Saturday, 21 March 2009

Global Warming and Conservatism

This morning I was reading Chris Mooney's response to George Will's recent cynical anti-global warming diatribe and it got me to wondering. Why is there so much criticism about global warming, a matter about which scientific consensus is quite strong, on the right and why is most, although not all, of the criticism coming from the right? My rough impression is that the various gw sceptics, usually conservatives, are practicing something other than healthy scepticism but bring in a predetermined conclusion looking for a justification. Maybe I'm wrong about that, maybe conservatives really are better scientists than all those arguing about the dangers of global warming, but even if I am wrong, I think it still may be a phenomenon requiring explanation. In other words, if it just happens that the Conservatives are right about global warming, why is it that the oppositiion and scepticism is so heavily concentrated on the right? (So, I'm less interested here in who's correct than I am in understanding why the divergence of positions is breaking down the way that it is.)

a) D'uh, what do you expect, we're Conservatives? This is the simple explanation. Global warming entails the necessity of a fairly radical change in lifestyle. Conservatives are disinclined to embrace huge lifestyle changes, that's often part of the reason they're conservatives. Nothing fancy here, we just don't want to change.

b) Global Warming, if correct, represents an important failing of free market ideology: Global warming is not a problem easily solved by the markets. The problem of pollution already presents a problem for free market ideology insofar as firms receive the benefit of creating marketable goods in a way that pollutes but they don't bear the cost of the increased pollution. Free market adherents have some response to this in the case where the effect of the pollutants is rather immediate and the responsibility for polluting is tracable to a small number of parties. But I would think that it becomes harder and harder to give a coherent free-market response when the effect of the polluting is temporally distant, affects a much broader class of properties, and the extent of the responsibility for the damage is harder to assess. So, to the extent that the truth of global warming represents a reductio of free market ideology, we can expect that proponents of that ideology would oppose it. We're never inclined to give up fundamental theories easily.
We all tend to naturally embrace scientific conclusions that reinforce our prior beliefs and way of doing things and oppose those that do the opposite. (In this regard, we're all conservatives.) Liberals wrt economics tend to be sceptical of science indicating the efficacy of free markets, for example. None of us are floating along as unbiased judges, we're all trying to save the theories that take a place of centrality in our web of beliefs, the more central the theory the less inclined we are to disentangle it.

c) The cost of these fixes is very high, let's make sure we have it right before embarking on them: An argument that I've heard explicity is a simple prudence based one, i.e., let's not spend our resources and lifestyle on this until we're really sure. This is merely an advocacy of doing some decision theory and who could argue with that? But I think that the inherent problem is that conservatives will have a different calculus when doing the cost - benefit analysis. To their minds government controls on business, for example, exact a very high cost, a society in which government has much stronger controls on business. There is also a realization that this isn't a very high cost for many liberals assessing the situation, it's a situation they're perfectly happy or mostly happy to live with. Therefore, in order to get the decision theoretic calculus operating in a manner more balanced to their weightings, it's in the interests of conservatives to take steps to start the calculations with a much lower probability on the correctness of various global warming predictions.

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