The Case for Conservative Climate Action
Conservative Climate Perspective
A 24/7 news cycle bolstered by a stream of presidential tweets can make Donald Trump feel like a permanent fixture in our political imaginations, but those days are numbered. It may not feel this way now but there will come an end to his reign presidency. It is possible (if extremely unlikely) that he will be removed from office. His historic unpopularity makes his re-election implausible. And even in the case of four more years of uninterrupted Trumpism, the sun must still eventually set on the reign of Donald. Despite the fragility and impermanence of the cult of personality that begins and ends with Trump, many on the Right have taken up the MAGA banner to clamor for a wide range of reactionary populist policy proposals. They assume as if Trumpism is going to be the mode of thought for all right-leaning politics moving forward. The urgency and all-consuming nature of the moment of MAGA has led to short-sightedness and an inability to consider the implications of their actions.
If conservatives, and Americans generally, are serious about politics as a social tool for devising and discussing ideas that benefit the common good, it is past time to strategically consider how to address the crises that will continue to permeate politics in the years and decades to come. There is no better example in the American political landscape than the ongoing, verified, and escalating crisis of human-driven climate change. What could possibly be a more compelling political promise than “we have a plan to grow all parts of the economy, protect the environment, and dramatically improve American quality of life”? And what better an issue than one that will affect all Americans for decades to come? As Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans come forward with their (albeit tepid) proposals for climate change, per Axios this week, it appears worth considering.
Conservative Climate Ideology
“Trumpism”, used colloquially, is the current ideological framework from and through which the modern establishment Republican Party operates. It attempts to create a theory of government and policy from the sort of glandular reactions that make up the current modus operandi, since the President and his allies do not have one of their own. The only consistent policies are ones that support the namesake of the ideology, seeking to “own the libs” at all costs, including the loss of winnable elections. Matt Bevin’s failure in deep-red Kentucky shows that this political strategy fails without the cult of personality around the President, and the overwhelmingly-moderate swath of Democrats to win in 2018 exemplifies how Americans have grown tired of toxic, tribal politics.
As the Trump Show concludes, conservatives need to be realistic about how the public, and history, will view Trumpism. They will need to define, and re-define, who they will be in a post-Trump era. Andy Smarick of the R Street Institute argues in The Bulwark for a rosy future GOP in which the party returns to some Reaganite ideal of limited government, individual liberty and free markets. Conservatives are wise to be much more bearish on the potential for that to be realized. Our small-c “conservative” institutions have dwindled over the past few decades. These local communities and support systems that create solidarity and identity are vital to Buckleyite/Kirkian/Burkean conservatism. As Yuval Levin lays out in his New York Times op-ed, this phenomenon explains our current social and political crisis in deft fashion. Despite that decline, those conservative ideals do offer an ideological framework for what policies that distinguish themselves politically from both Trumpism and progressivism look like, with alternatives to accepting this new reality as inevitable.
Conservative Climate Politics
Though it is likely impotent to offer unsolicited political advice to the GOP, it would still serve Republicans well to think long and hard what the aftermath will look like in terms of policy priorities and ideas. Republicans must convince voters to trust them to address the most pressing issues of the coming years, as demographic changes seem to predict electoral doom for the GOP, speaking to voters’ deepest concerns: the economy, national security, housing, and general quality of life. The radical answer of how to politically win the day is thus: conservatives must seriously engage the energy and climate debate. Seen as a generation-defining issue by large swaths of voters, energy/climate is a policy arena which they can stake out forward-looking, long-lasting positions distinct from both the Trump-Establishment GOP of the past, as well as their political opponents on the Left. It also affects every sector of the economy, from energy to all the sectors that use energy: industry, transportation, trade, and technology.
The current discourse puts all of these goals at odds, requiring voters to choose either the economy or the environment; their way of life, or life itself. The establishment Republican Party continually argues that any effort to reduce emissions or protect the environment will destroy American industry, overlooking both the tremendous economic benefits of kick-starting an entire industrial sector and the terrifying costs of ignoring the implications of climate change. They speak as if climate action will destroy everything in your life that you love, dismissing the easily observable destructive effects of a shifting climate. As such, they seek to minimize the risks posed by climate change by either mocking the concerned (if you’re serious about it, nuke China!) or framing the concerns as “alarmism” (“Hey, if ‘humans will likely survive’, and we can colonize space, who cares?” asks a United States Senator). A main rhetorical strategy is to conflate any climate proposal with the profoundly contentious, $90-trillion “Green New Deal”. And why wouldn’t they?
If addressing climate change requires dramatic limits to American prosperity, or lives of monastic self-sacrifice, it would be preferable for voters to ignore the warning signs, especially since the opportunity cost isn’t convincing to them. The GOP know-nothing-ism that pervades Trump Republican thought is a winning strategy for the time being, and a ticket to certain defeat in the long term.
The Conservative Climate Alternative
This sort of false dichotomy is not unique to the Right, and many on the environmental Left often seek to perpetuate it. In certain segments of their faction, everything from Malthusian demands of population control to authoritarian calls to seize the means of production are argued as necessary to save the planet. Anything short of the GND-style re-ordering of the American economy is argued as apocalyptically insufficient. The result is the reality Sonny Bunch describes (in tongue-in-cheek fashion) in the Washington Post: radical environmentalists seem to make perfect movie villains, demanding economic stagnation and dramatic lifestyle changes to save the planet. They are “well-intended enough to often seem somewhat reasonable, but meddlesome busybodies whose hopes and dreams are to radically reduce standards of living in order to affect some utopian scheme or another that will return the world — or worlds — to an unsullied Eden.” (Sonny has compiled a great ongoing Twitter thread of examples, as well.)
Despite this, this reality creates an opportunity for clear political and rhetorical victory that leads to both a better America and a livable climate. By engaging with serious solutions, rather than naysaying and whataboutism, there is a clear distinction from past GOP strategy. And if these solutions breed competition, leverage markets for innovation, and doesn’t burden everyday citizens and businesses, moderates and conservatives can present a clear-eyed alternative to the rhetoric that appears villainous to the general public. To triumph in this contrived, cynical debate, a coalition must reject bad-faith reductionism by offering a transcendent vision for true human flourishing.
This is Part 1 of a Series on Conservative Climate Solutions
Part 2: The Case for Conservative Climate Policies
Part 3: The Case for a Conservative Climate Coalition