Cultivating a conservative climate movement

2021-03-19

in Canada, Economics, Law, Politics, Psychology, Science, The environment

Let’s begin with two simple premises:

  1. The amount of climate change the world experiences depends on the total quantity of fossil fuels that get burned. As such, there is little value in avoiding burning particular coal, oil, and gas reserves in one time period if we then burn them in another
  2. In Canada, the US, and the UK the electoral pattern for a century or more has been alternating between relatively left-wing and relatively right-wing governments

I think it follows from this that for climate change mitigation policy to succeed, it cannot only be supported by progressives or supporters of left-of-centre parties.

It’s true that the most prehistoric form of climate change denial (saying there is no problem, or it’s a problem too small to require action) is concentrated among political conservatives. It’s also true that the fossil fuel industry has outsize influence over conservative politics, parties, and politicians. To me — however — these observations are akin to the argument that since 85% of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels it is imposible or unrealistic to try to replace them. In both cases, the depth of the current dependency demonstrates the need for change, rather than its impossibility.

Recently, UK Conservative MP Alicia Kearns and U.S. Republican congressperson John Curtis co-authored an article in the Times of London: The left should not dominate the conversation on climate change.

They also appeared in a recent panel hosted by the Hudson Institute:

Progressives tend to be very opposed to the argument or idea that conservatives need to be won over to climate change mitigation through fossil fuel abolition. The intersectional climate justice analysis holds that climate change is a symptom of systemic injustice and cannot be corrected through narrow solutions which do not eliminate colonialism or capitalism or patriarchy. It is a joined-together worldview that clearly motivates a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s a sound strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Furthermore, I challenge the claim that only systematic change in our political or economic system can solve the problem. Progressives also tend to assert that renewable energy is cheaper and better in every way than fossil fuel, implicitly acknowledging that it could be possible to replace where our energy comes from without fundamentally changing much more about society.

I can see at least a couple of routes for moving forward with cultivating a conservative commitment to climate change mitigation.

Thinking about the span of the next couple of decades, I think conservatism in the English-speaking democracies may be posed for a huge splitting apart between comparative pragmatists who are willing to accept what science has unambiguously shown and pure ideologues whose policy preferences do not relate to what is really happening in the world. If that split can be enlarged to the point of crisis — when those on the empiricist side will no longer tolerate supporting the same candidates and parties as those on the fantasist side — those willing to consider evidence will likely have a long-term electoral advantage as those most implacably opposed to climate action die off, young people with a better understanding of climate change become politically dominant, and as the undeniable effects of climate change become even plainer.

Another plausible route to cultivating conservative support for climate change mitigation is through faith communities. The Catholic Church, United Church, Anglican Church, and others have been outspoken from the centre of their institutions about the need to control climate change. It’s true that there are some whose theology sees the Earth exclusively as a set of resources to be exploited, or who believe that a religious apocalypse will soon bring an end to the material world making long-term problems irrelevant, but I suspect there are many more in all faiths and denominations who can be won over to the view that we have a duty to care for creation and not to pass on a degraded world to our successors.

I think part of the progressive wariness about outreach to conservatives arises from how the intersectional view ties climate change into the social justice and economic redistribution agendas which animated the left long before climate change became a mainstream concern. Cooperating with conservatives on the narrow issue of replacing fossil fuels would not advance the general project of abolishing capitalism or re-ordering the global system. Some see climate change as a crisis which would be ‘wasted’ if our response only sustains planetary stability. Others convincingly point out that even without climate change as a problem the idea that resource use and waste production can increase indefinitely is fundamentally at odds with a finite planet. All that said, climate change seems to be the most pressing and serious societal problem facing humanity, and resolving it would give us more time and a more stable global environment in which to pursue other aims of justice.

I don’t believe either progressives or conservatives can or should win one another over to their entire worldview. The progressive climate change movement is an enormous success and source of hope, and I am not calling for it to be dismantled or fundamentally altered, though they ought to give more consideration to cross-ideological alliances on certain vital issues. As long as effective climate change policies are something which one side assembles and the other dismantles we cannot succeed, and so winning over conservatives to climate action is an indispensable condition of success.

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. August 20, 2021 at 4:00 pm

How Germany’s Greens conquered the industrial heartland

Pro-business centrism is one of two pillars of Mr Kretschmann’s appeal today. Happy to label himself a “conservative”, he emphasises that climate protection must go hand in hand with economic growth, and readily slaps down bad ideas emanating from his own side. “People like it,” says Boris Palmer, the Green mayor of Tübingen, a town in Baden-Württemberg. “They don’t want party soldiers, they like politicians interested in their needs.” This has helped the Greens expand beyond their comfort zone, in cities such as Stuttgart and Freiburg, to former cdu voters and Mittelstand exporters, often in far-flung rural areas.

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