New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ recent essay on climate change following his trip to Greenland, and his rejection of climate agnosticism and alarmism, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand where the climate and energy debate will head after the mid-term elections. In short, Stephens arrives at a place currently occupied by a majority of Republican members of Congress, a growing ecosystem of center-right think tanks and organizations and, most importantly, the general public. Like them or not, Stephens’ conclusions will likely have much more potency after November 8.
Stephens essentially argues that conservatives, and any intellectually honest person, should approach climate change as a matter of risk assessment and reject hysteria or denial. He says the pandemic was a humbling experience and “a lesson in thinking about risk, especially those in the category known as high-impact, low-probability events that seem to be hitting us with such regularity in this century: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011, the mass upheavals in the Arab world that began with a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation.”
What if the past does nothing to predict the future? What if climate risks do not evolve gradually and relatively predictably but instead suddenly soar uncontrollably? How much lead time is required to deal with something like sea-level rise? How do we weigh the risks of underreacting to climate change against the risks of overreacting to it?
Stephens argues for action driven by markets, consumers, and only gentle “nudges” from the government. He compares the climate risk to cancer and says stage 2 cancer is easier to treat than stage 4 cancer but warns against top-down government mandates and anti-fossil fuel dogma. Stephens notes that billions of people would starve without fossil fuels, criticizes Germany’s “magical thinking” about renewables, and reminds readers that the single biggest driver in emissions reduction in the U.S. was fracking.
In the long run, we are likelier to make progress when we adopt partial solutions that work with the grain of human nature, not big ones that work against it. Sometimes those solutions will be legislative — at least when they nudge, rather than force, the private sector to move in the right direction. But more often they will come from the bottom up, in the form of innovations and practices tested in markets, adopted by consumers and continually refined by use. They may not be directly related to climate change but can nonetheless have a positive impact on it. And they probably won’t come in the form of One Big Idea but in thousands of little ones whose cumulative impacts add up.
The left-leaning media likes to play up what it sees as the novelty of conservative “climate conversions” but Stephens’ cogent arguments and conclusions aren’t new to policymakers. They are widely held and ready to be turned into action. While progressives have spent the past two years pushing for a “whole of government” approach, which frequently and weirdly connects climate to unrelated progressive social policy goals (how does universal pre-school lower global temperatures?), conservatives have been developing a “whole of society” approach that celebrates bottom-up innovators and makes room for civil society, markets, science, logic and economics.
Soon enough, voters are going to tell policymakers which approach they prefer.