What if a chemist, working for a major pharmaceutical company, discovered a compound that was easy and inexpensive to make, and, when ingested, gave the user a mood-enhancing high similar to alcohol or marijuana? And imagine that after several hours the effects of this new drug wore off with no hangover or other apparent downside? More amazingly, no matter how much a person took, it never caused a single death. 

Word of such a discovery would spread quickly. Unlicensed laboratories would spring up in kitchens and garages across the country to supply the drug to the people eager to try it. After all, everyone’s getting high, and no one is dying! It’s the perfect party drug, so why worry?

Naturally, there would be skeptics. Hold on, they’d say. Even though no one is dying immediately after taking it, or even in the days or weeks afterwards, there could be ill effects that don’t manifest themselves right away. These consequences might not show themselves for months or maybe years. And if they eventually do, will they be reversible or, God forbid, untreatable? What if we conduct research on the drug in the next few years only to find out that a single use of the drug, or even daily use for several months, would not cause lasting harm, but continued use for 6 months or longer causes damage to the liver, for example, that cannot be reversed? If only users had stopped after their initial experimentation, they could have regained their health, but as it is they’ve passed the point of no return, and their future is grim.

Knowing in advance that such an eventual outcome is a real possibility, the skeptics say that to continue to use this new drug – or even to begin using it – represents reckless behavior on the part of the people willing to try the drug without knowledge of its safety. A far better, and more conservative, approach would be to refrain from using the drug until evidence emerges that it is safe for long-term use. If it turns out that the drug is dangerous, then the health of countless people will have been preserved. If it turns out that the drug is harmless, then let the party begin!

The same idea applies to the issue of climate change. If the burning of fossil fuels may lead to consequences that are not reversible, and worse, are harmful to ourselves and future generations, then the conservative thing to do is to refrain from indulging in that behavior. To dismiss this possibility out of hand, and continue acting as if nothing bad will happen, is reckless. The skeptics in this case should be political conservatives, but they almost universally reject the idea that continuing to put CO2 in the air will lead to future harm. Instead they clamor for increased oil production, choosing to run ever faster towards the cliff. This is so far from conservative that the term no longer means anything.

Whether it’s the caution of the skeptics in the drug analogy or the warnings to reduce CO2 emissions coming from actual conservatives, the basic idea is the same, and it’s been around for a long time: It’s called the Precautionary Principle, and it’s really just an approach to managing risk. As Wikipedia states, “…if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action that may or may not be a risk.”

This strikes me as genuinely conservative, and it boils down to the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I think the old-school conservatives who want to preserve the good things handed down to them by their ancestors can agree with progressives on this. It’s a planet worth saving.

As for the reluctance of many of our elected leaders to tackle the problem, the underlying reasons are not hard to discern. For politicians, the layer closest to the surface is getting reelected. Running for office requires money, and that is something oil interests have in abundance. So there is no desire to bite the hands that feed them. Put another way, they don’t understand the danger of climate change because their jobs depend on them not understanding it.

A deeper layer is an almost instinctual realization that if they acknowledge this is a problem then our economic system will have to change. If climate change is real, the economy can no longer grow larger each year, which up till now has been widely considered to be a good thing. Estimates of “healthy” growth vary, but commonly we see numbers like 2 – 4% published as desirable.

The thing to keep in mind is that the planet is less than 8000 miles in diameter, which means it is a finite resource. A 2017 economy that’s 3% bigger than last year’s, and a 2018 economy that’s 3% bigger than 2017’s shows that an ever-increasing amount of raw materials have to be fed into the economic “machine” to keep it growing. But since Earth is finite in size, how many years worth of raw materials do we have left? And even if that’s a century away, can we make it to that year of peak resource use before climate change becomes unmanageable or just too damn expensive? How many hurricanes or other “natural” disasters can our economy absorb before it beggars us? How many wars over water? How many refugees?

The most cost-effective solution is, again, an ounce of prevention. That ounce will cost hundreds of billions, but the alternative is just plain reckless.

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