Left, right, and climate change

Michael Giberson

In principle, there is nothing in the science of climate change that imposes a partisan political commitment. It isn’t as if, for example, you have to believe in steeply progressive tax rates in order to understand climate science. Yet there seems to be a partisan divide on the science. Three recent posts at Grist have ventured into this ground.

David Roberts wrote, “What ‘left’ and ‘right’ really mean on climate change (hint: nothing)“:

The left-right alignment on climate is completely scrambled, in part because the real battle, as we shall see, is not ideological. …

I’m not sure I would call carbon-pricing solutions right-wing, but I do think it’s fair to characterize them as conservative. Conservative economic thinking prefers a minimum of government intervention in the economy. Sending a carbon-pricing signal via a tax or cap is a minimalist intervention, as technology and industry agnostic as policy can be….

The odd thing that’s happened in climate circles in the last few decades is not just that the (generally liberal) environmental community has fervently championed “market-based” solutions like carbon pricing, but that the activist left in particular has adopted a carbon tax as its cri de coeur. … That doesn’t make any sense at all … both are basically conservative in their approach.

Nonetheless, that’s the odd situation we are in today: an intra-left battle between two conservative policy solutions. … It’s a mess. There really is no coherent left vs. right on climate, at least not in terms of economic ideology.

Roberts concludes:

In actual fact, there is no struggle between philosophies happening in U.S. climate politics, only a struggle among economic interests.

A few weeks after the Roberts piece, Grist ran an interview with author/activist Naomi Klein, and she had a directly opposing view:

(Klein:) [B]elief in climate change in the United States has plummeted. If you really drill into the polling data, what you see is that the drop in belief in climate change is really concentrated on the right of the political spectrum. It’s been an extraordinary and unusual shift in belief in a short time. … So I started researching the denial movement and going to conferences and reading the books, and what’s clear is that, on the right, climate change is seen as a threat to the right’s worldview, and to the neoliberal economic worldview. It’s seen as a Marxist plot. They accuse climate scientists of being watermelons — green on the outside and red on the inside.

Q. It seems exaggerated, but your piece was about how the right is in fact correct.

A. I don’t think climate change necessitates a social revolution. This idea is coming from the right-wing think tanks and not scientific organizations. They’re ideological organizations. Their core reason for being is to defend what they call free-market ideology….

You can set up carbon markets, consumer markets, and just pretend, but if you want to get serious about climate change, really serious, in line with the science, and you want to meet targets like 80 percent emissions cuts by midcentury in the developed world, then you need to be intervening strongly in the economy, and you can’t do it all with carbon markets and offsetting… The market is not going to step up to this challenge. We must do more… These climate deniers aren’t crazy — their worldview is under threat. If you take climate change seriously, you do have to throw out the free-market playbook.

Q. What is the political philosophy that underscores those who accept climate change versus those who deny it?

A. The Yale Cultural Cognition Project has looked at cultural worldview and climate change, and what’s clear is that ideology is the main factor in whether we believe in climate change. If you have an egalitarian and communitarian worldview, and you tend toward a belief system of pooling resources and helping the less advantaged, then you believe in climate change. And the stronger your belief system tends toward a hierarchical or individual worldview, the greater the chances are that you deny climate change and the stronger your denial will be.

Environmental economist Gernot Wagner responded with a piece saying Klein was only half right:

Naomi Klein’s interview in Grist this week is smart, insightful, and half right. Her assessment of the obstacles to solving climate change — from ideology to misplaced faith in green consumerism — are exactly right.  And she’s right that fixing this problem means changing how the world does business.

But Klein is wrong in her more serious assertion, first articulated in her “Capitalism vs. the Climate” article in The Nation, that we can save the planet only if we abandon capitalism:

Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency.

The deeper problem is not that our markets are too free; it’s that they are woefully rigged in favor of pollution. Which is also the main reason the Earth finds itself in peril.

The “rigging” in favor of pollution Wagner refers to is the economists’ familiar negative externalities, and the too-common absence of rules that require polluters to pay.

Wagner concludes, “My real argument with Klein is that in trying to escape capitalism, she is trying to evade human nature. [The debate is] not about a full-scale assault on human desires, capitalism, and free markets. … It’s about freeing markets, and in the process freeing all of us to do the right thing.”

I think Klein has a good point concerning the ideological divide over climate change. Crudely speaking, leftists are all to willing to accept scientific claims implying a bigger role for government in the economy, while rightists are all too willing to reject scientific claims implying a bigger role for government in the economy. (And note that the Yale study she cited isn’t about bashing conservatives – they find that leftists are too willing to dismiss scientific findings challenging their views on nuclear waste disposal.)

But I’d like to insert my plea here: climate change science ought not to be a political issue. And, as a complement to that position, climate scientists ought also to recognize the limits of their expertise. The science can and should inform the public policy making process, obviously, but nothing in temperature data, computer modeling and the study of climate/cloud-cover interactions, etc., implies any particular policy conclusion.

It might be true, as Klein says, that we must “throw out the free market playbook” in order to achieve an emission cut “in line with the science.” And if it is true, it may also be quite reasonable for an analyst to weigh the costs and benefits of such a shift, and choose markets. Fortunately, I think Wagner is more right. In my view, we don’t need a government-led assault on markets to address environmental issues, we need rules that support markets.