Why Rick Perry’s Position on Climate Change Makes Him a True Conservative

Rick Perry is a climate-change sceptic. Sure, he says, the world is getting warmer, but the climate has often changed. He doesn’t buy in to the idea that human activity has an effect on the current warming trend. Friedrich Hayek would say that makes him a true conservative.

Hayek liked to view the political spectrum not as a left-to-right line with socialist and conservative poles, but as a triangle. Conservatives were at one corner, socialists at another, and liberals at the third. The terminology has changed a little since Hayek’s time. Conservatives are still conservatives, but, at least in the United States, those on the left now prefer to identify themselves as progressives rather than socialists. Most of those who, in Hayek’s time and before, called themselves liberals, today prefer to identify themselves as libertarians, or sometimes, classical liberals.

In a famous essay “Why I Am Not  Conservative,” Hayek identified a number of characteristic tenets of conservatism, including:

  • Habitual resistance to change, hence the term “conservative.”
  • A claim to self-arrogated superior wisdom in place of rational argument.
  • A propensity to reject scientific knowledge because of the consequences that seem to follow from it.
  • Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the forces of economic and social change.

All of these tenets feed into Perry’s views on climate change. He resists any change to an American path of economic development based on cheap, carbon-intensive energy; a path economists sometimes call extensive as opposed to intensive growth. He proudly claims superiority of faith-based wisdom over rational argument. And, especially in the case of climate change, he is quick to reject scientific knowledge.

On this third point, the attitude of conservatism toward science, Hayek wrote so eloquently that it is worth quoting him at length:

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. . . .  By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

You would think Hayek had written this passage not 50 years ago, but yesterday, after watching the latest video clip of Perry expounding on climate change. Rather than actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries in climate science, Perry resorts to ad hominem attacks on scientists who support the hypothesis of a human role in climate change (who, he says, falsify data in order to keep the grant money flowing) and appeals to the authority of those who see no human role (more of whom, he says, are stepping forward “weekly and even daily,” although we are not given names or numbers.)

Perry’s problem is that he is unwilling to keep an open mind even about the fundamental hypothesis of a human role in climate change. That failure, in turn, closes off debate on a number of other issues that need to be left open for discussion. Among the many details of both science and policy that need to be addressed are these:

  • How do human activities interact with natural climate cycles? How are the effects of climate change distributed over time and space?
  • What are the economic costs of climate change? Who bears them? How should we evaluate effects that will occur in the distant future?
  • What kind of policy would best address the effects of climate change? Better ways to protect property rights through tort law? Policies that raise energy prices through taxes  or cap-and-trade? Adaptation to climate change through investment in sea walls, irrigation systems, and new technologies?

Conservatives, it seems, do not want to engage in rational debate about any of these things. That, Hayek would say, is what makes them conservatives.

In conclusion, we should ask what exactly are the consequences that Perry fears would flow from accepting the hypothesis of a human role in climate change? Above all, it seems, the feared consequence would be an undermining of the privileged position of the oil industry, much of it Texas-based.

The privilege of oil producers consists in their licence to sell their product at an “affordable” price that does not capture its full opportunity costs, which include not only costs of climate change, but also those of national security, local smog, and traffic congestion. Of course, holding the price down doesn’t make those costs go away—it just transfers them to the victims of climate change and the taxpayers who foot the national security bills. We are looking at a classic case of the TANSTAAFL principle: There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. When you try to make something look free, or less costly than it really is, you just shift the costs to someone else, and in the process, you end up increasing the total costs in the long run. But for true conservatives, it seems, that doesn’t matter.

This post is based, in part, on an earlier article published in The Cato Journal. The full text of that article and other material on the topic of climate change can be found in TANSTAAFL: A Libertarian Perspective on Environmental Policy (forthcoming).