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February 2, 2009

Climate Change: Conservatives Abdicate, and Leave Solutions to Liberals


I have a theory on why climate change today is so polarizing. The science behind it is not terribly controversial. In fact, we rely on it to produce a habitable planet.


The reason is rooted in history, back when Ronald Reagan made Americans believe that government is the problem. While renewing the hopes of millions of Americans in their own country, he also instilled in the conservative movement a distrust of regulation.


It wasn’t just in regard to environmental issues, but at the time – when the environment was relatively new upon the political scene – the only tool really available to tackle problems was regulation.


Environmentalism became a nice surrogate in the campaign against regulation. That represented a dramatic shift for the Republican Party, which more and more over the next two decades found itself increasingly controlled by its conservative element. It was completed with the ascendancy of Tom DeLay, a man who likened the Environmental Protection Agency, created by a Republican president, to the Gestapo.


Acknowledging a problem means acknowledging that some effort should be put into finding a solution. Because the most popular tool at the time was regulation, that led the anti-regulation elements of the Republican Party to simply fight over the science that concluded that a problem existed.


In the 1980s, this was evidenced in the fight over acid rain. It’s been repeated in the case of DDT, climate change and even second-hand smoke. It is logically impossible to argue that a problem doesn’t exist while also arguing in favor of a solution, which meant that as conservatives increasingly waged an ideological war over science, the solutions being proposed were all coming from liberals.


Because those solutions have almost always involved some kind of government regulation, environmental issues have been tied to a stronger state, which on the American right these days is akin to communism.


It isn’t a far throw to see where this turned into a self-perpetuating cycle. Conservatives abandon the issue, leaving liberals to propose solutions. They look at solutions proposed, see that all of them are based on liberal philosophy, and dismiss the issue as part of liberal orthodoxy.


Conservatives remove themselves from discussing the issue to fighting over the science. From that perch they look at the solutions, and . . . well, you can see where this is going. The end result is that green equals commie red.


Today, hostility towards environmentalism occupies a special niche on the right.


Environmentalists themselves are casually accused of hating Western Civilization and of wishing to live in caves. Al Gore, whose achievements – winning part of a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar – would ordinarily be admired, is referred to as AlGore, as if he is some kind of monster from a Godzilla movie.


This also explains why a call by Newt Gingrich a couple of years back to co-opt the environment fell totally flat. At the time, the nation appeared poised to enter a new age where environmental issues were taken seriously. Since then, the economy has tumbled and the specter of climate change has faded. A poll late last year found that most Americans listed the environment as the last among 20 priorities while the economy took the top slot.


It fell flat because Gingrich’s party is still ideologically bound to hostility toward environmental issues. Rather than co-opt, they’d rather ridicule. Today, when discussing climate change – our most pressing environmental issue – with conservatives, it is not uncommon to see opposition put together like it was ordered off an a la carte menu. Ideas are drawn freely from people whose conclusions may conflict with each other in fundamental ways. What you don’t see are ideas on how to address the underlying problem.


That would require breaking out of a comfort zone established almost 30 years ago. Staying within that cycle has produced what we have today – a lot of shouting, but only solutions on one side.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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