THE BLOG
04/01/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

The Second Coming of King Canute and the Fate of Conservatism

There has been a fair amount of snickering at the fact that the North Carolina legislature, prompted by an outcry from developers in coastal counties, passed legislation that would prohibit the state from basing coastal planning on the three-foot sea level rise anticipated by North Carolina's planners. Indeed, not only planning on the basis of the finding, but the finding itself, is to be stricken from the report of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission.

"What's proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science," East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs who studies the evolution of the coast told the Charlotte Observer. "You can't legislate the ocean, and you can't legislate storms."

The most common analogy has been to King Canute, who was alleged to have claimed that he could stop the tide. In fact, Canute showed his court the limits of a king's power by demonstrating that he could not stop the sea -- but his lesson has evidently been lost on the Tea Party faction of the legislature and the state's development community. The purpose of taking global warming denial to a new level, and denying even climate changes that can already be measured, is of course to enable developers to build new projects in what will, during their lifetime, become the ocean -- putting both state and county budgets and resident's lives at peril.

But the collusion of the national conservative movement in allowing government to put citizens in harm's way raises some very profound questions about the sincerity of the "informed conservative" perspective on climate change. For years, most serious conservative intellectuals have conceded that the climate is warming -- which means the sea level will rise. Some have disputed how much of the warming is caused by greenhouse pollution, but most have simply argued that the costs of curbing carbon emissions exceeded the likely benefits. Human society, they have argued, can adjust to higher sea levels, warmer temperatures, lower snow pack -- and since some of the warming is due to natural causes, we are going to have to plan for a different world anyway.

This conservative line of reasoning extends far beyond hard-line climate deniers. Indeed, it has crept into such normally sensible outlets as The Economist which this week wrote, considering the possibility that science may eventually conclude that the planet is less sensitive to increased carbon dioxide levels than previously estimated, "Perhaps the world should seek to adjust to (rather than stop) the greenhouse-gas splurge. There is no point buying earthquake insurance if you do not live in an earthquake zone. In this case more adaptation rather than more mitigation might be the right policy at the margin."

And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the American Enterprise Institute trotted it out, with analyst Kenneth Green arguing on the PBS News Hour that the lesson of Sandy ought to be that government should create an "imitation of a functioning insurance market that prices risk appropriately" as a way of ensuring that people did not move into hurricane (or flooding, fire or ice) hazard zones in a world of more extreme weather and less table climate.

What is happening in North Carolina is evidence that this advice, if sincere is very difficult for real governments to take. North Carolina's currently dominant conservatives seem just as bad at planning for a chaotic climate as the Democrats who ran New Orleans after Katrina. Ray Nagel, a Democrat, simply gave up on building a public consensus around which parts of an inevitably smaller city to rebuild and which to abandon. The same is likely to happen around New York after Sandy -- but at least those are existing neighborhoods, with real stakeholders. North Carolina is paving the way to make more of these nasty, irresolvable human tragedies inevitable.

But is the counsel -- 'don't seek to stabilize the climate, plan for its chaos' -- sincere on the right? Certainly the response from the Heartland Institute, one of the major focuses of global warming denialism, doesn't suggest so. Heartland is now out treating the North Carolina legislative action as virtually a new form of science.

AEI itself has, intriguingly, not engaged in the North Carolina controversy. It has however found time to write to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Henry Waxman advising them that the appropriate U.S. response to climate change is "and, above all, adaptation through market processes." The North Carolina shut-down of planning for sea level rise, of course, is a direct and fundamental attack on this strategy -- the very outcome that the coastal developers feared was the loss of government subsidized coastal insurance -- but AEI did not find it sufficiently important to warrant a response.

But another comment in the AEI letter to Waxman and Whitehouse raises to my mind some very basic questions about whether conservatism has any cogent response to the threat of climate chaos, whatever its source and regardless of whether conservatives believe we have viable strategies to reduce its impact.

AEI argues that if there is uncertainty -- if scientists don't know whether certain actions will cause a problem of not -- government should do nothing: "Apart from the basic truth that scientific inquiry is not majoritarian, this reality -- an absence of scientific consensus -- provides a strong argument for caution in terms of policymaking, both by the Congress and a fortiori by the regulatory agencies."

Note that AEI does not accept that in the presence of uncertainty we should avoid creating risk; it argues that what is to be avoided is any kind of policy response to risk. We should neither prevent climate change, nor prepare for it -- we should wait for the disaster to happen. (Well, Sandy and Katrina both happened, and still AEI apparently thinks that North Carolina's deciding to let coastal developers build in future hurricane surge zones is a form of "caution.")

Prudence as a default conservative value seems out the window. If a plot of land might be a death trap -- or might not -- let it be built on. In fact, don't even let scientists warn the public that it might be swept away by the sea.

King Canute's demonstrations to his court of the limits of human power, even royal power, were a classic example of conservatism at its best. Unfortunately, the modern American conservative movement seems to have lost its bearings somewhere in the past 30 years. As British Conservative John Grey once put it, "if a conservative tried to conserve anything today, he would lose his funding." AEI seems to have learned the lesson -- as have all the other conservatives, from Bjørn Lomborg on, who have been telling us, "Preventing climate change is speculative and expensive. Let's get ready for it and adapt." Until, of course, adaption means giving something up -- like juicy coastal real estate profits.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."