The Conservative Case for Conservation

Believing in climate change and being a conservative are not mutually exclusive values. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Failure to support the scientific link that climate change is caused by human activity is ideologically incongruent with conservatism.

Historically, conservatives have supported climate change initiatives. President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, President Ronald Reagan signed the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1986, President George H.W. Bush commissioned the National Climate Assessment by passing the Global Change Research Act of 1990, and, then, his son rejected his predecessors by failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.  

President Trump, with this established precedent, then exited from the non-binding Paris Agreement and cemented a party of skeptics. According to Yale University as of 2018, “only 40% of conservative Republicans,” believe climate change is real and “only 26%” believe it is the result of human activity. Make no mistake, this is a rejection of conservative principles.

Conservative ideology is predicated upon two key concepts: self-determination and traditionalism. Self-determination, more or less, is the ability to make decisions about one’s life while traditionalism is how an aggregate of individuals ought to live in society.  

Conservative beliefs stem from how the relationship of these ideas interact. Well-known positions, albeit misnomers, like small government or free markets, advance self-determination within a framework of traditionalism. For example, no rational citizen wants smog so bad that highways close, like in China, which is a clear example of how sensible environmental regulation must be balanced with appropriate market incentives for firms and individual freedoms to drive.  

Honestly, these misnomers have replaced the analytical framework for some conservatives, which is why federal actions to expand executive, judicial, or legislative powers are met with reactionary criticism. Some of this criticism is valid, while other criticism isn’t.

There is a requisite amount of federal expansion that must happen. In other words, conservatives and liberals are all born into a social contract. As citizens, certain freedoms are traded for safety. For example, if we want to have a formidable military, we must have non-zero taxation. The question, then, is what do we fund? Or, more accurately, what do we value?

When it comes to taxes, less is more. Unless a project is capital intensive or involves a common good, we do not necessarily need government involvement. From social security to public education to healthcare initiatives, these programs are plagued with fraudwaste, and abuse from misaligned incentives and short-sighted policy goals. Of course that list is not exhaustive and both the military and private sector are liable for similar failures.  

Matthew Kotchen of Yale University argues that a common good is both non-rival and non-excludable. The environment is an example of a common good. Roads, schools, public parks, and community services are all ideas built on a physical foundation— the environment.  Essentially, citizens are stakeholders of common goods through taxation. Naturally, citizens must also derive benefits from taxation. Otherwise, why bother paying taxes?   

Environmental stewardship may be nonpartisan, but application is not. Simply put, the problem starts with the intellectually dishonest denial and blatantly uninformed skepticism by many on the right. Failure to acknowledge how air pollutants are hurtful, regardless of greenhouse gas emissions, should be intuitive. These negative externalities only exacerbate the unnecessary gridlock that makes fixing flawed cap-and-trade policies or revenue-neutral carbon taxes harder. Hell, even Mattis believes that climate change negatively impacts our national security.  

Conservatives know the Environmental Protection Agency is flawed. However, the Republican Party’s first reactions are to shut it down instead of meaningful reform— denial over integration of environmental practices in classrooms, and not advocacy for community driven solutions at an individual consumer level.

To elaborate, reducing greenhouse gases have made our soldiers more lethal and decreased air pollutants allows us to live longer. Community solutions are inherently a conservative trait as the mantle of responsibility resides with ‘the’ individual. Further, youth organizations, like the Girl Scouts, teach environmental stewardship at an early age and the benefits of private sector sales.

Essentially, consumers drive our markets, our wars, and our environment’s health.  Let’s not punish bartenders with ridiculous straw ban penalties of imprisonment, but the cost of sourcing green consumer products is a more pure form of capitalism because the life-cycle pollution costs are taken into account.  

Conservatives will define crucial moments in history. As the champions of emancipation, of stewardship, and of nuclear disarmament, there is a choice.  We can be a skeptic, a believer, or deny the impact of human activity on greenhouse gases.  However, we owe it to our predecessors to understand what we value as conservatives.  

Thanks for reading. This article was originally published on Lone Conservative.

Disclaimer:  All views are my own.  None of my positions represent the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, or any stance of the U.S. Government.