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A Conservative Approach to Climate Change
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A Conservative Approach to Climate Change

There are practical alternatives to forcing people to give up their way of life.

Margaret Thatcher once said that climate change “provides a marvelous excuse for worldwide, supranational socialism.” This has largely proven true, with climate change reviving some of the Marxist elements of the left that had largely died out after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The environmentalist movement, dominated by the far left, has a tendency to propose solutions to climate change that were always on their political wish lists. But that is no reason to disregard the science behind climate change.

Instead, climate change needs conservative solutions. Modern environmentalism is all too willing to toss aside people’s traditions, habits, and lifestyles for the “greater good.” 

We live during a time in which ordinary people can fly to other parts of the world, eat generous amounts of meat, and in which cars give us a level of freedom that was unimaginable just a few generations ago. Those on the left tend to see these parts of our current civilization as a moral failing and proof of the capitalistic system’s inherent decadence. This gives conservatives an opportunity to ground climate policy in a way that preserves as much of our modern lifestyle as possible.

Fortunately there are options—backed by science and already in use in some places—that allow us to combat climate change without asking anyone to eat bugs, go vegan, or stop flying. 

First, there’s geoengineering. This term refers to a set of technologies that artificially change the environment by, for example, lowering temperatures or creating rain. One of the best-known examples is cloud seeding, a technology to create artificial rain clouds and prevent droughts. It is already being used in the United Arab Emirates. 

Solar radiation management is another class of geoengineering technologies aimed at directly reducing global temperatures. The most famous and also most maligned method is the use of stratospheric aerosols. These aerosols cool the earth in a manner similar to a volcanic eruption: Spraying them in the upper atmosphere can reflect sunlight away before it reaches the earth (space reflectors work in a similar way). The catastrophic use of aerosols is the premise behind the Snowpiercer novel and Netflix series, in which humanity, wanting an easy fix for global warming, attempts to use stratospheric aerosols but ends up accidentally miscalculating the quantity needed, an error that causes a new global ice age that sets the stage for the story. 

While a great work of fiction, the Snowpiercer scenario is extremely unlikely to play out in the real world. There are certain unresolved issues with stratospheric aerosols, including how they would be paid for and how one would ensure a constant supply of aerosols to prevent temperatures from suddenly skyrocketing once the original aerosols expired (they don’t stay up forever), but there is no reason to believe they are impossible to resolve.Albedo enhancement is another less extreme, localized form of solar radiation management, the aim of which is to increase the surface reflectivity of objects (most commonly streets and houses) on the ground to reduce solar radiation absorption and, in the end, reduce temperatures. 

Secondly, there is carbon capture, which is technically a subset of geoengineering. Carbon capture takes many forms, including planting more trees to bind more carbon, but tree planting clearly won’t be enough, especially as we are bound to have to cut down more trees in the future to replace more environmentally harmful building materials and fuel sources. 

Ocean fertilization and alkalinity enhancement can complement the tree-planting, allowing the oceans to store even more carbon. These technologies are not without potential adverse side-effects. Yet it is strange how “tampering with the oceans” is considered such a no-go that it is hardly even allowed to be explored while tampering with millions of people’s quality of lives is not. With proper research and careful, gradual application, ocean fertilization has the potential to greatly slow global warming.

Finally, there is air capture. Machines capable of removing carbon from the air already exist. However, this can only be done at a small scale right now, and it is prohibitively expensive. But renewable energy also used to be small-scale and prohibitively expensive. Massive R&D investments changed that, and it could change this too, making ambient air capture a viable way of significantly reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

If we are serious about climate change being an impending global crisis, there is no reason not to turn geoengineering in general and carbon capture in particular into a “Man on the Moon” project for the 2020s, investing in the research and development of these technologies to fight climate change without interfering with the lives of our citizens.

Third, we have genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is another technology vilified for no good reason. Nuclear power, stratospheric aerosols, carbon capture, and GMOs: None of them have been proven to be dangerous, all of them have huge (and in the case of nuclear and  GMOs, proven) potential to stop or mitigate the impact of climate change, and supporting any one of them will make you persona non grata at any environmentalist gathering. This shows that, while climate change is a real thing, the threat is being exaggerated and promoted by people who have always wanted to expand  government and force people to abandon the (capitalistic) lifestyles that they’ve always viewed with disdain. 

The benefits of GMOs are twofold: First, mitigation. Genetically modified crops can be bred to have drought-resistant qualities, offering a way to secure our future food supply. The developing world will be hit even worse by global warming, but does not have the  resources to develop GMOs, and so the burden falls on us. 

Second, herbicide-tolerant GM crops increase soil carbon sequestration by reducing the need for tillage, preventing carbon from being released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, GM crops have higher yields and thus require less land, which again reduces the carbon emissions produced from cultivation (mainly by reducing the amount of deforestation resulting from clearing land to grow crops).

While there are certainly legitimate discussions to be had about how GMOs should be regulated (i.e. the issue of patents), anti-GMO regulations and scare propaganda are harmful to the environment and to our prospect of fighting climate change.

Finally, we need a harm reduction approach. If we’re going to ask people to make lifestyle changes, it’s better to steer them away from the worst options toward the less bad ones—rather than pursuing unattainable perfection.

The push for vegetarianism and veganism is pointless and, quite possibly, counterproductive. Giving the impression that you have to stop eating meat to save the environment merely causes consumers to zone out. 

We can keep meat consumption constant while still massively reducing the climate footprint of our eating habits. How? By changing which meats we eat. The greenhouse gas emissions from beef or lamb are three times that of pork, and three and a half times that of chicken. If the beef comes from a beef herd—as opposed to a dairy herd—the difference is even greater. 

Veganism is kind of like the abstinence-only approach to promoting sustainable lifestyles: It may technically be the best option, but most people won’t do it. They also won’t eat bugs, no matter how much mainstream media outlets attempt to make it a thing. If, on the other hand, you ask Americans to swap their steak for fried chicken, or a nice crispy piece of pork belly, they just might go for it. You could also realistically convince people to eat more fries and smaller burgers (potatoes have a negligible climate footprint). And to go back to using lard instead of vegetable oil when frying.

We should also promote hunting. The number of hunters in America has been in a state of decline since the 1960s, which is unfortunate as hunting provides a zero-emission source of meat. In fact, hunting can reduce carbon emissions by killing animals who, if left alive, would have continued to emit greenhouse gasses (mainly methane) as they all do while alive. The majority of Americans (or for that matter Europeans) will never be vegans, and when approaching climate change and the topic of reducing emissions, we need to work with the population we do have, not the one PETA may wish we had.

Denying climate change might seem like a political winner, but it does nothing to stop the efforts of leftists and environmentalists to impose costly and draconian measures that serve their anti-capitalist agenda. Working toward practical solutions that allow us to preserve our way of life is the real conservative move.

John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and has a doctorate in economics.