the national interest

Why Conservatives Who Know Climate Science Is Real Won’t Speak Up

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party is the only major right-of-center party in the world that refuses to acknowledge the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and rising global temperatures. The major cause of this is one liberals are well aware of: The party’s climate stance is controlled by a combination of fossil-fuel interests and active cranks dissembling about the science. But there is a secondary cause of the GOP’s inability to confront reality that is less understood. Many leading conservatives do understand climate science, yet refuse to frontally challenge their party’s denialism.

The non-cranks of the right will admit that global warming is real, and usually concede as well that some policy solution other than allowing the free dumping of carbon pollution into the atmosphere is needed. But their main energies are reserved for attacking excesses of the left. This solution goes too far, that solution accomplishes too little; that social-media message oversimplifies. It is uncomfortable to linger on disagreements with their colleagues on the right. Much easier to linger on their shared resentment of environmentalists.

National Review columnist Kevin D. Williamson has a perfect specimen of this tendency, of which hundreds could be found. Williamson’s recent column is devoted to the alleged hypocrisy of actress Emma Thompson, who agrees with leading world scientific authorities about the dangers of greenhouse-gas emissions yet still traveled to a climate-change conference via airplane, which of course emitted carbon. Williamson argues that the fact Thompson bought a ticket on an airplane shows she does not, and cannot really, believe climate change is as bad as she says. Apparently, taking her views on climate change seriously would mean boycotting climate conferences not located within a short distance of her home.

Obviously, Williamson’s charge of hypocrisy is manifestly insipid. In general, individual choices have an infinitesimal impact on collective-action problems like greenhouse-gas emissions. In this particular case, Thompson’s choice has either zero, or close to zero, impact. If she decided to avoid buying a plane ticket, either the seat would have been sold to another customer, or the plane would have flown one fewer passenger (perhaps sparing a tiny bit of fuel by reducing the plane’s weight by 110 pounds or so), but either way, it would have burned jet fuel. Williamson argues that she should have boycotted the conference because, “If Emma Thompson fails to show up for the party, there are a thousand celebrities ready to take her place.” He does not seem to realize the same reasoning applies to her failing to show up for an airplane flight. The other side of the equation is that attending climate conferences draws more attention to the issue of climate change, and the general logic of working to build political action by gathering and publicizing ideas is not one in serious dispute by either right or left.

While Williamson’s argument with Thompson here is picayune and self-evidently false, it is certainly the case that many celebrities do say genuinely wrong things about climate change. The world is a big place. It is always possible to find somebody on the other side of a problem saying something silly. Conservative media is filled with columns attacking celebrities, activists, or perhaps backbench members of Congress for overreacting to climate change. This is a whole genre of right-wing column. It is a very appealing one for conservatives who would rather not antagonize their allies. Conservatives might disagree on the small matter of whether the release of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere traps heat, but they can agree on the big question that environmentalists annoy them.

Williamson more or less explains his own calculation in this very column. “I myself have more or less conventional views of climate change and believe that adapting to it will be a challenge that imposes real costs,” he concedes, “But I’ll believe that the celebrity activists believe in it when they start acting like it and the general-aviation section of the Pitkin County Airport looks like Rick Husband Amarillo International (!) Airport.”

In the first sentence, Williamson concedes offhand that the Republican Party, which controls the executive branch, is blithely imposing large costs on humanity because it follows crank pseudoscientific theory. The perversity of the party’s refusal to accept scientific reality plays out across multiple dimensions, from a president insisting wind power causes cancer to stocking the regulatory apparatus with fossil-fuel lobbyists to prioritizing the preservation of dirty-energy jobs even in cases where clean-energy sources are cheaper.

But in his next sentence, Williamson pivots to his true concern: Rich people are still using air travel, and some rich people are liberals, and some of the rich liberals are famous. Therefore, somehow none of them can actually believe climate change is a serious problem. Therefore, Williamson gives himself permission to turn the bulk of his attention on the matter away from the procession of massive policy errors driven by the GOP’s lunatic pseudoscience and transparent regulatory capture and focus on the priority: Emma Thompson.

Why Conservatives Who Believe Climate Science Won’t Speak Up