I was defeated by facts.
It wasn’t all that long ago when I joined others on the right in dismissing concerns about climate change. It was my firm belief that the science was unsettled, that any movement associated with Al Gore and Van Jones couldn’t possibly be trusted, that environmentalists were simply left-wing, anti-capitalist kooks.
It wasn’t until after I read Stanford University professor Morris Fiorina’s book Disconnect (2009) that I started to reconsider things. Fiorina noted that while environmentalism is now considered the domain of the Democratic Party, for many years it was the GOP that was identified with conservationist concerns. I was curious as to how the political climate shifted with regard to environmentalism—and whether there was something to all this talk about climate change.
I’m very fortunate to have acquaintances in the environmentalist movement, and I began discussing my concerns with them last fall. One friend recommended that I read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting that it might resolve some of the questions I had about the science behind climate concerns.
I began reading the report with a skeptical eye, but by the time I concluded I could not find anything to justify my skepticism. The report presented an airtight case that the planet’s temperature has increased dramatically (“Eleven of the last twelve years [1995-2006] rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature [since 1850]”), that sea levels have undergone a dramatic and disturbing increase since the 1960s (“Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3]mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8]mm per year from 1993 to 2003”) and that climate alteration is having an unusual impact on avian and sea life (“…recent warming is strongly affecting terrestrial biological systems, including such changes as earlier timing of spring events, such as leaf-unfolding, bird migration and egg-laying…observed changes in marine and freshwater biological systems are associated with rising water temperatures, as well as related changes in ice cover, salinity, oxygen levels and circulation”).
The report highlighted the key role carbon emissions played in climate alteration, noting, “The largest growth in GHG emissions between 1970 and 2004 has come from energy supply, transport and industry, while residential and commercial buildings, forestry [including deforestation] and agriculture sectors have been growing at a lower rate” and that “[c]hanges in the atmospheric concentrations of GHGs and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system and are drivers of climate change. They affect the absorption, scattering and emission of radiation within the atmosphere and at the Earth’s surface.” I was stunned by the report’s claim that “[t]he observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.”
If carbon-fueled climate alteration continues at its current rate, the report noted, we will bear witness to unprecedented health horrors: “The health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events…increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone in urban areas related to climate change; and the altered spatial distribution of some infectious diseases.” In addition, “For increases in global average temperature exceeding 1.5 to 2.5°C and in concomitant atmospheric CO2 concentrations, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species’ ecological interactions and shifts in species’ geographical ranges, with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services, e.g. water and food supply.”
The report did provide some hope, noting that “[s]ocieties can respond to climate change…by reducing GHG emissions [mitigation], thereby reducing the rate and magnitude of change… Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.”
I came away from the report convinced that climate alteration poses a critical threat to our health and way of life, and that “policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon” are in fact necessary, from an economic and a moral standpoint, to mitigate that threat. Such policies—most notably the much-maligned concept of cap-and-trade—should not be considered job-killers but life-savers.
There’s a part of me that understands why libertarian pundits seem to have so much scorn for those who support state action to combat carbon emissions. Modern libertarianism is suffused with skepticism of government, and supporting state regulation of carbon emissions requires, on some level, a belief in government to get things right. Is it even possible to be a libertarian and an environmentalist—or a conservative and an environmentalist, for that matter?
I’m a bit skeptical myself. I’d argue that conservatives and libertarians should strongly support regulation to reduce carbon pollution, since pollution by one entity invariably infringes upon the rights of others (including property rights), and no entity has a constitutional right to pollute. It does not put America on the road to serfdom to suggest that the federal government has a compelling interest in protecting the country from ecological damage. If anything, it puts America on the road to common sense.
Since reconsidering climate science, I’ve had a number of debates with conservative and libertarian friends, who oppose government regulation of carbon emissions in part because they believe those regulations will cost too much. Of course regulations cost; limiting ecological damage and preserving public health requires money. The issue is whether those costs are moral to impose. If no entity has a constitutional right to pollute, and if the federal government has a compelling interest in reducing carbon pollution, then how can those costs not be moral?
In the months following my acceptance of the conclusions in the IPCC report, I’ve had a change in my emotional climate. I go back and forth between disappointment and hope—sadness over seeing Republicans who once believed in the threat of climate change (such as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty) suddenly turn into skeptics; optimism about efforts by such groups as Republicans for Environmental Protection and Citizens Climate Lobby to sound the alarm about the need to combat climate pollution. I struggle with the urge to give in to cynicism and bitterness, to write off the American right for its refusal to recognize scientific facts. Thankfully, there’s a stronger urge—an urge to keep working until the American right recognizes that a healthy planet is required to have the life and liberty that allows us to pursue happiness.