Talking past each other on climate

Keith Gaby

Over at Huffington Post, Bill Shireman makes an interesting observation about the mistrust between environmentalists and some conservatives - that each side is worried the other will try to undermine its bedrock values:

“On the one hand are the climate fundamentalists, who fear the biosystem is in imminent collapse, and often advocate radical big government solutions to save the planet now.

On the other hand are the market fundamentalists, who fear that freedom and free markets are under attack, and that acknowledging climate risk begins a slippery slope descent to complete government control of our lives.”

Sherman is, of course, talking about the extremes.  Most environmentalists I know want to shift the world toward clean energy, not undertake radical big government solutions.  But I think he’s right that milder forms of this conflict cause even the mainstreams on both sides to talk past each other.  Conservatives worry that admitting the real threat of climate change will give liberals an excuse to raise taxes and push unnecessary regulations. Environmentalists worry that acknowledging any cost involved in reducing pollution will allow climate deniers to scare voters away from supporting needed solutions.

In the short run, the friction between these two groups is understandable.  The free market side sees regulations limiting carbon pollution as constraining profits, while environmentalists believe these rules are a necessary first step in addressing a serious global threat. Businesses never like regulations, and environmentalist never like unlimited pollution.

But in the longer term, the interests of both sides converge. Good business requires a stable, functioning, healthy society.  The destabilization that will come from stronger storms, more intense drought, and other disruptions will be bad for business.  Not to mention the expense involved in rebuilding infrastructure, higher insurance rates, and other costs associated with a changing climate. On the other side, all history has shown that voters only embrace environmental causes when they are economically comfortable.  People who are fearful about their jobs – or their next meal – do not tend to prioritize environmental progress. Most countries become conscious of conservation issues when they have an established middle class.

It’s clear that in the long run we can’t follow either extreme path.  We desperately need a solution to climate change, but it must be one that supports continued prosperity.  Only when people have with good jobs and health insurance for their kids will they turn their attention to what the world will be like in 50 years.

A free market does not mean one without any rules.

It’s also worth noting that the market-oriented and environmental ideologies are not as far apart as they seem. The vast majority of environmentalists simply want a properly functioning market, one that accounts for the real cost of economic activity.  If a utility produces power, it should not be able to shift some of the cost to society while keeping all the profit. That’s exactly what happens when a power plant sends unlimited pollution into the atmosphere and the taxpayers have to cover the cost of the impacts.  And I don’t think most market-oriented business people would disagree with that concept – few of them would endorse the idea that a factory should be able to dump unlimited toxins in a river and have taxpayers bear the clean-up costs.  A free market does not mean one without any rules.  A true libertarian position would be that each company is free to conduct its business as long as it pays for the full impact of its actions.

As with a lot of problems, too many of us take a short term view. Given the daily pressures we face, that’s understandable. But if we look a little further down the road, we might find we’ve got more in common than we think.

*Shireman’s piece also covers a lot of other issues, particularly the controversies stirred up by Naomi Klein’s book tour.  For those interested in that issue, I’d recommend these posts from Eric Pooley and Joe Romm.

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