A Conservative Approach to Climate Change

03/02/2015 10:45 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Earlier this year the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 that "[c]limate change is real and not a hoax." That vote did not comfort many liberals, though, because only a third of Republicans (as opposed to two thirds of Democrats) think that human activity is causing climate change. Indeed, 42 percent of Republicans think that the climate is warming due to natural causes.

Faced with this chasm in beliefs, what should those who want serious action to address global warming do? Opponents of such action are not uneducated fools. Many are skilled at finding research and opinions that support their view. Confronting them with scientific "proof" of the human causes of climate change seems only to strengthen their resistance.

Perhaps an alternative or complementary approach is worth considering. After all, many conservatives (and of course liberals) agree that our warmer Earth is creating some problems and may create more. Some examples seem pretty uncontroversial: Sea levels are rising, some species are being lost or driven out of their habitats, and costs are being incurred by those in coastal areas to prevent flooding or deal with its impacts. With more moisture in the air (because warmer air holds more water vapor), the potential for bigger storms is there, even if we can't prove that any given storm is due to a warming Earth.

So what if we put aside the argument about what's causing global warming? For liberals that's a bitter pill to swallow, yet it may permit all of us to spend time instead seeking agreement on principles to guide our conversation about dealing with our warming Earth -- principles, not action steps. The work of the Harvard Negotiation Project suggests that when two sides disagree, agreeing on principles avoids differing sides digging in to defend their positions. (This strategy is often referred to as "getting to yes.") Commonly shared principles allows proposals to be judged against them instead. In that spirit, here are five candidates.

Principle #1: We hold the Earth in trust for future generations.

In a 1789 letter from Paris, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living." Jefferson was writing on the question of whether one generation had a right to bind the next with its actions, and his answer was "no." "Usufruct" sounds rather arcane today, but its simple meaning applied to climate is that we hold the Earth in trust for our children and grandchildren. We should hand it to them no worse than we found it. So our first principle might be that we have a positive obligation to protect the Earth and its climate so that generations to follow may enjoy its beauty and bounty.

Principle #2: If a warming Earth is causing problems, we should do something.

A second principle is that we have to address the problem. We can't just say, "Sure, the Earth is warming, but it's done that before, so why worry?" The last great climate change came before both our minds could comprehend what was taking place, and before our technology could alter it. This principle would have made no sense then, but that's no longer true. We can gather environmental data, make sense of it, and generate ideas about what to do with that understanding. We need be neither ignorant nor complacent. We don't have to take the Earth's warming as a given any more than we take the presence of new viruses as a given. After all, the fact that there have always been new diseases does not lead us to take the position that it's always been that way and there's nothing we can do about them.

Principle #3: We must act cautiously.

Humility, not hubris, should guide what we choose to do. There are two extremes to avoid. The first is engaging in dramatic human experiments on the atmosphere, such as a proposal to pump aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect more solar radiation back into space. It's curious (and scary) that some of the same people who decry what humans have done in their risky treatment of the environment are willing to take huge risks themselves in order to save it. There's nothing cautious about that. The second extreme is the belief that we can just wait for the problem to correct itself. If the damage and the danger are here, delay is reckless, not cautious. We don't wait for sick people to get better. We treat them. Why wait for a sick planet to get better?

Principle #4: We judge our actions by their results.

If a healthier climate is the goal, any potential policy, program, or practice must be judged on whether it will foster that end. We can only justify short-term damage if much greater long-term benefit is the result. We can argue -- but let's not -- about whether carbon dioxide released by human activity in the past has caused global warming. But we ought to be able to discuss whether releasing a lot more of it makes the problem better or worse.

Principle #5: We should invest, not waste, tax dollars.

The budgets of many federal agencies -- and even more state and local governments -- are already bearing costs due to a warmer Earth. This comes from studying the problem, responding to the effects, and planning to address such issues as rising sea levels in coastal cities and monster storms. The question is not whether we tax people to address climate change. We already are. The question is how to make sure these tax dollars are invested wisely, not wasted. This principle could lead to a healthy discussion about costs for prevention vs. costs for treatment and how to use tax policy to create incentives that will minimize the tax burden over the long term.

These five principles will not go far enough for many liberals. They may go too far for some conservatives. But our conversation should be aimed not at pleasing ideologies but at conserving our planet. Indeed, what we need, in the end, is a truly conservative approach to climate change. The dictionary definition of "conservative," after all, includes such words as "cautious, moderate, preserve, conserve, and tradition." As regards our climate, even liberals should like those words.