Climate Change: Why conservatives should lead

By JIM DIPESO, REP Policy Director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly, spring 2005, Vol 1, #1

Imagine leaving two children a generous inheritance that can provide a steady, reliable stream of income for life.

One of the children is a conservative. He invests the inheritance prudently in safe assets and looks forward to decades of steady dividend checks.

The other child is not a conservative. He takes dangerous risks with the inheritance, causing its value to plunge and taking his economic security along with it.


The atmosphere is part of mankind’s inheritance. For millennia, it has provided the hospitable climate necessary for the growth of civilization and its countless achievements.

Climate stability is not a perpetual given, however. The atmosphere is dynamic and can change in dangerous and unpredictable ways if its underlying chemistry and/or physics are altered.

During the 20th century, the global mean surface temperature increased by approximately 1 degree Fahrenheit. Frost days declined in nearly all land areas worldwide, and precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere rose 5 to 10 percent.



Climate experts project continued increases in temperature, sea level rise, and continued retreat of glaciers. Negative spin-off impacts may include increased heat stress, exacerbation of water shortages in chronically dry areas, wider range of mosquitoes and other disease carriers, and lower agricultural productivity in most tropical and subtropical regions. The impacts of climate change are expected to be most severe in developing nations, exacerbating food and water availability problems that could, in turn, endanger America’s security and economy.



Questions often are raised about the validity of tying climate change to human activities. Most of these center on scientific uncertainties. While researchers have more to learn about climate science and the impacts of global warming, there is broad agreement in the scientific community that most of the warming observed over the past half-century can be attributed to human activities.

The best available, peer-reviewed scientific findings published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the result of human emissions outpacing the carbon absorption capacity of plants, soils, and oceans.

Since the mid 18th century, when human energy consumption and deforestation began to escalate, the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to nearly 370 ppm, an extraordinarily rapid rate of increase.

While CO2 is a “trace gas,” the atmosphere is extraordinarily sensitive to seemingly small perturbations. As a result of the CO2 buildup, the atmosphere can trap more of the sun’s heat, increasing the risk of detrimental spin-off impacts on global weather, oceans, plant and animal life, and human social systems.

At President Bush’s request, the National Academy of Sciences in 2001 convened a panel to review the work of the IPCC. The NAS committee generally agreed with the IPCC’s findings. More recent work, such as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment published last year, provides further validation for the broad view in the scientific community that human greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate.

Most recently, an article in the peer-reviewed journal Science describes convincing new evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are largely responsible for the observed warming of average global temperatures. James Hansen, a climatologist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, described the findings as a “smoking gun.” The findings also validate global warming projections. Data from deep ocean probes and satellites found an unnatural global “energy imbalance,” — the Earth is retaining more heat than it is giving off.



Many scientists are concerned that an unrestrained greenhouse gas buildup may push the global climate across a dangerous threshold, causing climate change to rapidly accelerate, with profound consequences for civilization, culture, and life.

Like the careless steward, we are taking unwise risks that have moral implications. In a 1990 message, the late Pope John Paul II commented that climate change and other forms of environmental harm show a lack of respect for life. He observed that environmental destruction is the result of “an unnatural and reductionist vision which at times leads to a genuine contempt for man.”

Science rarely provides neat yes-or-no answers to complex questions, but it does provide us with the best information available to inform our choices. Faced with a phenomenon as complex as climate change that has many components with differing probabilities, public servants must use their best judgment and act on the information already available. The critical issue is the profound level of risk we are taking with our security, economy, and public health by allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue rising unabated.

The key to lessening that risk is a developing broad consensus that action must be taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving such consensus requires a true understanding of the costs and benefits of acting now versus the consequences of failing to do so.



A number of business leaders, including the CEOs of BP, Exelon, Duke Energy, and American Electric Power, believe that enough is known to institute prudent measures now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As BP CEO John Browne often notes, businesses often carry out large-scale projects in the absence of complete information. Good leaders can sense when enough information is in hand to warrant taking action.

A cost-benefit analysis of greenhouse gas reductions must include an assessment of the impacts of unabated climate change. Estimates of possible damage to water supplies, agriculture, public health, and other essentials vary, but some range into the hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

A critically important factor to consider is the risk of rapid, large-scale, and irreversible impacts that may result if greenhouse gas levels push the atmosphere past a “tipping point.” Drying of the Amazon rain forest or of Siberian peat bogs could result in huge quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, another greenhouse gas, being released into the atmosphere.

Homeowners pay monthly premiums to mitigate the risks of events that may not occur but would be catastrophically costly if they do. Seen in that light, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a prudent form of global insurance.

By adopting the right set of policies that use incentives and market forces, such as the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, we could hold down costs and create spin-off benefits as well, including lower energy costs linked to efficiency gains. For example, BP added $650 million in shareholder value by cutting the corporation’s greenhouse gas emissions through efficiency measures.

General Electric, the world’s largest corporation, has announced a business strategy to boost sales of clean energy technologies. The premise of GE’s new strategy is that clean energy is a sound business proposition.

Emissions trading is a promising tool to harness market forces in cutting emissions. Leading American corporations, including Ford, American Electric Power, Dupont, and Motorola are experimenting with carbon emissions trading through the Chicago Climate Exchange. A regional trading market for power plants will be instituted in nine Northeastern states this year.



Business and market forces alone cannot solve the climate problem singe-handedly, however. As BP’s Browne indicated in a Foreign Affairs article last year, government has crucial roles to play in establishing rules for emissions trading markets, providing incentives, organizing research, and demonstrating emerging technologies. The debate over the Kyoto Protocol has obscured the fact that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a long-term, global project that will require global participation.

The time has come to move beyond the Kyoto debate. As Browne wrote in Foreign Affairs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is doable and that “mechanisms for delivering the solutions are within reach.” Many important questions would benefit from thoughtful reflection now. Among them are mobilizing capital to adopt carbon-free energy technologies, integrating climate and development strategies, managing costs, ensuring fairness, measuring progress, and broadening support for sensible climate policies.

Climate change is an issue with enormously important ramifications for America’s future. Conservative thinking about risk management, forward planning, and market-oriented policies all are essential for America to deal sensibly and responsibly with this critical issue.