Originally, when I asked MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel to be a guest on the Point of Inquiry podcast, my goal was simple. I wanted someone who could give an expert take on the relationship between climate change and all the freakish weather we’ve been seeing. As for having this individual also be a self-described conservative and onetime voting Republican, and someone who fell under attack from Tea Party types because of his stance on climate change…well, that it was kind of icing on the cake.
As the interview progressed, though, I came to feel something quite different. I felt, ever so tentatively at least, that there is a real persuasive case to be made by conservatives to other conservatives about climate change, one that just might help bring them around to seeing the need for real policy solutions. What’s more, such a case might even prevail if conservatives in the U.S. today truly embraced the principles of their Burkean intellectual forefathers—which one can conclude almost by definition that they don’t, since they largely deny the science of global warming.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the start of the interview, Emanuel expertly detailed why we know climate science is reliable, how climate change manifests itself in extreme weather—statistically, of course, and not anecdotally—and why outright skepticism of global warming caused by humans just isn’t a credible intellectual position for one to hold any longer. So far, so good.
But where things got really interesting was around minute 14, where the conversation shifted towards policy and Emanuel made a conservative case for taking the science of climate change seriously, and finding a solution to the problem. “The thing to do is to get [conservatives] to understand how much they could potentially bring to the table in trying to figure out how we deal with these risks,” Emanuel explained.
What did he mean? Well, if one is a Burkean conservative, then one by definition wants to prevent risk to the existing order of things. One wants to conserve, to ensure stability. And since climate change is clearly a grave risk to economic, ecological, and overall planetary order, Emanuel naturally sees addressing global warming as a conservative idea. As he explained at minute 16 or so of the podcast:
It’s conservative in the little C sense that most people mean when they say, a conservative family insures itself, for example, and doesn’t take unnecessary risks and gambles. And that’s an important point, because what we’re dealing with here is risk. And a conservative approach to risk is, to take out an insurance policy, for one thing. And that’s the way we ought to be thinking about this problem.
Are you listening to that, conservatives?
But that was only the beginning of Emanuel’s conservative argument that today’s U.S. conservatives are doing global warming all wrong. Emanuel then went on to explain how the current state of affairs on energy policy is anything but…conservative:
On the energy side, there are a lot of things [going on] that aren’t conservative at all, that are at the heart of the problem. Is it a conservative free market principle for the U.S. taxpayer to be massively subsidizing one industry at the expense of another? No, I don’t think it is, but that’s precisely what we’re doing with fossil fuels. There are huge tax subsidies.
Is it a conservative principle to permit one business to pass on a major part of its cost of doing business to some completely different industry, make them pay the bill? There’s nothing conservative about that, but we do that massively for the coal industry. The coal industry racks up somewhere around 180 billion dollars a year of health costs, that have to be absorbed by ratepayers of insurance policies, and by taxpayers who are underwriting things like Medicare.
These aren’t conservative principles.
I have to confess that at around this point in the interview, I wanted to cry out, preach it Brother Emanuel. I was getting pretty darn fired up. It all makes so much sense that a conservative wouldn’t want to put up with this kind of stuff. Subsidies? Come on.
But of course, it doesn’t really help for me to have some weird out of body experience and get all psyched up on behalf of conservatives being principled. After all, I’m still a liberal at the end of the day. It’s not me who needs psyching or convincing.
The question, then, is why today’s U.S. conservatives don’t listen to people like Emanuel, despite the fact that he speaks to them in a language that they ought to understand, and furthermore, speaks as one of them?
This is, of course, a question that takes us very deep into the Republican brain. Emanuel, in our the interview, basically blamed it all on the extremism of the Tea Party–the very same extremism that pushed him out of the Republican Party and made him call himself an Independent (although philosophically still a “conservative”).
But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. I think that the natural conservative tendency to want order and stability tends to travel along with a lot of other tendencies—to want find such stability in the group, the tribe, the team; to more adhere to dogma and religious beliefs; to staunchly defend the tribe and banish outsiders (like Emanuel)–and an overall tendency towards closure and fixity of beliefs, rather than openness to new ideas. In other words, psychological conservatism all too readily undermines sensible intellectual conservatism—leading to a situation where someone like Kerry Emanuel makes a whole lot of conservative sense…and so-called conservatives want nothing to do with it, because they've gone all in on a worldview that won't allow it.
So perhaps Emanuel’s response, when I bluntly asked him why he didn’t stay around and fight to reclaim his onetime political party, makes sense. He laughed, and then frankly added,
I’m still quite willing to talk to anybody about this problem that wants to listen to it, and talk about the fact that we ought to be debating the things that are really debatable about these problems.
Here’s hoping Emanuel will find a lot of conservative people to talk with. At least in a former incarnation, I think Mitt Romney is just the sort of conservative who would have listened.
Which…yeah. Which gets at the very root of the problem.
To listen to my full interview with Kerry Emanuel, click here.