Can conservatives be allies against climate change?

They’ve given us a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
But we’re surrendering to hopelessness if we assume bad faith.

A week ago Friday, the NYT published an essay I’m still puzzling over: Bret Stephens — a Times columnist whose hiring I have always attributed to the newspaper’s affirmative-action-for-conservatives policy — wrote “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …“. Reading it raised a question in my mind: “Yes, conservative minds are changing, but … can they ever change enough to make them real allies?”

Anybody who has been watching this topic has seen the pattern. Over the last decade or so, conservatives who aren’t willing to deny reality completely have staged a retreat worthy of a great general, slowly falling back from one line of defense to the next. The major defense lines, as I remember them (and still run into them from time to time), look like this:

Most frustrating of all are the people who shift back and forth from between defensive positions. One day they’re admitting greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the next day it’s all a hoax again. But whatever line of defense they choose, the conclusion is always the same: Do nothing. It’s the wrong time, or the wrong tactic, or we’ll never get China and India to cooperate, or something. There’s always something.

So it’s easy to get cynical, and to assume that any conservative who briefly seems to be talking sense about the climate is doing so in bad faith. Their new understanding, whatever it is, is just the next line of defense against doing anything substantive to avert the looming disaster.

But here’s the problem with that cynicism. The people who are already convinced drastic action is necessary aren’t a big enough voting bloc to carry out drastic action.

Occasionally I’ll see polls that indicate otherwise, but those numbers are deceiving: Many will tell a pollster they support climate-change action, but then will be protesting in the streets as soon as a carbon tax makes gas prices rise or their heating bills go up. (See, for example, the “yellow vests” in France.)

So if we’re actually going to tackle this problem, we need converts — real ones who understand that sacrifices need to be made if we’re going to save future generations from much worse prospects. From there it follows that we need to welcome converts, rather than give them the third degree to make sure they’re serious enough.

What’s more, lots of people aren’t going to change their minds all at once. Road-to-Damascus conversions do happen, but they’re rare. Many who come to see the reality of the climate challenge are going to see it in stages. So while that bulleted list above may be a line of successive defenses for bad-faith pseudo-converts, it can also be a road of progress for good-faith real converts. Is your it’s-all-a-hoax cousin now admitting that temperatures are going up? Rejoice! It’s a step.

I understand that it’s frustrating as hell to stand on the deck of the Titanic and try to stay calm while people tell you it’s not time to lower the life boats yet. But if you’re not able to lower the lifeboats by yourself, what else can you do? You need to meet these people where they are and coax them into doing the right thing. That may be time-consuming and time may be short, but if there’s not a more direct path …

And that brings me back to Bret Stephens. There are lots of reasons to be cynical here. “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …” is laid out like a new line of defense, with the “but” seeming to lead to “we still shouldn’t do anything”. And that’s kinda-sorta where most of the essay goes. His argument is structured as a series of buts: Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting,

  • but we need to recognize clean energy’s limitations
  • but we’ve gotten better at mitigating climate disasters
  • but we need to accept economic growth as a benefit
  • but we need solutions that align with human nature
  • but we need to avoid alarmist activism
  • but the market, not the state, will solve the problem

Sounds terrible, right? I mean, alarmist is one of those right-wing boogyman words, like woke or socialist. It doesn’t have any objective definition, it’s just a pejorative that conservatives throw at people who say things they don’t want to hear. Human nature is another much-abused term, strongly related to the idea that anything I object to is “unnatural”. And greenhouse-gas emission, like all pollution, is a classic example of a market externality, a cost the market can’t see because it’s primarily borne by someone other than buyers and sellers. Markets won’t address externalities unless government restructures transactions to make the cost visible (say, by creating an artificial cost through taxation). So even a “market” solution will not be the market acting instead of the state, it will be the market acting in concert with the state.

But even after all that, Stephens concludes with a point that’s not a “but” at all.

  • The conservative movement needs to set an example for its children and prepare for the future.

A problem for the future is, by its very nature, a moral one. A conservative movement that claims to care about what we owe the future has the twin responsibility of setting an example for its children and at the same time preparing for that future. The same prudential logic that applies to personal finances, business decisions, Social Security, the federal debt or other risks to financial solvency should dictate thoughtful policies when it comes to climate.

So in other words, Stephens writes a litany of but-this and but-that, but comes around to the conclusion that we have to do something.

That conclusion made me reevaluate who all the yes-buts were for. What if they’re there not to provide further lines of defense against action, but to reassure conservatives that he’s still one of them? As in: I still believe in markets and growth, and I still look skeptically at big government programs, but I also think we have to do something about climate change. I haven’t drunk the woke liberal new-world-order kool-aid, but I think we have to do something about climate change.

Conservative media has created a caricature of climate-change activists as wild-eyed religious fanatics who support one-world socialist dictatorship, hate technology, want to take us back to the Dark Ages, and don’t care if a few billion people have to starve to death while we’re getting there.

Stephens is writing largely for folks who have bought that propaganda, so he can’t just announce that he’s become one of Them now. If he’s going to bring any part of this fan-base with him, he has to write something like this essay — as if facing reality about the climate without going insane is some brand-new position he just discovered, and you can join him there without also joining AOC, who presumably is off on some other island out there somewhere.

So what can he teach me? Respect. As I said above, I don’t think Stephens’ essay was written with me in mind, so a lot of his points don’t say much to me. But I do learn a few things.

The first noteworthy nugget is how this whole adventure started: Back in 2017, Stephens wrote a climate-change-skeptical column, which a lot of scientists denounced. One of them was oceanographer John Englander of the Rising Seas Institute.

Two years later, on a visit to New York, he wrote me out of the blue and asked to meet. Unlike most of my detractors, his note was so cordial that it seemed churlish to say no. We met the next day.

Englander is a trim, affable and eloquent man of 72 who once ran the Cousteau Society and reminds me of a bearded Patrick Stewart, albeit with an American accent. His pitch was simple: The coastline we have taken for granted for thousands of years of human history changed rapidly in the past on account of natural forces — and would soon be changing rapidly and disastrously by man-made ones. A trip to Greenland, which holds one-eighth of the world’s ice on land (most of the rest is in Antarctica) would show me just how drastic those changes have been. Would I join him?

Again, it seemed churlish to say no (though the pandemic would delay my trip by two years). More to the point, if my main objection to the climate activists was my impression of their overweening certitude, didn’t it behoove me to check my own? Where — except in the risk of changing my mind — was the harm in testing my views?

In other words, Englander made an assumption of good faith. He reached out not with insults or claims of authority, but simply said “Come and see for yourself.”

Now, most of us are not in a position to take people to Greenland. But we can approach them in a manner that offers them an opportunity to be their best selves.

That approach defuses precisely the propaganda I pointed to above. If you and I are real people, then we might have a discussion where real ideas get exchanged. But if we’re two caricatures, that’s not going to happen. So it’s important to break the frame in both directions: I’m not casting a negative image on the other person from the outset, and (because I’m aware of the caricature in their head) I’m not invoking their negative image of people like me.

Lesson 2: risk. The conservative caricature of a climate-change activist is “alarmist” — someone running around saying “We’re all gonna die!” And yes, there are a few such people; drawing undue attention to them is one way that Fox News supports the caricature. Stephens ends up restating the risk for himself:

Talk of an imminent climate catastrophe is probably misleading, at least in the way most people understand “imminent.” A continual drumbeat of alarm may do more to exhaust voters than it will to rouse them. A more accurate description of the challenge might be a “potentially imminent tipping point,” meaning the worst consequences of climate change can still be far off but the end of our ability to reverse them is drawing near. Again, the metaphor of cancer — never safe to ignore and always better to deal with at Stage 2 than at Stage 4 — can be helpful.

I’m not sure who he thinks will find this description new — certainly not most climate scientists. And how is it inappropriate to sound the alarm about a “potentially imminent tipping point” or a stage-2 cancer?

But the key point here is to recognize that people are bad at thinking about distant but high-impact risks. Stephens addresses this problem by consulting the kind of risk-assessor conservatives respect: a hedge-fund manager. That’s not where I would have gone, but he ends up getting good advice.

“If you face something that is potentially existential,” he explained, “existential for nations, even for life as we know it, even if you thought the risk is, say, 5 percent, you’d want to hedge against it.”


“One thing we try to do,” he said, “is we buy protection when it’s really inexpensive, even when we think we may well not need it.” The forces contributing to climate change, he noted, echoing Englander, “might be irreversible sooner than the damage from climate change has become fully apparent. You can’t say it’s far off and wait when, if you had acted sooner, you might have dealt with it better and at less cost. We have to act now.”

Lesson 3: Purity. When you frame something as a moral problem, one temptation is to “Go and sin no more.” In other words, we’ve been harming the environment, so from this day forward we should fight against anything that harms the environment.

But there’s a problem with that: Any form of drastic climate action is going to have environmental side-effects, not all of them good. One example Stephens cites is mining: If we’re going to switch to electric cars, we’re going to need a lot more rare-earth minerals for batteries. All that mining is going to have some negative consequences, especially local ones in the mining communities.

Similarly, hydro-electric dams produce power without carbon emissions, but they also change the eco-systems of the dammed rivers. Nuclear power plants produce zero-carbon power, but leave us with a thousands-of-years waste-management problem. If regulated properly to minimize methane leaks, fracking can produce a fuel that still emits carbon, but less of it than coal.

None of those are sin-no-more solutions. They’re paths into the future that trade some environmental damages off against other environmental damages.

And this is where conservatives who actually want to solve the problem can play a role. Because while markets suck at sinning no more, if they’re properly regulated they can be good at trading some kinds of risks and harms off against others.

Purity makes for good slogans. But actual solutions are going to involve trade-offs. We’re going to have to make judgments about how much pain the public is willing to accept at any given moment, and to work as efficiently as possible within that pain-budget.

So is he serious? Maybe, maybe not. But I think we have to hope that he is, and that he is blazing a trail for some larger number of conservatives who don’t want their grandchildren to remember them as villains. The kind of action we want requires a bigger consensus than we have. So we need to gather converts wherever we can find them.

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  • Rip Light  On November 7, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Wow! I read about half of the Stephens piece, and then gave up because I thought, “OK, got it, I’m tired of this” – all those “buts” that conservatives cite as reasons to maintain the status quo. And then you do the kind of close reading I did as an English major, arriving at a much subtler grasp of what the Stephens is doing – in particular, realizing that he isn’t writing for us. That’s just excellent, Doug. Your three lessons are bracing and necessary.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On November 7, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    The problem is a lack of trust. Climate change deniers can’t see the changes themselves, and don’t trust the scientists who are telling us what we’re facing. So when the issue is framed as our duty to our descendants, it’s a dispute between those of us who view climate change mitigation as part of that duty, and those who view resistance to that same mitigation as their duty.

    The response to COVID was a microcosm of this debate. Lockdowns and social distancing helped slow the virus’ spread, but at the cost of economic hardship and a cohort of kids who essentially lost two years of education. It’s not unreasonable for someone to look at that tradeoff and conclude that we would have been better off ignoring the virus and letting the people who didn’t want to be exposed isolate themselves voluntarily instead of trying to save everybody. Climate change of course is different as it will affect everyone, but if we think of ourselves at the equivalent point that we were at the start of the pandemic, it’s not difficult to see why many people are skeptical of the experts telling them what must be done to avert catastrophe when they view those same measures as creating an even worse catastrophe.

  • Carol  On November 7, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    The same people who worry about the effects of the national debt and the funding of Social Security on future generations should be amenable to thinking about the effects of climate change on future generations, right?

  • Thomas Paine  On November 21, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    I would suggest that the first lesson be called “Approach” rather than “Respect”. Respect is earned, and pretty much all of those engaged in global-warming-denial have done nothing to earn respect for their position. OTOH, employing effective tactics that recognize the realities of who they are serves the mission without elevating their status to the false “both-sides” equivalency that provides cover for their illogical and morally indefensible position.


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