Liberals and conservatives have failed to adequately address the climate change crisis. Neither political party gave significant attention to any environment issues during the 2016 elections. Politicians left and right are unable even to ask meaningful questions regarding the environment because the frame of reference of these philosophies is not set up to do so.
In his 2014 book, The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And The Birth of Right and Left, the political scholar Yuval Levin chronicles the late 18th century origins of conservatism (Burke) and Liberalism (Paine).
Burke believed that rejecting the traditions and practices of the past leads to disaster. He feared that the passions of the moment overwhelm reason, and that instead, keeping to what works contributes to overall societal happiness. We retain inherited political and social institutions for good reason—the maintenance of order. Social relations are and must be restrained by the legacy of past generations and by our obligations to future generations. These traditions mostly obviate the need for social engineering by government regulation.
Paine believed that not rejecting those traditions and long standing practices leads to disaster. Discarding the dead hand of the past and adapting to changing conditions creates justice in the contemporary world contributing to overall happiness. He trusted citizens to employ “reason” in their consideration of political matters. Social and power relations should change with each generation, through revolution if necessary, and that the present should be of greater importance than the past or the future. Reason, rather than tradition, should be our guide.
Paine favored individual choice. Burke supported the obligations and privileges to which we are born. Both views have negative implications for contemporary environmentalism.
Conservatives see no reason to intervene in ancient environmental systems since those have and will continue to manage—and even evolve—on their own. Applying “reason” (including science) to address environmental issues unnecessarily grants authority to radicals who are more than willing to tear down the existing order for obscure (to the conservatives) revolutionary objectives. We have built a great nation on certain shared values (such as property rights, capitalism). Leave well enough alone.
Don’t expect liberals to come to our rescue. According to Paine, the motives of authorities (representing the long existing establishment, including scientists) are suspect; they are not to be trusted. Personal experience and immediate needs (such as alleviation of poverty, prevention of war) are of greatest concern. The people of the future can (and should) address the problems of their own time. Meanwhile, we must look out for ourselves.
As a result, neither conservatives nor liberals have much to offer environmentalism. Conservatives fear that environmental action will trample the rights of individuals well vested in the current system. Liberals fear that environmental action could compromise their goal of a more just and equitable society.
If conservatives admit the reality of climate change, then they have to admit that the issue can only be addressed though collective action organized by multinational governmental agencies. If liberals admit that climate change is real, then they have to adjust to societal sacrifices, knowing that the less well off and less powerful will give up more than the rich and powerful in addressing the problem.
Their differing worldviews make conservatives and liberals unable to understand one another on almost any issue. At the same time, but for entirely different reasons, their preconceptions make them equally unable to take revolutionary action that would disrupt our world society today for a payoff (in environmental and climate terms) that cannot be achieved until far into the future.
“The Great Chasm” Photo: David L. Witt