Conservatives and Climate Change, by John Andrews

Some of my liberal friends wonder why I bother talking with conservatives about global warming. Everyone knows conservatives don’t believe in climate change.

Well, “everyone” is mistaken. The Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication has found that “more than six in ten Trump voters (62 percent) support taxing and/or regulating the pollution that causes global warming, with nearly one in three (31 percent) supporting both approaches. In contrast, only about one in five (21 percent) support doing neither.” Some other polls are less encouraging, but it is simply wrong to give up on conservatives.

Another thing my friends on the left tend to say is that conservatives are close-minded and bigoted. Some are, of course, but, frankly, so are some liberals, just in different ways. Most conservatives are good people who love their families, revere our flag and our nation, and want to be right with God. If that describes you, I hope you will read on.

The changing climate poses many risks to our families and our country. These can be summarized as follows:

Health and safety risks: Global warming will expand the range of diseases that are now confined to the tropics. Heat waves will become longer and more intense. Wildfires will proliferate. Storms are likely to become more severe.

Economic risks: Rising sea levels will impose huge costs on our coastal communities. Droughts will harm agricultural productivity. Drinking water will become scarcer and more expensive in many areas of our country.

National security risks: Our military leaders agree that climate change poses serious challenges to America’s national security. Conflicts between nations over diminishing natural resources and livable land are likely to pull us in even if we are not involved at the outset. Refugee crises much worse than the current exodus from Syria are likely. Terrorism will increase as people in the most seriously affected countries blame the richer nations for their suffering. It is the combination of anger and despair that turns ordinary people into suicide bombers.

These risks are serious and close at hand, but the strongest reason why conservatives should be concerned about climate change is that it is an affront to God. The richer nations, most of which are in the temperate zones of our planet, have been the main drivers of climate change, but the effects are falling disproportionately on the more vulnerable nations of the tropics. Within our country, the poor and the powerless will suffer the most. Two millenniums ago Jesus said, “What you have done to these, the least of my brethren, you have done unto me.” He would say the same today.

In view of this spiritual dimension, I can understand why some conservatives want to believe that humans are not causing climate change. Such a belief relieves us of any guilt. The fact is, however, that although our burning of fossil fuels may not be the only cause, it is the main cause. We need to confront this if we are really to be right with God.

Fortunately, there is a way to redemption that doesn’t require us to give up everything we have worked so hard for. America can do its part in a way that will help the economy and create millions of good jobs. The key is to use market forces rather than government regulation. Conservatives are right when they recognize that the free market is the greatest engine of progress ever invented, but it works that way only if the price signals are right. If I can dump my garbage in your backyard without paying you for that right, that isn’t the free market, it’s exploitation. The atmosphere and the oceans shouldn’t be free dumping grounds either.

We need to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Charge a fee for the use of fossil fuels and return the proceeds to all Americans in equal shares. This will cause the price of fossil energy to rise, encouraging us to become more efficient in our use of energy and encouraging electric utilities to move toward carbon-free methods of power production. It will spur the development of new energy technologies that will keep America competitive in world markets. At the same time, the rebates will enable those of us who pay heed to the need for energy efficiency to come out ahead. And because the plan is revenue-neutral, it won’t increase the size of government.

Prominent conservatives have embraced this solution. Cabinet members of previous Republican administrations, including James Baker III, George Shultz, and Henry Paulson, met earlier this year with President Trump to advocate just such a plan. It’s a conservative plan because it relies on market forces rather than regulation and doesn’t need swarms of government bureaucrats to pick the winners and losers from among competing forms of carbon-free energy. It is sad that the president has listened to his friends in the so-called alt-right rather than these distinguished and responsible Republicans, but conservatives don’t have to go along with that decidedly unconservative move.

Many Republicans in Congress would like to come out publicly in favor of climate action but hesitate for fear of being subjected to primary challenges in the next election. Some, including our congressman, Lee Zeldin, have taken a step in that direction by joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives. It’s a good start, but only when conservative constituents express their desire for a workable solution that is consistent with conservative principles will Republicans in Congress really feel safe in expressing such ideas publicly. Republicans in Congress need to feel that people who are actually going to vote for them want action on climate. Liberal Democrats can’t help there. We need conservatives to speak up.

If anything is to be done in the next few years, we will need both Republicans and Democrats behind it. We need to make climate change a nonpartisan concern. We need people of all political persuasions to join on this issue even as they differ on others.

America had many political issues in the 1850s, but the only one we remember now is slavery. Similarly, of the many political issues surrounding us now, the only one that people in the next century will remember is what we did about the climate.

What Thomas Jefferson once said about slavery is equally apt now with regard to climate: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” America didn’t heed him then, and the result was civil war. Let us heed him now.

John Andrews, who lives in Sag Harbor, has been named co-group leader of the Long Island East chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. The group will next meet on Aug. 27 at noon at the Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse in Bridgehampton.