If Conservatives Were Really “Conservative,” They Would Want to Do Something About Global Warming

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.


Been a long time since Republicans have been geuninely conservative on anything but marriage and abortion. Economics? hardly. Foreign policy? Nope. Environment? Don’t get me started.

Although Edmund Burke is today lionized by the likes of George Will as the intellectual father of modern conservatism, it’s important to realize that Burke himself was a lifelong Whig, and staunchly opposed the (British) Conservative party of his day. For example, Burke admired the American Revolution, which the Tories (conservatives) strongly opposed.

Conservative thought is based in liberal ideas.

The problem is a lethal combination of greed and unrestrained corporations.  Greed can override any conservative principles in a Republican brain, or Democratic brain, for that matter.

Greed is an intrinsically human trait that is only constrained by the rules of the group.  If the group is not bound by rules, then greed can do as it pleases.

If anything is axiomatically conservative in the Burkean sense , it is that the political neutrality of scientific institutions must first exist in order to be respected. 

is when Mooney transforms into Narcissus, after seeing his reflection, to remind us that his “liberal brain” is so beautiful and when he shares his hallelujah, Moses on the mountain, moment when he has a revalation about the damaged ”Republican brain” that he imagines to be real and quite different from his beautiful brain.  The content of what he says is worth considering but when it is delivered by Chris Narcissus it reduces the effectiveness of his content.

come from posters that “attack the poster not the post” that convince themselves that they satisfactorily rebutted material they never even addressed.

It’s kinda like Erkel challenging Mike Tyson to a few rounds in the ring.  While he may climb into the ring, the only two hits to be seen is when Erkel gets hit, and then subsequently hits the ground.

Does this ring any kinda bell for you?

“about the damaged ”Republican brain”“

Well, research does show right wingers are less intelligent.


Sorry about that.

In at least one way here, I’d say “It’s the hypocrisy, stupid!” 

That would be on the risk thing and costs associated with mitigation.  In the wake of the Iraq War, as I recall the economic costs of compliance with the Kyoto protocols was guesstimated at something like one tenth of the cost of the needless war.  But even that imo, and as I’ve argued since, was overshadowed by the hypocrisy and stupidity of the risk/benefit analysis underlying the rationale for that stupid war, the”1%” Cheney doctrine.

As I recall, during that time the climate scientist had a “90%” certainty of the reality of AGW and it’s projected potential economic impacts.  In other words, it’s okay to go to war based on a 1% chance that terrorist might get their hands on a nuke the Iraqis didn’t have, but stupid and unacceptable to take action on AGW with a 90% certainty. Of course one could make the case that the Dark One was just covering his ass, given the life they strived so hard to give to the lies associated with the Iraqi wmd programs, but we all know now that there simply is no comparing the work product of our intel community and there “known unknowns”, and that from the hard data/science after decades of accumulating it.

Emanuel is entirely correct – their support for subsidies in this instance is but another example of privatising the profits while socializing the costs.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but on the AGW issue this seems to go to the heart of ground zero for the modern con/libertarians, property rights,  http://www.monbiot.com/2012/01/06/why-libertarians-must-deny-climate-change/ and speaks directly to how much the “AWK AWK socialism!!!”, “free market” crowd, really loves and are dependent on, socialism. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article29550.htm

The subsidies are just icing on this particular cake, and part of the “con”.

These things are all quited dated, so I’d agree with what you seem to be alluding to – while Emanuel may be waking up to all the contradictions and hypocrisies of his chosen ideology and those currently carrying its banner, the only thing that has really changed isn’t who and what they are or have been in pursuit of, but rather the way they go about rhetorically and politically pursuing it. It’s been clear since Bush abandoned Kyoto and he and his pal Luntz moved from global warming to the more innocuous “climate change” rhetoric, that they were willing to risk what is now unfolding as opposed to the profits under threat, whether from taxes, regs, etc.  It all goes back to that morality-based shame/disgust etc thing I’ve harped on.  The voices in the wilderness like him, or say Frum, Bartlett, etc, are merely reacting to the predictable Frankenstein Monster they helped create through prior support or inaction (up until now), and that monster is the republican voter of today with a shameful and corrupted worldview in more ways than I need cite here, that has nothing but a wall of denial with countless bricks standing between them and their ugly selves.

I’d also agree with a “better late than never” attitude towards Emanuel’s kind, and that should be the essential lesson taken from this sad chapter in our collective history – that some cons woke up after the electricity was applied and the monster was animated, as opposed to when it was being stitched together in the public square under full view of those like us and those so blind they would not see.  As I see it, only after a collective lesson in humility brought about their abandonment of their “rightness”, and acknowledgement and acceptance of their wrongness on so many costly issues as Emanuel (and others cons) is seemingly on the road of individually here, can there be any hope of remedies and the compromise and cooperation so badly needed before those remedies can be realized. 

I think perhaps we’re on the same page – it’s hard to find hope after the Pandora’s Box lid has been lifted or the genie is already outta the bottle, which are pretty apt descriptions of the modern rightwing brain.  It’s as daunting a task as a cure for the environmental/climate damage we’ve sofar wrought. 

It has long been my hope and remains, that the reality of AGW will do the dirty work for us.  It alone has the potential for forcing them to see…

I’m suspect of anyone who looks at climate change through an idelogical perspective. People who feel the need to do so are, on both sides of the spectrum, are outliers. 

My mother’s is 85 and even realizes the weather is different now and asks me, in a question that doesn’t require an answer, if we’re responsible. She knows the answer. 

Those are the people who will shift the climate debate. Their observations about climate aren’t fixed in politics. They know something is wrong and they are going to ask what is to be done? How do we fix it?

It is extraordinary to me, and it will be an impossible fact for later generations, why this isn’t a top issue in the election today. 

Must we wait for a tipping point? 


I agree with the more fatalistic viewpoint of stupidicus … only major disasters have the potential to push the naysayers in charge today back to the fringe. However, keep in mind that the US is not the world, it is different in other countries, notably Europe. Large steps are made in switching from fossil to alternative energy systems. It is ultimately inevitable, even in the US. But the pain and suffering of future generations from the changes ahead could be mitigated, and perhaps some even avoided if the US and others were to move earlier on the energy transition. Meanwhile, those of us craving the actual discussion of how best to do it struggle to explain the gridlock to their kids and grandkids. In that sense, denial is brilliant, it makes you sleep soundly at night, and be without worry during the day.

Justice? Maybe in TheHague … but we do not extradite US citizens there. And all current atmospheric pollution is perfectly legal.

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