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.

8 thoughts on “Left, Right, and Climate Change

  1. Well, they are Marxists, and they are watermelons, and they have taken a tiny amount of science, the ‘greenhouse effect’, and a small secular(?) warming since the middle of the 19th century, and turned it into an enormous pile of conjecture and hysteria, intended to empower them to shut down industrial civilization in the United States and Western Europe.

    We cannot get along because of their transparent bad faith, which was demonstrated by the leaked e-mails, and by their increasingly hysterical cries for censorship of their critics. When they want to act like scientists instead of political radicals, they can give me call.

  2. Climate change, as it has been discussed since the late 1970s, is a collection (and too often a conflation) of three issues. Climate changes, both warming and cooling, and has done so as far back in history as we are capable of studying it. While climate scientists do not clearly understand why climate has changed in the past, many believe they clearly understand why it has been changing since the 1970s. “They have met the enemy and they is us.” (Apologies to Pogo Possum.) The current hypothesis is that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, principally CO2, are the drivers of the recent (though not current) warming. Many climate scientists believe that continuation of this anthropogenic global warming (AGW) would likely lead to catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW).

    Global warming (GW) and global cooling are historical facts, documented by a variety of proxies and the more recent instrumented record. AGW is that component of a cyclical global warming which can be attributed to the impact of human activity on the globe’s atmosphere and albedo. The potential for anthropogenic contributions to climate change is a fact. The “consensus” that the recent warming is primarily AGW is not a fact, but rather the result of the inability of climate scientists to construct satisfactory alternative hypotheses. Concerns about CAGW are based on climate models which have demonstrated limited skill in hindcasting the instrumented past, or in forecasting the time period since they were developed.

    Despite the passage of decades and the expenditure of $billions, there is no universal agreement on the extent to which global annual GHG emissions would have to be reduced to halt or reverse AGW and thus avoid CAGW; or, on the timeframe in which these reductions would be required to occur; or, on a plan to make any of it happen. Seventeen COPs have accomplished little more than justifying eight more COPs, at least in the minds of the attendees.

    One construct for dealing with AGW, which is rarely discussed in its totality, can be described as the “four-legged stool of AGW”.
    Leg 1 – zero global annual carbon emissions (since CO2 is the evil emission of choice);
    Leg 2 – zero global animal husbandry (since it produces ~18% of GHGs);
    Leg 3 – population controls (to ~1 billion “sustainable”);
    Leg 4 – global wealth redistribution (to punish the successful and reward the failed and failing); and,
    Seat – global governance (since none of the above would likely happen voluntarily).
    The least discussed component of this “stool” is population control, probably because nobody wishes to be linked to any of the potential methods of removing ~6 billion of us from the globe’s population.The next least discussed component is global governance, because of the utter fecklessness of the self-proposed global governing body and the global experience with “benevolent despotism”.

  3. Mike said “In my view, we don’t need a government-led assault on markets to address environmental issues, we need rules that support markets.”

    I’m less optimistic than you are, Mike, but I’d be thrilled if we would just conduct the experiment in which we tried market-based solutions to climate change to find out if more would be needed. Of course Fat Man and firetoice are examples of why we can’t even conduct that experiment… they seem to be cases in point of Klein’s view, rather than Roberts’. And that’s sad.

  4. I do not view a carbon tax or carbon price as a “market-based mechanism”. Either is a “command and control” action that then relies on the market to re-rationalize based on the c&c interference.

    Cap & Trade is a mix. The cap is “command and control”, while the trade is an opportunity for the market to rationalize the disturbance caused by the cap.

    If you begin the discussion with the assumption that “we’ve got to do something, anything, even if it’s wrong”, then, clearly, market-based mechanisms are the right place to start. However, it is still essential to realize that there is no state, regional, national or multi-national “solution” to global climate change. There is a global “solution”, or there is no “solution”. That realization might well be unpleasant, but it is equally unavoidable.

    It is also important to acknowledge that:”When you find you are digging yourself into a hole, the first imperative is to stop digging.” In the case of AGW, the first logical step is to stop increasing global annual emissions, though that appears not to be the first political step. The increases in AGW emissions are currently occurring in Asia, which appears to be unwilling to halt them.

  5. What are we to be today then….as part of the self-organising (directable) crowd or individuals – in the middle of the chequer-board game or, either, above or below (i.e. being exterior to) the ‘game’ ?

    Tom, you seem to be the former, right in the middle of the ‘game’….it seems as though you make a good living off of it as well….sad, really !


  6. My general response after mentioning climate change around here is “duck and cover.” I’m no expert on the science, and I try not to pretend. Sure, quote some emails and talk about “hiding the decline.” Obviously, yes there are some bad actors in science. Guess what? Bad actors in markets and politics, too. But just like good markets will help minimize the harm done by bad actors, and good government will minimize the harm done by bad actors, the institutions of science help minimize the harm done by bad actors. Not instantly, everywhere, perfectly, but rather slowly and not always. Got a better way to do science?

    [Yeah, I know, hectoring my audience is a good way to not have an audience. Try to think of it as “engaging with” rather than “hectoring.” Okay, feel better?]

    I’m sympathetic to the claim that the climate change issue, by taking an arcane corner of scientific study and making it and the scientists involved immensely important to the future of humanity, has unwittingly corrupted climate science. After all, something similar happened to economics in the 1950s and 1960s when elite politicians and elite economists believed they could manage the macroeconomy with Keynesianism, and economists believed it in part because it made them seem more powerful (and in Washington DC, seeming more powerful is good enough to get you more power). Power corrupts, and AGW means that climate scientists gain power.

    I’m also sympathetic to claims that there is a lot that even climate scientists don’t know, and to claims that climate models may not yet be reliable enough for prime time. (Again, mostly believing these things due to seeing analogs in economics.) But the way to fight bad science, if that is what it is, is with better science. (Even though there is no guarantee that the world will sit up and notice, now or later.) So maybe the science is bad. In fact, the openness of science practically insures that some of it will be bad. Lots of trial and error gets permitted. Using politics to “fix” science, when science seems to go awry, invites more rather than less scientific corruption.

    In any case, when climate science issues bleed over into energy policy and regulation, where I think I know something, then I feel a little more comfortable in asserting myself. If a climate scientist (and not just a Naomi Klein) tries to claim that the science means we need to “throw out the free market playbook,” I’m quite willing to assert that there is no way that the study of climate science tells you what a good policy would be; policy is a distinct field of study, and expertise in climate doesn’t give a scientist any particular policy insight.

  7. No apologies here.Marxism is evil. Klein doesn’t even try to pretend that she is not a Marxist. The Global Warmists are watermelons who try to pretend that they are not Marxists, but we know better. I don’t want to placate them. The blood of their victims cries out to me.

    Our biggest economic and social problem is them. I see no reason to give them any credence or any slack whatsoever.

  8. Fat Man,

    Well said !…….check out the ‘New Australia’ (Paraguay) concept that died an absolute death.

    We are all individuals and if we are organised (externally) by the ‘crowd’ then it’s game up….if it isn’t already anyway.


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