A Friendly Debate with a Conservative Colleague About Climate

My friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge is out with a new article on “Corporate Lawyers as Gatekeepers,” which, if you are interested in corporate law, you should read (Steve is one of the country’s most distinguished scholars in the field).  But what piqued my interest when he sent it to me was his offhand remark that he is sending it out electronically to “reduce my carbon footprint.”

I couldn’t resist.  I responded, “Your CARBON footprint?  You pinko liberal fellow-travelling wimp!!  Resign your Republican Party membership now!”

And neither could he, responding:

It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government. To the contrary, it’s an argument for eliminating both the market AND the many regulatory distortions that mean people don’t pay a carbon price that includes all relevant externalities. Government’s role should be to eliminate any true externalities that rise to the level of causing a market failure and then get out of the way and let the market solve the problem.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Steve is completely right: it is indeed possible to have a coherent and realistic conservative policy on climate change.  (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s a different issue).  The problem is that the current Republican Party refuses to have one.  I wrote back:

That’s a totally fair position.  Now all you have to do is persuade a single member of the House Republican Conference or the Senate Republican Caucus, or any Republican power broker, of that…

And here’s where it gets really interesting.  Steve’s response:

When you convince any leading national Democratic politician that life begins at conception and that the law ought to at least take that into account in balancing the interests, I’ll take a crack at it.

Foul!  Belief in the existence of anthropogenic climate change and belief that human life begins at conception are two different categories.  I responded:

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between a scientific fact (anthropogenic climate change), and a philosophical position (human life invested with human rights begins at conception).  Now, you could say two things about this:

1) Scientific “fact” is itself a philosophical position, and that is true.  And if someone wants to take the view that scientific determinations concerning the natural world have no more reason to be called “facts” than any other philosophical position, then they can do that.  Postmodernists do that.  I don’t, and I would be very surprised, to put it mildly, that you do.

2) The better analogy, I would think, is for you to say, “I will take a crack at persuading a single member of the Republican Caucus that anthropogenic climate is true if you will take a crack at persuading any leading national Democratic politician to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” Your position is that there is such a thing as a genuinely conservative climate policy, and I agree.  But I think that I would win that one going away, because I could find lots more Democrats to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax than you could find Republicans to support the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

But Steve wasn’t buying it.  He counter-offered with another challenge:

How about this: You agree to try persuading Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to unconditionally support renewing the Bush tax cuts for people earning > $250K per year. No deals, no quid pro quo. And you only have to persuade 3.

This last one was something of a joke, obviously.  But it does point to a real problem for modern conservatism, and thoughtful conservatives like Steve.  Their party simply rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on the greatest environmental problem that the planet has ever faced.  Nothing comes close to that.  And while there may be profound differences between the parties on philosophical issues, off the top of my head I can’t think of any issue, at least since the Second World War, where one major party has made it an article of faith that it simply rejects on principle such an overwhelming scientific consensus.  The only thing close is evolution, and once again, it represents the Republican position that as a matter of principle, it simply will not listen to scientists.  Note that I stacked it against myself: I offered that he could persuade any member of the House Republican Conference, and he could only counter with “any national prominent Democratic politician.”  And he still couldn’t do it.

The only things that Steve could respond with were, well, issues of moral belief: 1) human life invested human rights begins at conception; or 2) cutting taxes for people making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year is the right thing to do or will cause economic growth (the latter really being an article of faith: in my view, it’s really more a philosophical position concerning just distribution of social wealth).

Now, to be clear, like any intelligent person, Steve does believe in the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  But he could not respond with an example of equally anti-empirical belief from Democrats.  That tells you a whole lot about the differences between the parties.  No wonder Steve is such a curmudgeon.

, , , ,

Reader Comments

22 Replies to “A Friendly Debate with a Conservative Colleague About Climate”

  1. “Friendly debate” is what I’d call discourse, where the aim is to communicate rather than convince, compel, conquer using rhetoric.
    I’ve been exploring that dynamic for years/decades. Our society seems to be losing touch with it.

    My theory is that an online system could actually facilitate that sort of exchange in keeping with “Individuals can have their own opinions, but not their own facts.” http://gnodal.protension.com http://groundplane.wordpress.com/gp-101/

    p.s. in all these years not one single person has expressed the slightest interest in my “participatory deliberation” / “discourse-based decision support”, not even policy wonks / sherpas. It’s as though “fun” is all there is. HeyHo

  2. “Friendly debate” is what I’d call discourse, where the aim is to communicate rather than convince, compel, conquer using rhetoric.
    I’ve been exploring that dynamic for years/decades. Our society seems to be losing touch with it.

    My theory is that an online system could actually facilitate that sort of exchange in keeping with “Individuals can have their own opinions, but not their own facts.” http://gnodal.protension.com http://groundplane.wordpress.com/gp-101/

    p.s. in all these years not one single person has expressed the slightest interest in my “participatory deliberation” / “discourse-based decision support”, not even policy wonks / sherpas. It’s as though “fun” is all there is. HeyHo

  3. I share the desire for greater climate realism on the right, but you’re too quick to let your own ideological compatriots off the hook. It’s true that conservative thought leaders have let ideology cloud their assessment of climate science, but we see this on the left as well. Empirical evidence that some aspect of climate orthodoxy is unfounded is hardly viewed with an open mind by many on the left. Or to take another example, where the scientific consensus is clear and robust, let’s look at the relative safety of GMOs. There are more NAS reports on GMOs expressing a clear consensus on GMOs than their are on climate, but it hasn’t penetrated the views of most major environmentalist groups.

    As for whether Dems would accept a revenue-neutral climate tax, I’m not so sure. Based on trade press accounts of the recent AEI meetings on a carbon tax, most of the representatives of the environmentalist groups that attended opposed placing a “revenue-neutral” condition on endorsement of a carbon tax. I know that such groups don’t (always) speak for the party, but I think it’s fair to doubt many Democratic players are willing to endorse revenue-neutrality as a condition of a carbon tax.

    JHA

  4. I share the desire for greater climate realism on the right, but you’re too quick to let your own ideological compatriots off the hook. It’s true that conservative thought leaders have let ideology cloud their assessment of climate science, but we see this on the left as well. Empirical evidence that some aspect of climate orthodoxy is unfounded is hardly viewed with an open mind by many on the left. Or to take another example, where the scientific consensus is clear and robust, let’s look at the relative safety of GMOs. There are more NAS reports on GMOs expressing a clear consensus on GMOs than their are on climate, but it hasn’t penetrated the views of most major environmentalist groups.

    As for whether Dems would accept a revenue-neutral climate tax, I’m not so sure. Based on trade press accounts of the recent AEI meetings on a carbon tax, most of the representatives of the environmentalist groups that attended opposed placing a “revenue-neutral” condition on endorsement of a carbon tax. I know that such groups don’t (always) speak for the party, but I think it’s fair to doubt many Democratic players are willing to endorse revenue-neutrality as a condition of a carbon tax.

    JHA

  5. I don’t think that the analogy works, Jon. The GOP has made it an article of faith that climate change is a hoax: you can’t get party support unless you say that. The House Energy and Commerce Committee made it an official resolution. On the other hand, if you asked virtually every prominent Dem politician about GMOs, I bet you that their answer would be, “Huh? What are you talking about?” It’s not even on their radar. And when the Bush Administration — rightly, in my view — took nations like Zambia to task for trying to block the importation of GM foods, most Democrats supported them.

    As for the revenue-neutral climate tax issue, I would also bet that if you asked Rep and Dem politicians, “here’s your choice: a revenue-neutral carbon tax or nothing,” you would get FAR more support on the Dem side than on the Rep side, even if the neutrality was based on, say, something like a reduction in income taxes for the 250K+ crowd, a proposal whose regressivity would normally be attractive to the GOP (but would kill it with the Dems). I don’t think Archbishop Norquist would let them. Hopefully one day we can test it, and I hope I am wrong!

  6. I don’t think that the analogy works, Jon. The GOP has made it an article of faith that climate change is a hoax: you can’t get party support unless you say that. The House Energy and Commerce Committee made it an official resolution. On the other hand, if you asked virtually every prominent Dem politician about GMOs, I bet you that their answer would be, “Huh? What are you talking about?” It’s not even on their radar. And when the Bush Administration — rightly, in my view — took nations like Zambia to task for trying to block the importation of GM foods, most Democrats supported them.

    As for the revenue-neutral climate tax issue, I would also bet that if you asked Rep and Dem politicians, “here’s your choice: a revenue-neutral carbon tax or nothing,” you would get FAR more support on the Dem side than on the Rep side, even if the neutrality was based on, say, something like a reduction in income taxes for the 250K+ crowd, a proposal whose regressivity would normally be attractive to the GOP (but would kill it with the Dems). I don’t think Archbishop Norquist would let them. Hopefully one day we can test it, and I hope I am wrong!

  7. I was comparing the thought leaders for each group, not the rank-and-file politicians. GOP members of Congress have an opinion on climate because it’s a big issue, and they fall in line with the various activists who drive party policy. The only reason Dem politicians don’t have clear positions on GMOs is because it’s not a big issue, so having a position is not important. But the activists who drive Dem policy positions – the liberal equivalents of Grover Norquist, etc. who should actually know something about this issue – generally have luddite, anti-scientific views on GMOs, views that have been repeatedly repudiated by the NAS.

    As for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, if WSj editorialists can come out in favor of a carbon tax, I don’t think it’s as much of an anathema as you do — and with luck (and leadership) we’ll find out some day soon.

  8. I was comparing the thought leaders for each group, not the rank-and-file politicians. GOP members of Congress have an opinion on climate because it’s a big issue, and they fall in line with the various activists who drive party policy. The only reason Dem politicians don’t have clear positions on GMOs is because it’s not a big issue, so having a position is not important. But the activists who drive Dem policy positions – the liberal equivalents of Grover Norquist, etc. who should actually know something about this issue – generally have luddite, anti-scientific views on GMOs, views that have been repeatedly repudiated by the NAS.

    As for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, if WSj editorialists can come out in favor of a carbon tax, I don’t think it’s as much of an anathema as you do — and with luck (and leadership) we’ll find out some day soon.

  9. But isn’t that the point, Jon? Climate change IS a big issue. You could argue that it’s the BIGGEST issue. And in the GOP, the nutcase activists still reign. That’s a problem. I can’t think of any issue that big since World War II where the wingnuts/moonbats have so dominated the issue, especially one where it is an issue of scientific fact. Now, maybe the point is that there hasn’t BEEN a policy question since World War II where scientific fact has been so much at issue, but that’s also the point: on big issues where science has been central, there has not been a circumstance where extreme activists have seized control of the party, so we’ve never seen it as big of a problem.

  10. But isn’t that the point, Jon? Climate change IS a big issue. You could argue that it’s the BIGGEST issue. And in the GOP, the nutcase activists still reign. That’s a problem. I can’t think of any issue that big since World War II where the wingnuts/moonbats have so dominated the issue, especially one where it is an issue of scientific fact. Now, maybe the point is that there hasn’t BEEN a policy question since World War II where scientific fact has been so much at issue, but that’s also the point: on big issues where science has been central, there has not been a circumstance where extreme activists have seized control of the party, so we’ve never seen it as big of a problem.

  11. “Now, maybe the point is that there hasn’t BEEN a policy question since World War II where scientific fact has been so much at issue” – that’s the point, as it may be the first, but it won’t be the last. Both parties are driven by activists who allow their politics to trump science — and we see it all the time. So if that’s a problem we care about, the solution is not to try and proclaim that one team is purer than the other when it comes to the politicization of science, but to try root out the phenomenon.

  12. “Now, maybe the point is that there hasn’t BEEN a policy question since World War II where scientific fact has been so much at issue” – that’s the point, as it may be the first, but it won’t be the last. Both parties are driven by activists who allow their politics to trump science — and we see it all the time. So if that’s a problem we care about, the solution is not to try and proclaim that one team is purer than the other when it comes to the politicization of science, but to try root out the phenomenon.

  13. I dunno, Jon. I certainly agree that the politicization of science is bad. On one side, on the transcendent environmental issue of our time, one political party has made it a central ideological pillar and political litmus test to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus, backed by a powerful network of foundations, think tanks, and a nationwide cable channel. On the other side, concerning a relatively unimportant issue, the other political party has ignored a ragtag group of activists. If you want to insist that these two are equivalent, then I suppose I can’t stop you.

  14. I dunno, Jon. I certainly agree that the politicization of science is bad. On one side, on the transcendent environmental issue of our time, one political party has made it a central ideological pillar and political litmus test to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus, backed by a powerful network of foundations, think tanks, and a nationwide cable channel. On the other side, concerning a relatively unimportant issue, the other political party has ignored a ragtag group of activists. If you want to insist that these two are equivalent, then I suppose I can’t stop you.

  15. It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government.

    Assuming that he meant to say “anthropogenic” rather than “anthropomorphic” I completely agree with the above statement.

  16. It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government.

    Assuming that he meant to say “anthropogenic” rather than “anthropomorphic” I completely agree with the above statement.

  17. I hope you reminded Professor Bainbridge that Reid, Pelosi and Obama have all repeatedly supported extending once again the Bush tax cuts for all people on their first $250,000 each year, including those who make more than $250,000.

  18. I hope you reminded Professor Bainbridge that Reid, Pelosi and Obama have all repeatedly supported extending once again the Bush tax cuts for all people on their first $250,000 each year, including those who make more than $250,000.

  19. JZ – It’s funny you characterize the misrepresentation of science on GMOs to be a “relatively unimportant issue.” Your state has a major ballot initiative this fall premised on a denial of the scientific consensus, and the initiative has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party. Whether a product was made with GMOs is as relevant to health or environmental protection as is whether the farmer prayed to a tree nymph (and, as it turns out, less relevant to public health than whether a product was fertilized with feces), but yet this would be the basis for mandatory labeling.

  20. JZ – It’s funny you characterize the misrepresentation of science on GMOs to be a “relatively unimportant issue.” Your state has a major ballot initiative this fall premised on a denial of the scientific consensus, and the initiative has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party. Whether a product was made with GMOs is as relevant to health or environmental protection as is whether the farmer prayed to a tree nymph (and, as it turns out, less relevant to public health than whether a product was fertilized with feces), but yet this would be the basis for mandatory labeling.

Comments are closed.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

READ more

POSTS BY Jonathan