Conservatives Increasingly Conflicted on Climate

November 1, 2014

I’m researching the impacts of sea level rise in Florida for the next video.  One interesting wrinkle evolving, especially visible in this election season, is the increasingly difficult balancing act that conservative politicians have in areas like South Florida, where the impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise, are so directly obvious in regular folk’s daily lives, that to maintain the default “it’s a liberal plot” position is to be seen as obviously unhinged.
Local politicians in the area are coming together on a “practical” option of “dealing with the problem” with out specifying what the root of the problem is.
Works like this:

Problem: There’s water on my street.
Solution: giant pumps to pump it out to sea.
Problem solved.

Wait. Wasn’t that an intervention by big government at tax payer expense?  Shouldn’t the free market just sort out the winners and losers here?

Miami can afford pumps. For now. What about the rest of the area?
And if sea level is rising because of climate change – shouldn’t we deal with climate change?
“I’m not a scientist.”

I talked to Rolling Stone Senior writer Jeff Goodell about this strange, emerging syndrome, of conservatives spinning wildly in the face of their increasingly obvious blinders on the world’s most critical problem, and its solutions. Jeff has been covering the reaction to encroaching sea level rise in South Florida for several years, and if you have not read his piece “Goodbye Miami”, from last year, do so now.

Eli Lehrer, former conservative wonk for the Heartland Institute, came to his senses on climate a few years ago, (relatively speaking), and has been thinking about these sticky problems.
He wrote a worth-reading-in-entirety-piece recently in the conservative Weekly Standard:

Despite growing support from some conservative policy wonks, the idea of taxing carbon dioxide emissions, even as an alternative to the sort of heavy-handed greenhouse regulations promulgated by the Obama administration, has failed to garner much enthusiasm on the right.

The idea remains almost untouchable for Republican politicians, and the notion that there’s any chance that could change in the near future has been dismissed as “wishful thinking” by left-wing outlets like Mother Jones.

While this may be a fair assessment of the political facts as they stand, if progressives actually wanted to avert the various catastrophes that environmentalists say are inevitable without serious policy action—changes in growing seasons, collapse of certain fisheries, rising sea levels, and possibly increases in certain types of natural disasters—there are ways they could help sell a carbon tax to the right.

Conservatives will never support a carbon tax so long as they fear it will be used to promote more intrusive government, more spending, and more control over individuals’ lives. But if the left convincingly made the case that they are willing to give up new revenue, new regulations, and new resource development restrictions to make it happen, conservative support for a carbon tax is within the realm of possibility. But progressives will have to make certain policy concessions to get there.

For those on the right who do support a carbon tax—primarily conservative and libertarian-leaning economists like Gregory Mankiw, Kevin Hassett, and Irwin Stelzer—a primary attraction is the opportunity to use carbon tax revenues to cut taxes on productive activity, like labor and investment, and instead substitute a price on externalities that hurt the public. Adele Morris of the Brookings Institution has shown how a very modest carbon tax could easily help the United States bring its highest-in-the-world corporate income tax rates down to around the average for wealthy nations without eliminating the research and development tax credit and other widely supported tax breaks. The centrist environmental think tank Resources for the Future has done excellent work on how it might be used to cut payroll taxes.

Tampa Bay Times:

“A divide has begun to unfold in the usually conservative Tea Party movement in Florida and more generally in the Southeast,” warned a blog posting Thursday morning on, the conservative news and opinion website founded by Andrew Breitbart.

Dooley, the post says, “has launched an effort in Florida to push for so-called energy deregulation, but it appears to be yet another avenue for wealthy liberals to advance a radical environmentalist agenda.”

Really? Talk about the conservatives eating their own. Dooley, a tea party activist from Georgia, explained quite clearly from Wednesday’s protest podium why she was getting involved in the Sunshine State. Monopolies, like Duke Energy’s stranglehold on west-central Florida, are bad and stifle competing forms of power production in the state.

“These giant monopolies are trying to protect their profit margin,” Dooley told the Tampa Bay Times. “They are no longer looking out for the best interests of their utility customers. They are looking out for the best interest of their stockholders.”

But the Breitbart posting smells a conspiracy, noting that Dooley’s group, Conservatives for Energy Freedom, recently launched a chapter in Florida. “Their main purpose is to expand solar energy use. Sounds innocent enough until you dig deeper,” the Breitbart posting by Javier Manjarres says. “It appears that there are direct links between Dooley and her group and ultra-liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s group, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. This is Halloween scary.”



15 Responses to “Conservatives Increasingly Conflicted on Climate”

  1. jimbills Says:

    About Lehrer, he’s basically saying to liberals that as long as they give up environmental regulations and restrictions, as long as they can’t decide how the revenue for a carbon tax is used, and as long as they allow a slashing of corporate and investment taxes across the board, they might be able to sell the idea of a carbon tax to conservatives.

    I’ll say it again – these are not reasonable people. The greedy are incurable.

  2. I’d be the last person to say something nice about conservative Republicans. When it comes to destroying America (and much of the rest of the world), they have been far more effective than Al Qaeda ever dreamed of. People like Senator James Inhofe, wingnut talk radio hosts, and the Cock Brothers should burn in Hell together for what they’ve done.

    Nevertheless, I am thoroughly NOT convinced that a carbon tax is any kind of solution. True, if you make fossil fuels expensive enough, the poor and middle class won’t be able to afford their cars, or to have heat in winter, or even to turn on their TV sets and computers. They can instead spend their evenings in the homeless shelter, huddled together to keep warm, reading by candlelight Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.” From this tome they can learn that nuclear power is evil and that the solution is – among other things – “biomass,” so that they shouldn’t hesitate to cut down trees or burn their furniture to keep from freezing to death. They might also consider burning Naomi’s book while they’re at it. Of course, they will have already burned their copy of “Atlas Shrugged,” perhaps the one true benefit of the carbon tax.

    OK, I’m being overly cynical, but not by much. I’m all for being energy efficient, and much of the world (with the USA in particular) wastes a good deal of energy. However, a carbon tax is a blunt instrument for solving the problem. I actually doubt that any of you would welcome seeing your energy costs doubled or tripled. Perversely, it would even make your beloved solar panels much more expensive, since it takes energy to produce those too.

    If there is a solution to be had here, it will take some serious political will. A good starting point would be admitting that we even have a problem – American rightwingers haven’t come that far and continue to revel in AGW denialism. On the other hand, there is a serious denialism problem on the left as well, as the continued belief that windmills, wood stoves and solar panels are sufficient to run the world-as-we-know-it without a dramatic collapse in the economy. Those of you who live in a place like Los Angeles or New York and think you are going to run the subway system off of your rooftop solar panels, and feed yourself from the organic garden you’ve planted on the terrace – well, you are being even less realistic than the rightwing militia nuts in Montana who stock canned goods in the basement and think they’ll be able to survive the Apocalypse shooting buffalo and gathering acorns.

    While I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe fourth generation nuclear power offers the best way known so far to produce copious quantities of near carbon-free electricity, even I don’t see it as a panacea. Reducing the world’s population of seven billion-plus down to something more reasonable like one billion would be key to the long-term survival of the human race. However, I don’t see any agreeable realistic way of accomplishing that. I do, however, see plenty of unagreeable realistic ways of accomplishing that, in particular the traditional methods – war, famine, and plagues. Without a doubt, starvation, disease and government-sanctioned genocide are more effective than a carbon tax when it comes to reducing the human carbon footprint. It does, of course, have some obvious downsides which I needn’t elaborate on.

    The failure of my generation to be honest about the situation facing us guarantees that stark choices face future generations. We should hang our heads in shame.

    • I think you have summed up the dilemma that faces the human race well. As a species we are pathologically delusional. Neither the left or the right of the political spectrum has any answers for maintaining the biosphere in a livable state.
      As far as nuclear being a solution to replacing fossil fuel energy, in my opinion it would only allow growthist economic ideology to carry on until the next civilisation induced catastrophe.
      The only real solution is for humanity to understand it’s rather insignificant place in the universe and the necessity of maintaining the natural systems that support our species.
      While evolution has equiped us with the desire to consume availible resources as quickly as possible, should those resources be consumed elsewhere, I’d like to think that somewhere in the human intellect, there’s a desire to behave collectively above this rather primal level!
      Humanity needs to turn it’s back on a culture that glorifies extravagant consumption and that begins with changing the messages from the mass media.
      Without a change in attitude we can all guess where we’re headed within a degree or two and it won’t be pretty! There’s no quick technofix solution.

    • jpcowdrey Says:


      I understand your concerns, but I think you are overly cynical about revenue neutral carbon taxes and way too optimistic about the, so far, hypothetical promises of fourth generation nuclear power.

      As for controlling population, the long term non-violent solutions I see involve the educational and economic empowerment of women and guarantee of their reproductive freedom and meaningful social security for the aged.

      • JP, you are correct. Resources invested into the education of women do indeed benefit declining birth rates.
        What bothers me, is that as the climate destablises, so too does our social structure. With declining living standards and society less able to cope with the stresses applied to it, I can imagine a disproportionate burden being applied to women, resulting in less control over their reproductive rights and increasing birth rates.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          JPC and Keith,

          It’s a bit more complicated than that. In pre-modern societies, there were both high birth and death rates. They were pretty much in balance and population grew only slowly. As industrialization took hold, with its improvements in sanitation and health care, death rates dropped significantly but birth rates stayed high. This “lag” is typical in population dynamics in general, and results in the “overshoot” we have seen as we added a billion humans every 13 years and doubled the human population in just 50 years.

          Once a society gets to the “mature industrial” stage, both birth and death rates decline to a low level (with the decline in birth rate lagging the decline in death rate), but the total population typically stabilizes at a higher level. Much of the world is in that “maturing industrial” stage, and that IS associated to some degree with “empowerment” for women in both education and reproductive rights (except for a significant portion of the planet where religion intrudes).

          The problem is that industrialization leads to growth and more consumption of all kinds, including fossil fuels. If that goes badly, as it appears to be doing, the resulting “climate destabilization” is likely to lead not to increased birth rates, but to increased death rates, and that will be independent of sex—women and men will suffer equally.

          • Hi DOG, Mature industrial societies do have low birth and death rates due to a number of reasons, not least improved health care. Some of the reduced reproduction rate is no doubt associated with the number of distractions availible in modern society, whether womans employment, consumer culture, even the internet. I was thinking more in terms of a bad, albeit likely scenario, where widespread resource conflict breaks out and huge displacement of populations occur.
            I think back to the Balkans war where mass rape was used as a weapon, while being male would have been unpleasant, I think women probably suffered more.
            I know it’s the doomer in me that plays these dark scenarios in my mind, but I do try to look for indications of a change in direction.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            WHOA! You are wading WAY out into the swamp when you talk about rapes in the Balkans having much relation to the greater field of human population dynamics. That was an anomaly of the highest order, and a study of populations in the Balkans would likely show NO increase in the number of births but just that the fathers of the babies were not the husbands of the raped women—-the rapists had killed the men and buried them in mass graves. All of that is a social and moral issue, not population dynamics.

            What I spoke of is what HAS happened on Earth as the population rose from ~1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion today. We are in the same sort of cycle that can be seen with plants-herbivores or herbivores-predators with the added overlay of “civilization” and industrialization. That complicates things a bit but the basic science and math still holds.

            The reduced (or reducing) birthrate in developed and developing countries is due mainly to the fact that a family doesn’t have to have 8 or 10 children in order to have 3 or 4 survive, not “distractions” that keep the women busy. Remember too that five times as many women having 1/4 the number of children still produces growth.

            And a “bad scenario” due to AGW, resource conflict, water issues, rising sea level, etc etc is far more likely to increase death rates than birth rates even if a few women are “abused” along the way.

            PS If you look into it, the biggest factor in causing human populations to take off 150-200 years ago was simply improved sanitation and living conditions—-cleaner water, better disposal of waste, more sanitary food—-all of that arrived before what we call “health care”.

          • The headline news here in New Zealand today has been the UN climate report.
            The government response to the report has been”we are doing our bit” despite NZ CO2 emissions increasing not decreasing.
            “New Zealand was taking a balanced approach to climate change – playing its part while avoiding imposing excessive costs on households and businesses” says the minister.
            “The Government had to be mindful of the economic impact of cutting emissions too quickly”.
            Well the government aren’t in danger of cutting emissions too quickly, in fact they are doing everything they can to encourage exploration and exploitation of any hydrocarbon resource NZ has.
            This is what the majority of NZers want. This government has just been voted a third term with an increase in support.

  3. […] I'm researching the impacts of sea level rise in Florida for the next video. One interesting wrinkle evolving, especially visible in this election season, is the increasingly difficult balancing a…  […]

  4. redskylite Says:

    Slightly on topic (hyper conservative press) the Latino version of Fox News seems less constrained than their standard reporting:

    FOX (Latino) report on a telephone interview between EFE, (Spanish international news agency) and Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

  5. redskylite Says:

    I can agree with both points, regarding right,left Carbon Tax and dilemma, but quick frankly we do not have time for dilemmas, as I think the latest IPCC report will foretell. We are in danger of catastrophic climate change at or before the atmospheric concentration reaches 450 ppm, and I believe it is less than this (around 425ppm). At 2ppm per annum rise this clearly shows us we have less than a couple of decades to be zero carbon (or very close to it). I understand the U.S is currently building 5 nuclear power stations with the first to come on line in 2015, thank god, build away because time is of the essence. But this is a global problem and nuclear is not suitable everywhere, so we must use solar, wind, marine, geothermal too (I would say hydro but recently there has been evidence that it is a large methane producer).

    I do not like hearing people attacking the so called “greens” on nuclear, there were after all some serious safety issues after all with that technology in earlier days and the disposal has yet to be sorted out in your good country, also climate change was not widely discussed in the 70’s and 80’s.

    I have never been a so called “greenie”, and remember all the fuss on the Amazon a few decades ago, now I have time to study I realize they were right we should have protected the lungs of the world, it is fast deteriorating sadly.

    When I was young my grandparents did not have any electricity installed in their house, they used candles at night and had a warming wood fire, but they were happy and knew how to keep food fresh etc. Only this generation has got used to living with a host of electronic gadgets and appliances and being so demanding. Maybe time for many changes.

  6. lesliegraham1 Says:

    Nuclear – even without all the obvious intractable problems of the enormous cost, the waste and safety etc – wouldn’t put a dent in it even if it was viable for the simple reason that we would need to build a minimum of 14,000 nuclear plants within a couple of decades to meet our current global energy requirements
    That simply isn’t going to happen.

    Enough solar energy hits the Earth in four minutes to supply the same amount of power as would 14,000 nuclear power stations.
    Solar is simply a no-brainer.
    We have the technology.

  7. […] change will bring, (though some tribulations may have arrived on your doorstep already, see here and […]

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