How A Conservative Sees, Wants to Address, Climate Change

Law professor Jonathan Adler, no flaming liberal, accepts much of the science and outlines conservative property rights principles for addressing climate change challenges.


What is surprising about these quotations?

  • “… there is reason to believe many of the effects [of climate change] will be quite negative.
  • “Excesses” of climate campaigners and “bad behavior” by some scientists “do not, and should not, discredit the underlying science.”
  • Despite some “substantial uncertainty … this is not sufficient justification for ignoring global warming or pretending that climate change is not a serious problem.”
  • “… effects will be most severe in those nations that are both least able to adapt and least responsible for” the greenhouse problem.
  • “Even non-catastrophic warming should be a serious concern.”

What’s actually surprising about these points is not so much the messages, but the messenger.

They’re the thoughts of a long-time “definitely right-of-center” (his words) Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor and former staffer of the free-market Conservative Enterprise Institute.

Adler expresses his views on the seriousness of climate change in “A Conservative’s Approach to Combating Climate Change.”

Adler, whose conservative quals should be beyond challenge, is among those relatively few political conservatives or libertarians publicly acknowledging the seriousness of anthropogenic climate change and of the science behind it … and to do so clearly and with a suitable passion and conviction.

He points to some skeptics’ views that climate change may be only “more of a nuisance than a catastrophe” and that some effects will be positive. “Were I a utilitarian, and if I placed substantial faith in such cost-benefit studies, I might find these arguments convincing, but I’m not and I don’t. Even if he shared both those perspectives, “there are still reasons to act,” Adler wrote.

His rationale revolves around his — and other conservatives’ — attitudes toward property rights:

The same general principles that lead libertarians and conservatives to call for greater protection of property rights should lead them to call for greater attention to the most likely effects of climate change …. If the land of a farmer in Bangladesh is flooded, due in measurable and provable part to human-induced climate change, why would he be any less entitled to redress than a farmer who has his land flooded by his neighbor’s land-use changes? Libertarians readily accept this principle when government planners violate property rights in the name of economic development. Yet they seem to abandon their commitment to property rights when it comes to global warming.

Accepting the likelihood that global warming is “likely to cause harms that should be addressed,” Adler outlines several approaches:

  • Federal support for technology efforts to encourage development of commercially viable low-carbon technologies.
  • Lower barriers for development and deployment of alternative technologies.
  • Adoption of “a revenue-neutral carbon tax” along the lines advocated by NASA scientist James Hansen. (Yes, a conservative publicly aligning with Hansen!) A carbon tax at a price to be rebated to taxpayers on a per capita basis. “This should be a no brainier” for conservatives, Adler wrote.
  • Given that some warming is “already hard-wired into the system … some degree of adaptation will be necessary, with market-oriented approaches playing a role.

No crystal ball needed to note that political “liberals” or “greens” aren’t likely to warmly embrace all of Adler’s ideas. But perhaps their counterparts on the right won’t necessarily reject them all? If that’s the case … perhaps a way to start a broader dialogue on what to do about the climate challenge … and no longer so obsessively focused on what more and more accept as the underlying fundamental scientific evidence.

One can dream.

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One Response to How A Conservative Sees, Wants to Address, Climate Change

  1. Martin Lack says:

    With regard to his article on the Atlantic website, my comments are as follows:

    Adler is flat wrong about there being “…substantial uncertainty about the scope, scale, and consequences of anthropogenic warming”: The only substantial remaining uncertainty is what will happen to emissions trajectories.

    Adler has been duped by denialists if he really believes that climate scientists are “…distorting scientific findings and overstating the extent to which contemporary events (hurricanes, etc.) may be linked to human activity…” This is straying dangerously into conspiracy theory territory; and increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions is an inevitable consequence of a warming atmosphere.

    Adler seems content to ignore the fact that it is only people whose research is mainly funded by the fossil fuel lobby that reach prejudiced conclusions such as that climate change “…is more of a nuisance than a catastrophe.” In testimony to US Congress, Pat Michaels has repeatedly been shown to be guilty of either misunderstanding or misrepresenting the findings of others who reach conclusions his financiers do not like.

    However, given what he says in the rest of the article (which is all excellent), I think he was just trying too hard to get “sceptics” to read what he has to say…