Taking The "Conserve" Out Of Conservatism


Bill McKibben confronts the lockstep denialism of GOP senators over climate change:

The odd and troubling thing about this stance is not just that it prevents action. It’s also profoundly unconservative... Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage.

The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

Manzi dissents, calling it "comfort food for liberals":

This is the crux of the problem with McKibben’s argument: According to the IPCC, the expected economic costs of global warming are about 3 percent of GDP more than 100 years from now. This is pretty far from the rhetoric of global devastation that McKibben, and so many others, use.

But since when did conservatives only care about "economic costs"? I respect Manzi's cost-benefit argument, and his policy pragmatism. But there is a moral dimension to real conservatism, even a spiritual one, that does not treat the planet as something to be used, but as something to be a sensible steward of. And, as Jim also acknowledges, we do not know for sure whether the temperature rise will be stable, or whether there could be a sudden feedback loop that changes things far more radically. When you do not know such things or sure, it seems to me that a conservative veers on the side of caution, which, in this case, means taking this problem seriously, doing all we can to mitigate it (using the market and government to innovate and research clean energy urgently, for example), as well as thinking deeply about what it means for humankind to suddenly alter the environment in which we have always lived since we emerged as a distinct species on this earth.

This cannot be reduced to percentage points of GDP. And a conservative disposition, it seems to me, regards the loss of habitat, of species, of the settled way of things as sources of grief, not indifference. Let alone denial. As I wrote a few years back:

The earth is something none of us can own or control. It is something far older than our limited minds can even imagine. Our task is therefore a modest one: of stewardship, the quintessential conservative occupation.

Conservatives do not seek to remake the world anew. We do not hope to impose upon it some abstract ideological “truth” or bring about some new age for humanity. We seek as conservatives merely to live up to our generational responsibility and to care for the inheritance we have in turn been given. This ecological vision is a Burkean one, which is why Toryism’s natural colour is as much green as blue.