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Can the left and right talk about climate change without guilt?

wonkteaserg-300x160Abortion excepted, no issue divides left and right like climate change.

Unlike air pollution, which burns your eyes and rains soot on your car, or water pollution, which makes rivers stink and fish die, greenhouses gases are largely unobserved. They impose no discomfort when encountered. Nor is there certainty about immediate effects. Long run impacts are derived from esoteric mathematical models and tabulated using dense statistical inference. Consider that meteorologists, regardless of how convinced they are of the science, resist assigning the blame for a particular weather event to atmospheric warming. Even after Hurricane Irma dumped rain on Houston in feet, not inches, that reluctance persists. After all, changeable weather is normal.

I don’t wish to re-try the physical evidence or the modeling. Let us accept that a persistent warming trend is evident and that warming can cause rising sea levels with serious consequences for low-lying coastal regions and unpredictable changes in weather patterns.

Many on the right accept these propositions. Why, then, is the debate so bitter and divisive? There is blame on both sides, to be sure. In this column I’d like to address ways that the left has made climate activism hard for the right to swallow.

I speculate that the assignment of responsibility contributes to the left/right conflict. Opponents of climate policy remind us that global warming and cooling occurred in the past, well before humans had the capacity to affect the atmosphere. Climate activists, by contrast, rarely fail to include the phrase “caused by human activity” in the discussion. Does it really matter? As long as we accept that greenhouse gases matter and that the problem poses significant risk, then the policy solutions are pretty much the same whether the cause is natural or anthropogenic.

Here’s the problem: By insisting on human cause, climate activists are invoking guilt as a motivating force. This turns a physical problem into an issue of morality. The debate is no longer just about effectiveness, it is also about making restitution for past sins. And it then becomes easy to imply that opponents are not simply wrong on technical grounds but are wrong on moral grounds. Opponents are not simply mistaken; they are immoral. When mutual respect ends, so does any hope of compromise.

Those on the left may feel that they need to emphasize the human role in climate change in order to provoke actions that may be expensive and life-altering. Their attempts to use guilt as a motivator are counterproductive if they lead to endless arguments about the degree of blame humans should assume.

Environmental activism assumes a near religious tone—opponents are “deniers,” in contrast to righteous “believers.” This can cloud the debate over policy solutions. If guilt is central, then a policy that imposes some measure of pain and discomfort seems appropriate, supporting solutions that are strong symbolically but weak in cost/benefit terms.

Activists’ reactions to solar geoengineering illustrate the point. Geoengineering refers to active efforts to counteract the warming impact of greenhouse gas emissions (see https://keith.seas.harvard.edu/geoengineering). A recent article in Anthropocene magazine articulated the issue well, asking, What would (geoengineering) do to people’s personal motivations for environmental action? Most environmentalists seek or enjoy a particular sense of what it is to care about nature and protect it. If environmental action is something that comes from outside, uncoupled from any change in the way we lead our lives, does it still deliver what the environmentalist spirit craves?” (http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/geoengineering/)

Some environmentalists fear that successful geoengineering might allow mankind to escape climate damnation without “confessing sin and resolving to live a new life of grace.” Yet if we accept that the warming problem is serious—and that even perfect compliance with the Paris Accords, for example, falls short—why would we fail to explore all solutions?

Complex problems are rarely solved easily. Solutions to climate change that require faithful adherence to all parts of the environmental gospel are nearly impossible to implement across a diverse planet. A realistic climate change policy is unlikely to satisfy environmental purists. So unless you prefer righteousness to effectiveness, compromise will be required.

Let’s support research into solar geoengineering, like that begun at Harvard University. Let’s acknowledge that the fastest and surest path to retiring coal comes from a switch to natural gas, secured through properly regulated hydrofracking. Let’s not close the door on nuclear power: Consider the track record of modern nuclear power—even the plants built with 50-year-old technology have a remarkable safety record. Newer designs are worthy of our consideration. Let’s pass a carbon tax that will spur effective deployment of wind, solar and battery technology plus ideas not yet discovered. Policies that discourage carbon fuels will be much more effective than policies that single out one technology or another for subsidy.

The separation of church and state should also apply to environmental policy. Let’s look for solutions, not purity of thought and behavior. Dialogue between left and right on climate change will be less divisive if we look for compromise. And lighten up on the guilt.

Kent Gardner is chief economist and chief research officer of the Center for Governmental Research Inc.


  1. Historically, left and right were terms used to describe economic views — socialism versus capitalism. But environmentalism does not depend on socialism. There are capitalists who recognize that climate change will have a large cost and that prevention is cheaper than repairing the damage that will be done if the climate changes. Call it negative externalities.

    The overall climate and sea level have been stable for 11,000 years, and all our infrastructure assumes a certain sea level, or temperature range, or rainfall pattern.

    Nor is “belief” a precise enough term: what we really have is “acceptance” of the science. And that science is ultimately based on the science of physics, which no one seems to “deny”. It’s ultimately simple: a certain wavelength of radiation at which the earth radiates energy is absorbed by molecules of CO2 and turned into heat. More CO2 will increase temperature; not much in absolute terms, but enough to cause changes that render infrastructure obsolete.

  2. It’s important to understand that humans are causing the latest global warming to counter the largest contingent of conservative do-nothings…….those that believe mere humans can’t or shouldn’t change God’s beautiful climate. The truth is that humans have been damaging this beautiful earth, and that humans also can be reborn and change their ways. Whether the motivation is guilt or enlightenment, the only thing God cares about is that we do the right thing.

  3. Not only “climate activists” insist on a human cause for recently observed warming. This is the overwhelming conclusion of the scientific community. You need to be precise here…we are talking about the increase in global average temperature that has occurred since the industrial revolution. That is, in the past 150 years. No naturally occurring warming event has occurred in that brief of a time period that is of the rate and magnitude that is now being observed. This is based on paleo-climate studies of climate changes going back 1.5 million years. Current warming is simply not a natural event. It is caused by human created emissions of carbon dioxide and deforestation. Again the solution is not in doubt. Humans must stop burning fossil fuels and deforestation. We must stop practices that increase the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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