The Right Needs To Grow Up On Environmentalism

The Right Needs To Grow Up On Environmentalism

Ben Sixsmith
Ben Sixsmith
8 min read

Mentioning the environment to a conservative is liable to elicit a similar response that mentioning political correctness would from a left-winger: a slight raising of the eyebrows, a slight exhalation of breath and, perhaps, a folding of the arms or tapping of the feet. It smells—it positively stinks—of out-group affiliation. The environment? That’s what those dreadful latté sipping, lentil eating, flip-flop wearing leftists talk about. Are you sure you’re in the right place?

It did not have to be this way. Up until the later decades of the twentieth century, attitudes towards the environment did not fall along tribal lines. Conservationists, like President Theodore Roosevelt, were often conservatives. As environmental causes, like the campaigns against DDT and air pollution, gathered storm in the 1970s, however, conservative were dismayed by the apparent tendencies towards big government and internationalism in addressing them. A 1970 letter to William F. Buckley from his National Review colleague James Burnham, unearthed by the assiduous researcher Joshua Tait, also expresses deep concerns regarding threats to free enterprise and a “snobbish elitism…with the experts and the publicists knowing what the rest of us ought to want.” As Tait suggests, these “non-scientific arguments against environmentalism” crystallized and endure today.

Yet conservative premises could have lent themselves to environmentalism. Conservatives believe—or ought to believe—in low time preferences, prudence and restraint, the fragility of order, and the love of home. The Left’s apparent use of environmental matters as Trojan horses for egalitarian and internationalist ambitions has no doubt raised hackles on the Right but it is the all-but-unqualified embrace of free market capitalism, has led to an almost absolute abandonment of the field to the Left. Yes, free market capitalism has enabled growth and innovation, but it is also a force for presentism, insecurity and greed.

I would not deny that leftists can be dogmatic, opportunistic, and sometimes openly misanthropic when it comes to the many different debates that come under the heading of “environmentalism,” in which people could have many different reasonable opinions. The debate has also been disfigured by its share of irrational catastophrising. But I am, and have long been, dismayed by conservatives who instinctively take the side of industry, consumption, and solipsism when faced with threats to our environments; dismayed intellectually—because of the point-missing and nit-picking style of their argumentation—and dismayed spiritually, because of their great clubbish complacence.

Last December, Transport and Industry Committee Chairman Bill DeFazio called climate change “an existential threat to our planet.” “Insanity,” scoffed Steve Milloy:

Milloy might have added that music described as “deafening” had perforated no eardrums, that a “freezing cold” afternoon had caused no frostbite, and that a mistress charged with being a “homewrecker” had damaged no houses.

Milloy is a man with a blog, “Junk Science,” but he is not just a man with a blog. A longtime scholar at the Cato Institute, he became a member of President Trump’s transition team despite being censured by his regular hosts at Fox News for not disclosing his financial ties to the tobacco producers and marketers of Phillip Morris.

The President himself has an odd record on the subject of climate change, with his positions shifting from the quixotic idea that it is is a hoax whipped up by the Chinese to the limp claim that while the climate might be changing it “could very well go back.” This month, as winter carpeted the U.S. in snow, he advertised his inability to distinguish between climate and weather when he tweeted:

Be careful and try staying in your house. Large parts of the Country are suffering from tremendous amounts of snow and near record setting cold. Amazing how big this system is. Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 20, 2019

The climate has been growing hotter and hotter, year after year, and a cold snap does not change this any more than a criminal who pats a kitten on the head has been reformed.

To the extent that President Trump’s attitude is influenced by anything except uninformed intuition, it is influenced by people like Steve Milloy. This is unfortunate, because Milloy is comically unreliable, a fact tmade readily apparent by a visit to his blog. The leading article on Milloy’s website, on the day I checked, was headlined, “AAAS Chief Admits Scientists Have Destroyed the Credibility of Science.” In fact, the president of the Americans Association for the Advancement of Science admitted no such thing. He did say the public does not trust scientists enough but he did not say this is due to scientists destroying their own credibility, which was Milloy’s tendentious editorial gloss.

One of the next articles on Mr Milloy’s website is entitled “An Ocean of Inconvenient Truth” and reports on a paper which suggests that the “estimated increase in ocean heat content during 1990-2015 is the same as that between 1921–1946.” I have no idea why this finding would be inconvenient. Scientists are well aware of the “Early Twentieth Century Warming” and have written extensively on its relationship to ocean heat.

My favourite recent Milloyism, though—the peak of his ludicrous climate complacence—comes when he reports on a study which found that, millions of years ago, the Earth’s CO2 levels might have reached 1000ppm. This he heralds as “proof that the planet is not in jeopardy.” At that time, the Scientific American reports, the Arctic was “stocked with swamp-loving reptiles” and there were “temperate forests covering Antarctica.” The planet would survive transitioning to similar conditions. Would billions of people? That is far more dubious.

If Milloy represents the cranky, Gadsen flag flying old guard of anti-environmentalists, Alex Epstein represents the optimistic, idealistic younger generation. His book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is a passionate and, I am sure, sincere case not just against decreasing carbon emissions but in favour of increasing them.

Epstein believes that climate scientists have misrepresented facts. So does he. While scientists were prophesying our doom in a new ice age in the 1970s, Epstein claims, there was “not much fear” that global warming was of a “significant enough magnitude to do major harm.” In fact, as Thomas Peterson and colleagues have explained in their paper, “The Myth of the Global Cooling Scientific Consensus,” more scientists believed in global warming than global cooling. A 1968 report from the Stanford Research Institute reported:

If the earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis.

This conflicts with the narrative Mr Epstein wants to build about the instability of climate research, and so he simply ignores it.

Epstein’s book is not without its merits. He makes an eloquent case for the essential status of fossil fuels in the development of civilisation, pointing out, for example, the counter-intuitive yet why-did-I-not-think-of-this-before fact that fewer people have been dying from climate-related deaths due to improved infrastructure, technology, and nutrition. Epstein attempts to contrast this cheerful humanist vision with the misanthropic nature-fetishism of environmentalists. This is a case he can make stick when it comes to the eco-doomster Paul R. Ehrlich, but he overreaches when he launches an attack on Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountains Institute. When asked about the potential of nuclear fusion, Epstein tells us that Lovins replied:

Complex technology of any sort is an assault on human dignity. It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy, because of what we might do with it.

Epstein follows this with paragraph after paragraph about how Lovins is an “anti-humanist” who would deny African hospitals electricity. The quote is not sourced to the original interview but to a book called The Coercive Utopians. It also appears in such books as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and the Environment, The Global-Warming Deception, and Why Businessmen Need Philosophy.

There are two problems with this quote. The first is that the initial sentence does not appear, at least from the web version, to have come from the interview from which the rest of the quote was taken. Where does it come from? I don’t know. The second problem is that the paragraph following this quote, as Epstein does not mention, makes it very clear that when Lovins expressed concern about “what we might do” he was referring to “bomb materials” with “worrisome military implications.” Epstein took a quote, in other words, which worried about the potential for human suffering and made it appear as if its author opposed ameliorating pain. A generous interpretation is that he never read the original interview.

In his discussion of climate change, Epstein makes some reasonable points about how believing that the climate is changing and that humans contributing to these changes does not mean one cannot have different attitudes towards how dramatic and damaging these changes will be. For someone who bangs on about the need for precision in debates, however, his arguments for an optimistic attitude towards the subject involve a lot of hand-waving. Discussing graphs on sea level rises, for example, he says:

Note how smooth the trends are—and also notice how several of them are downward. This points to a truth about sea level and climate. It is affected by many factors, often factors that are much more important than any change in the global climate system.

Wikipedia could tell us that. But how much is climate change contributing, and how much will it contribute? The voluble author falls silent. A recent study, as it happens, suggests that the effects of climate change are significant.

A great deal of Epstein’s book is devoted to arguing that we cannot produce renewable energy efficiently enough to replace fossil fuels. This is not, to be quite frank, a field in which I have the necessary technical knowledge to be a participant. What is interesting, though, is how little space Epstein devotes to the question of whether we can use energy more efficiently. Yes, all of us want heat, light, and warmth. This does not mean that there are not significant reductions to be made in our overuse of cars rather than public transport, bikes or our own two legs, our overuse of commercial flying and overconsumption of meat. No doubt Mr Epstein, as a libertarian who cut his teeth at the Ayn Rand Institute, would defend our right to drive, fly, and eat animal products as much as we like without being lectured by hoity-toity environmentalists, but these would have been less powerful arguments to make than a defence of African hospitals’ right to electricity.

Epstein has fun mocking falsified predictions of “peak oil,” and boldly claims that there could be no limit to our usable energy sources. “[We] just need human ingenuity to be free to discover ways to turn unusable energy into usable energy.” Mr Epstein has great faith in human ingenuity. If, as he doubts, anthropogenic global warming does have significant deleterious effects on our environment, he nevertheless claims that humans will figure out a way around the problem. Well, perhaps. But as Thomas Homer-Dixon writes in The Ingenuity Gap, there is no reason why our ingenuity must keep pace with potential crises. Following the precautionary principle, we must at least minimise our waste.

I was going to avoid mentioning Rand, for fear of succumbing to guilt by association, but Epstein cheerfully makes this impossible. Rand is quoted, and then her philosophies of life are echoed:

Life can be great, indefinitely. Each of us must try to make the best of his life, by creating as much as he wants to benefit his life, and to take joy in the fact that his interests are harmonized with those of his fellow men and his children and his children’s children, knowing that the greatest gift he can give to both himself and to the future is to be a creative human being who enjoys his life.

All of us hope to enjoy our lives, of course, but much of what we do to help our fellow men, our children, and our children’s children involves sacrificing our immediate enjoyment for the sake of their interests.

I am not suggesting that the Right has to accept all IPCC predictions, or reject the use of fossil fuels in principle, or eat organic food, or listen to folk music. These are questions that thoughtful people can debate. Yet conservatives—and our unruly cousins, libertarians—must stop embracing overly convenient criticism of mainstream science, and avoid getting drunk off idealistic optimism, and resist the indolent desire to wish environmental challenges away. Our higher virtues of order, prudence, restraint, and what Roger Scruton calls “oikophilia” (the love of home) will be respected and not betrayed if we do so.

EnvironmentrecentScience / Tech

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland.