting for science which doesn’t declare itself definitive but is otherwise convincing.

Okaaay. Sure, there may well be patterns of thought among climate change scientists that echo or mimic other social movements. It’s a meme-ridden world. I’m sure some climate change scientists have beards and smoke weed and like “Orange Is The New Black”. Others may love classical music or be crypto-socialists. But that’s not an argument about the data. It’s an argument about style and culture and habits of thought behind the data. The data exist independently of all of that. And no set of evidence declares itself “definitive” either, as Krauthammer asserts. All of the evidence is obviously ongoing and more data will emerge, and more reports will be published and better understanding will result. That’s how science works. And over time, theories that work better prevail. That’s called the scientific method – and skepticism is embedded in it at almost every stage.

And that’s where we are. No amount of denial or distraction can change that fact. Either we adjust or we face the consequences. Or both. But pretending we live on another planet in another era does not seem to me to be a conservative position. It is, in Chait’s words, “absolutely bonkers.”