The Conservative Case Against Climate Legislation

Ross Douthat advances it, liberals offer rebuttals, engaging debate ensues

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Given how the apocalyptic visions of the seventies turned out, said Ross Douthat, you can't really blame conservatives for opposing radical carbon caps to combat global warming. The New York Times columnist pointed out that many people used to think overpopulation would soon lead to dire resource shortages—at the time, "it was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions." When disaster failed to materialize, the lesson was learned accordingly. Thus, argues Douthat, though "history ... rarely repeats itself exactly," and "conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken ... you can see why conservatives might lean toward the wisdom of inaction. Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through."

Not everyone agrees.

  • Why Global Warming Is Different Than Resource Scarcity  Douthat's colleague David Leonhardt responds by recalling a bet between ecologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon over resource scarcity: would population growth lead to desperation and higher resource prices, or would "human ingenuity ... outpace resource destruction?" Simon wound up being right—resource scarcity didn't wind up being a problem. "But global warming is different," argues Leonhardt, and Douthat's column ignores that. "The fact that carbon emissions are warming the planet doesn't make it more expensive to produce those emissions. So companies do not have an ever-increasing incentive to emit less--the way they would if the problem were, say, a lack of oil." In other words: "Global warming doesn't solve itself the way that resource scarcity does." Meanwhile, there's much better evidence, now, for global warming becoming a problem than there was for resource scarcity becoming a problem back at the time of the Ehrlich-Simon bet. The goal of cap and trade, therefore—"to align the incentives better, so human ingenuity can be harnessed to fight global warming"—makes sense.
  • A Bit—Not That Much  Douthat responds, agreeing that conservatives "who expect the warming trend to suddenly reverse itself have almost certainly overlearned them." But he does quibble with a couple of Leonhardt's points. In particular, he focuses on the part about evidence for global warming now being better than evidence for resource scarcity then. In fact, "the Simon-Ehrlich bet that Leonhardt references took place in 1980, after more than two decades of exponential population growth and population alarmism (and, of course, various disastrous and inhumane policy experiments). So Paul Ehrlich probably thought he had a fair amount of historical evidence on his side when he made it."
  • 'The Cure Is Worse Than the Disease,' economist Jim Manzi summarizes at the National Review. That, he says, "is the rationally persuasive argument that won the day in recent legislative debates in the Congress," putting an end to comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation.
  • Translation: We Just Don't Like Climate Legislation "The reality," writes liberal Matt Yglesias, "is that I don't think American conservatives need a reason, as such, to oppose effective policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Siding with the Chamber of Commerce against proposed new environmental regulation is just what the conservative movement does."
  • Why Is Climate Legislation Seen as Anti-Conservative? wonders The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan.
My view is that a small but steadily increasing carbon tax is a modest way to help accelerate energy innovation and guard against the possibility of quite drastic shifts in temperature caused by climate feedback loops. I also find a pure human cost-benefit analysis lacking when it comes to something like the health of the planet. But then that's my Catholic side coming through, I guess. We have a moral duty for proper stewardship, in my view, not relentless exploitation until disaster strikes. And I fail to see why such prudence is now regarded as un-conservative.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.