Environmental protection forms part of the mainstream of the Anglo-American conservative political tradition. Policy debate on climate change should recognise this.
Climate change is often seen as a politically divisive issue, with those on the left more active and concerned than conservatives. And indeed there is much evidence that those with different values perceive the issue differently[i]. However, concern about climate change can be placed firmly in the mainstream of the conservative tradition[ii].
Traditional conservatism has long emphasised the need for people to safeguard for future generations that which they have inherited. Edmund Burke, widely regarded as the founder of modern conservatism, put this case in the context of the French revolution, arguing that people:
“should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation.”[iii]
Environmental damage was far from being a hot political issue in Burke’s time, but it is a small step to apply this idea of safeguarding an inheritance to environmental conservation. Republican US President Ronald Reagan again did exactly this when he said:
“What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live … And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live — our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.”[iv]
Another Republican US president, Richard Nixon stressed the need to safeguard the natural environment, and that freedom does not include the right to impose costs on others:
“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions … Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American. We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor’s yard.”[v]
Such sentiments have in the past been translated into action by conservative politicians. The 1956 Clean Air Act was passed by a Conservative government in the UK, and the US Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970 during the Nixon presidency.
The UK Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 with cross party support, with only five Members of Parliament (less than 1%) voting against. Going further back, the UNFCCC was signed by British Conservative Prime Minister John Major and by Republican US President George Bush, along with the representatives of over 160 other governments. The Hadley Centre, one of the world’s leading climate research centres, was established in 1990 under a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, who opened the centre herself.
Indeed Margaret Thatcher was among the first senior politicians to talk about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spoke eloquently about the consistency between environmental protection and conservative values. In 1988, the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established and four years before the UNFCCC was signed, she said to the Conservative Party conference, talking about a range of environmental problems including climate change:
It’s we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth—we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. The core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.[vi]
This metaphor of the earth as our home of which we are guardians, and which it is our duty to protect, is common among those who otherwise hold widely differing points of view. The Dalai Lama has said that:
“The earth is our only home … If we do not look after this home, what else are we charged to do on this earth?” [vii]
There is, and should be, much debate about the specific details of climate change policy. But there should be no debate about the necessity and value of the objective of safeguarding the earth. When Margaret Thatcher and the Dalai Lama can express almost the same idea in almost the same terms, people can surely develop a sense of common purpose about preventing severe climate change. This has never been more necessary.
Adam Whitmore – 11th June 2015
[ii] I talk in this post about traditional conservatism. A discussion of the more difficult case of libertarianism and climate change will need to await another post, but even there I think common ground can be found. I also recognise that the actions of the Republican Party in the USA at the moment often diverge from traditional conservatism. There is also a strand of thinking on the left which has in the past neglected environmental issues, but this is less prominent than it was.
[iii] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
[iv] Remarks at dedication of National Geographic Society new headquarters building, June 19, 1984 http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1984/61984a.htm (A good selection of Reagan’s other remarks on environmental protection can be found athttp://blog.republicen.org/our-top-9-ronald-wilson-reagan-quotes-on-the-environment.)
The next passage of the same speech, less often quoted, emphasises the validity of exploiting natural resources for human ends, in a responsible way, making explicit reference to a religious rationale:
“But we also know that we must do this with a fine balance. We want, as men on Earth, to use our resources for the reason God gave them to us — for the betterment of man. And our challenge is how to use the environment without abusing it, how to take from it riches and yet leave it rich.”
This view is taken further by some in their advocacy of man’s right to exploit nature, often justified in terms of a passage in the Bible that refers to man’s dominion over nature, Genesis 1:26-28:
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
However many interpreters of the Christian tradition argue for the stewardship that is implied by dominion, for example citing Genesis 2:15:
15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
Pope Francis, among others, appears much more inclined to adopt the perspective of a Christian duty to safeguard God’s creation.
[v] State of the Union Address, January 22, 1970
[vi] Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 1988 Oct 14 Fr. For other examples of her views on climate change and environmental issue see: Speech to the Royal Society (1988 Sep 27), Speech to Conservative Party Conference (1989 Oct 13), Speech to United Nations General Assembly, Global Environment (1989 Nov 8) and Speech at 2nd World Climate Conference (1990 Nov 6). See http://www.margaretthatcher.org/ for the full text of each speech. In her later writings she expressed scepticism about the motives of some advocating action on climate change, but that should not detract from her well-informed concern and advocacy of action while in office.
[vii] The universe in Single Atom, Dalai Lama (2005), Chapter Nine. This statement was in the context of the need to respect the Earth’s biological heritage.