Edmund Burke on Global Warming

The near-unanimous opposition of Republicans in Congress to climate change legislation strikes me as inconsistent with the tenets of modern conservatism laid down by Edmund Burke (1729-97), the movement's patron saint.

Burke is the Anglo-Irish politician and writer whose appeal to the right is based largely on his book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, which Burke wrote to express his profound hostility to the revolution's spirit of total, radical innovation. In his Reflections, Burke admonishes the French to consider what "they have received from their ancestors" and urges them "not to commit waste on the inheritance . . . hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of a habitation."

Burke was writing in 1790, during the revolution's salad days, when many of his countrymen were enthralled by the fall of the ancient despotism. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," declared Wordsworth famously. Burke felt no bliss; only deep foreboding. He saw catastrophe looming and predicted the coming of the Reign of Terror.

Now, I'm not writing to advocate the restoration of the French throne, as Burke did. I'm writing to advocate what Burke called a "first principle," the basic argument he used to oppose the revolution. I urge that it be our guide in addressing global warming, a catastrophe that looms in our time.

Burke argued that the social system on which European civilization rested had evolved over many centuries and was intricate and complex beyond human comprehension. Meddling with the structure and operation of such a system, he warned, would disturb its workings and set all hell loose.

What's this got to do with climate change?

The climate system on which human civilization rests evolved over many geologic eras. It is intricate and complex beyond our comprehension - certainly beyond the present reach of science, as most scientists will freely attest. This hasn't stopped us, however, from meddling with the climate system big-time.

According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, human activities have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by 35 percent since the industrial era began. And we're still going at it, hot and heavy. There are, for example, about 825 million cars and light vehicles on the world's roads and about 65 million new cars and light trucks are being produced annually. These vehicles are emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels not seen before.

Computer models suggest some of the consequences of this human-caused atmospheric loading but since it is unprecedented, we really have no way of knowing what the full impact will be. The only thing we can be sure of is that this radical change is not a good idea.

What more do we need to know in order to act promptly and aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? To achieve this, liberals in Congress have proposed a cap-and-trade system, which conservatives don't like. But if conservatives heed Burke's admonition, as they ought to, they need to come up with a viable approach of their own to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.