Risky business: How conservatives are rolling the dice on climate change


Conservative symposium on climate change



To argue against the scientific conclusion that human activity is fueling climate change and that it will likely result in catastrophic consequences, is to put oneself in the same bracket of scientific credibility as flat earthers, young earth creationists, and Gwyneth Paltrow.  The overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists have determined that the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere will lead to more severe weather events, unprecedented droughts and floods, a rise in sea level, and record high temperatures.  It’s already happening, and it’s projected to get worse.  So how are conservative leaders dealing with the issue?  By hiding from it.

Climate change denial – a high-risk proposition

Basic risk analysis classifies risks according to the likelihood of an event or scenario happening and the severity of the outcome if it does happen.  If something is unlikely to occur and nothing much of any consequence happens even if it does, then that’s low risk. If it is highly likely, with severe consequences, then it’s high risk, requiring urgent action to lessen the probability of occurrence, to reduce the severity of the outcome, or both. 

With anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) climate change, we have a situation with a high likelihood of occurrence and severe consequences – the highest risk classification.  But, conservatives have decided to sit this one out, either refusing to accept that there’s a problem in the first place or refusing to do anything meaningful about it.  Ignore, deny, and obfuscate.  They are betting on the scientists being wrong and the risk being vastly overstated, or on a solution being contrived out of thin air, or maybe on their not being around when the shit hits the fan.  All of those possibilities are extreme long shot bets.  So, one can ask, “when did conservatives become such high stakes gamblers?”

A failure in governing

In his book The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis explores the risks posed by the US government’s ignoring the knowledge and expertise of its own staff, and therefore failing in the basic functions of government.  Lewis relates the stories of dedicated civil servants whose contributions to American society have been ignored or dismissed, and describes a government unwilling to even understand the function of its vast bureaucracies.  Only Michael Lewis can write a best-seller about risk in public administration.

In the book, Lewis touches upon climate change, such as when he describes the transition planning of the Trump administration for the Department of Energy.  In an exercise described as “McCarthyism”, Trump’s transition team questioned DoE staff on their previous involvement in climate change discussions or initiatives.  It seemed that understanding the purpose and functions of the DoE was not as important to the transition as was making sure that pockets of climate change advocacy were identified and contained. It became obvious during Trump’s transition that people who held certain attitudes on anthropogenic climate change were not welcome in leadership positions. 

And what are the basic functions of government?  As Harvard professor David Moss states, “government is the ultimate risk manager.” Lewis explains that the government manages a portfolio of risks that no private person or corporation is able to manage.  Those risks include that a severe environmental hazard would threaten the health and well-being of the population. Climate change. 

Risk management is a primary function of government leaders.  Conservatives are failing at it.

It starts with Trump

Why pick on conservatives?  Because they are at the forefront of the obstruction.  It starts with Donald Trump, who leads his base of Republicans in dismissing the risk.  One might think that someone who bet big and lost big on multiple business ventures, someone who was a major player in the casino business, might know a thing or two about risk.  Recent experience tells otherwise. 

Just this past week, Trump’s own intelligence chiefs appeared before the US Senate to present their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, which describes significant risks to US national security.  The assessment included an evaluation of risks such as those posed by North Korean nuclear programs, Russian and/or Chinese cyberattacks, Iran, Syria, and terrorist groups Al-Qa’ida and ISIS.  And climate change.  Here’s what the report has to say about climate change:

“Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.”

That’s a pretty stern warning.

A couple of months ago, Trump also received the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report from the Global Change Research Program, a government body established in 1989 with representatives from federal departments such as Agriculture,  Defense, Energy, Commerce, Transportation, and Health & Human Services.  And what does this broad representation of US government functions say?  It not only describes dire consequences of climate change (to human health and safety, quality of life, economic performance, etc.), it ties the changes to human activity. 

Presented with these reports, one might think that Trump would finally accept that climate change is real, and presents a serious threat to US security and the health and well-being of its citizens.  Wrong.  Recent tweets from The Donald prove once again that he really doesn’t get it – dismissing the reports and concluding for the benefit of millions of followers that because it’s really cold in Iowa, the Earth is obviously not warming.   

It doesn’t really matter whether Trump’s attitude stems from a refusal to accept science or just his desire to reward fossil fuel company backers – the effect is still the same; he’s gambling with his country’s future.  Unfortunately he’s gambling with everyone else’s future as well.  Trump’s abdication of US leadership is enabling similarly oriented politicians to look the other way when it comes to collective obligations on climate. 

It doesn’t end with Trump

Conservatives around the world may not share Trump’s abject denial of anthropogenic climate change, but they seem to welcome Trump’s inaction.   As Robinson Meyer described in The Atlantic, Trump is leading other western countries to question or scale back environmental policies, enabling other conservative leaders to waffle on their commitments to reducing greenhouse gases. They can look to Trump as justification for their own inaction. 

Greenhouse gas reduction requires full participation. That’s what the Paris Agreement was all about.  Everyone shares in the effort; otherwise, everyone shares in the failure.  Now that the US is backing out, others question their own participation. Take Australia, for instance.  Tony Abbot, who signed the Paris Agreement as prime minister of Australia grumbled last year, ”Absent America, my government would not have signed up to the Paris treaty, certainly not with the current target.”  The current PM, Scott Morrison, has said that Australia would not back out of the Paris agreement, but seems unconcerned with Australia’s lack of progress towards its objectives. Morrison’s government remains committed to coal-fired power generation, which contributed to Australia’ greenhouse gas emissions rising 1.3% in the last year measured. Meantime, the Great Barrier Reef is rapidly dying off and the country endures yet more drought, intense wildfires, and punishingly high temperatures (January in Australia was their hottest month on record). As predicted.

Here in Canada, we have politicians like Andrew Scheer, head of the national Conservative Party, and Doug Ford, newly elected conservative premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.  Both pay lip service to the need for controlling greenhouse gas emissions while doing everything they can to subvert programs that would control greenhouse gas emissions.  One of Ford’s first steps after being elected premier was to embark on a cross-country tour to try and recruit opposition to the national carbon pricing program, calling it a “job-destroying carbon tax.”  Nobel prize-winning economists have concluded that it’s no such thing; that’s it’s actually a cost-effective way of controlling greenhouse gases, but hey – Doug knows better. At the same time, Ford cancelled dozens of programs to develop renewable energy production facilities.  For his part, Scheer promised that if he’s elected prime minister in the October 2019 election, his first action will be to rescind carbon pricing.  It’s as if they’re not even trying to mask their contempt for climate initiatives, no matter how beneficial or economically justifiable.

Both Ford and Scheer look to the US for leadership on climate initiatives, and see none. When DoFo argues that carbon pricing will make Ontario industries uncompetitive, he points to the lack of action in the US, arguing that the “carbon tax” will plunge Ontario into a recession.  It won’t (see here), but the US position is providing cover for conservatives such as Ford and Scheer to pursue a strategy of doing nothing.  Once again, they are failing at the basic purpose of governing.

Where to?  Change the conversation  

The good news is that right-wing climate change deniers and/or do-nothings are in the minority.  The bad news is that they represent a rather powerful minority.  But, public awareness and concern about climate change are growing rapidly.  According to a 2018 survey by Yale and George Mason universities, only about one in seven Americans (14%) think global warming is not happening.  That’s probably a lower percentage than believe in a flat earth, young earth creationism, or any advice from Gwyneth Paltrow.  The survey also found that most Americans consider climate change to be a problem, and are worried about its effects on themselves, their communities, other countries, and especially their children.  Given those trends, there’s a real opportunity to take control of the issue and change the conversation.

How do we change the conversation? By talking about risk, the role of government in managing/mitigating risk, and the fact that conservative politicians who refuse to act on climate change are not doing their jobs. 

To conservatives, I would advise, “Wanna stick your head in the sand and gamble on climate change?  Don’t bet the farm.” 

Especially as it’s our farm too.

2 thoughts on “Risky business: How conservatives are rolling the dice on climate change”

  1. Great piece! It’s recently become so very clear to me…that these new dino-conservatives represent a real, actual pushback to the Enlightenment itself, with their contempt for reason, for science…a degree of ignorance I don’t think I’ve seen in the political sphere in my entire life. We’re living in a period of profound reaction I think and it depresses the hell out of me. Cheers Ceri! Owen


  2. Another really good analysis. The frustrating thing is that, according to the Yale study, fully 38% of Americans are not convinced that global warming is mostly human caused, with 23% totally convinced it is not caused by humans. 38% is close to Trump’s base approval rating, and we have to assume gets all its news from Fox and other right-wing, climate denying sources. Somehow it is these influencing channels that need to be changed. So the real question is, is there any way at all to influence the influencers – or is it really all about corruption, self-serving, short-termism and libertarian thinking? As for Doug Ford, the Globe & Mail article shows just how ignorant and prejudiced he is on this.


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