Sunday, January 30, 2011

Being the Bigger Person

A recent email newsletter from my congresswoman, Mary Bono Mack (R), noted that she was standing with her fellow Republicans in opposition to any climate change legislation.

It is often assumed that opposition to CO2 emissions regulations comes mostly from the large oil and gas interests who are out to protect their bottom line more than anything else.  I think this is no doubt true as far as it goes.  I'm reminded of a critique I heard of the Koch brothers financing anti-regulatory campaigns - that they were doing so because they stood to lose on investments they held, were regulations to go forward.

While that may be true, I also think it does great disservice to the serious threat their principles present. Were it only the case that those in opposition to regulation were only in it for the money. That's at least a case of simple logic, and can be argued against with an appeal to integrity and human decency.

But a principled case against government regulation is a much more complicated beast, and one that in and of itself is entirely consistent with ethical behavior. The problem is - form the pro-regulation point of view - is that a moral harm is occurring, and that the case goes from a simple appeal to righteousness, to larger themes of liberalism, tragedy of commons, etc.

Now, I do think there is a glaring inconsistency in the contemporary right's anti-climate change stance. The science is not a complex, nuanced political philosophy but hard data from very real and distinguished authorities. I think this is a case where an appeal to human decency and integrity needs to be made. Yet not on the merits of regulation in general, but in having the integrity to acknowledge when you have lost an argument.

Only the most insane libertarian believes in no regulation at all. So the debate becomes about the evidence of harm. We need to get these people to accept that continuing to pump the atmosphere full of CO2 - even if currently legal - is just as immoral as dumping 500 gallons of toxic sludge on to your neighbor's lawn. They've gone from denial of the process, to denial of the human element, to denial of the damage, to denial of our ability to end it. At his point it seems merely a matter of intellectual honesty and ideological integrity. You can be opposed to unnecessary regulation, and be for necessary regulation. Therefore, you can be for reduction in CO2 emissions.

Of course, the dodge will be "but the reduction is unnecessary". Well, then return to the science. I think many are afraid to really do this right because they (probably unconsciously) fear it will require a compromise in their ideology. But that's what being a "bigger person" is about. The left at one point had to give up on communism, despite how much they hated the thought of having to accept the many cruelties of the capitalist system. Yet one can still be against those cruelties - not having to relent in criticism, while still acknowledging the facts. This is how ideology evolves. And hopefully something better emerges. The left has probably given up much in its neoliberalism, but it has also gained much legitimacy, not least of which is its demonstrated ability to be serious. Conservatism used to have more of that levity within its grasp. Hopefully it will emerge sooner rather than later.

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