Sunday’s the big climate march in New York City, which I’ll be going to with my family and, well, a lot of other people. I had promised my friends Ted Levine and Carolina Bank-Muñoz that I would blog about it. But the last couple of weeks have gotten away from me.
But tonight I read a great post by David Roberts that my wife sent me. It’s about the conservative refusal to deal seriously with climate change. And it tells an unbelievable story.
I give you North Carolina, where a government-sponsored scientific report revealed that, by the end of the century, oceans would rise up to 39 inches and the Outer Banks would be under water — an economic and cultural cataclysm for the state.
Galvanized by the threat, the Republican-controlled legislature … threw out the forecast.
The state’s new Republican governor appointed a new coastal commission chairman, Frank Gorham, an oil and gas man who announced this spring that the new forecast would be limited to 30 years.
These are people who literally close their ears to the news that their own homes will be underwater…
Roberts tells this story as a counter to a friend of his, George Marshall, who thinks conservatives can be reasoned with on the question of climate change.
Marshall’s suggestions are sensible: find spokespeople within the movement to do the talking; frame things in terms of values like conservation, purity, and loss-aversion; avoid divisive, hot-button topics like cap-and-trade. My contention is simply that the [conservative] tribe is too far gone.
Count me on Roberts’s side of this one, but I want to take issue with that last “the tribe is too far gone” remark. Because it implies that once upon a time, they weren’t.
Now I’ve blogged many a time against the notion that once upon a time, conservatives were different, that they were like Edmund Burke and Bill Buckley. In fact, I’ve written a whole book against that notion. So I won’t rehearse those arguments here.
Instead, I want to focus on that North Carolina story and what it tells us about how conservatives think about time. Not necessarily about the environment, about which their views may have changed in response to political contingencies, but time. And the truth is, though conservatives are supposed to care about conserving the past for the sake of the future—hence, Roberts’ friend Marshall urging him to talk about “conservation, purity, and loss-aversion”—they’ve always had a strangely distended notion of time. Even Burke. An almost teenage, James Dean-esque, version of time. In which we’re burning the candle at both ends, so why worry today about what we may not survive to experience tomorrow?
I was going to write more about this and then remembered that I already have in a previous post:
In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.
After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).
In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:
I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?
Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:
Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.
The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.
When conservatives in North Carolina in 2014 hear “by the end of the century” in the context of climate change, they’re responding the way Bill Buckley did in 1984 in the context of the nuclear arms race: You’re saying we’ve got 15 more years? 20 more years? That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?
No, it’s not.
See you on Sunday.