The Beat: The Roots of Conservatives' Environmental View

November 15, 2008
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President Reagan shares a joke with William F. Buckley, Jr. at a private birthday party in honor of his 75th birthday in the White House residence on Feb. 7, 1986.

 

 

 

 

 

By BILL DAWSON

When the journalist and author William F. Buckley Jr. died last February, much was written and said about his seminal role in the growth of the modern conservative movement after he founded National Review magazine in 1955.

One of many testimonies to Buckley's achievements was an essay by Robert B. Semple Jr., the associate editor of The New York Times editorial page, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for editorials on environmental issues.

Semple wrote of Buckley and his magazine:

"His views – an amalgam of Friedrich Hayek's free-market economics, Russell Kirk's cultural conservatism and Whittaker Chambers's anti-Communism — were hardly original. What was pioneering was his insistence on giving conservatism as he saw it a voice and a forum. That was National Review, the magazine that Mr. Buckley founded in 1955. There he fanned a very small flame that, over time, gave the country the Young Americans for Freedom, who gave it Barry Goldwater, who in turn laid the groundwork for Ronald Reagan."

Two decades after Reagan left office, conservatism in its various forms, as well as their cousin libertarianism, have many voices and forums in today's media universe. This time around, The Beat checks in on a few of the most influential journalists and publications identified with the conservative and libertarian regions of the political spectrum to offer a sampling of their recent treatment of environmental matters.

One recurrent theme among right-leaning commentators – an argument that dates at least as far back as the immediate post- Reagan era – involves unfavorable comparisons of environmentalism with Communism.

Communism collapsed in the former Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, ending the ColdWar. Local environmentalists' protests had a well-documented role in bringing about that historic change in a number of locations.

Not long afterward, however, journalists and others on the American right were warning that environmentalism could replace leftist totalitarianism as the world's most potent enemy of liberty.

The journalist and author Virginia Postrel, then editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, wrote "The Green Road to Serfdom" in its April 1990 issue.

She called environmentalism "an ideology every bit as powerful as Marxism and every bit as dangerous to individual freedom and human happiness. Like Marxism, it appeals to seemingly noble instincts: the longing for beauty, for harmony, for peace. It is the green road to serfdom."

GeorgeWill, the Washington Post columnist, chimed in with his own variant of that idea in 1992:

"Some environmentalism is a 'green tree with red roots.' It is the socialist dream – ascetic lives closely regulated by a vanguard of bossy visionaries – dressed up as compassion for the planet."

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1995, the late journalist Kevin Carmody, a founding board member of SEJ, quoted Will's "red roots" line in a wide-ranging examination of mainstream journalism's role – along with the anti-environmentalist Wise Use movement, conservative think tanks, talk radio and others – in a "public debate about the environment (that) has lurched to the right."

On May 22, 2008, Will presented an updated version of his 1992 argument, this time in a Post column ridiculing the Interior Department's decision to classify the polar bear as a "threatened" species because of global warming: "Today's 'green left' is the old 'red left' revised."

A few days later, Czech President Vaclav Klaus visited Washington to meet with Bush administration officials and promote his book "Green Planet in Blue Shackles," published in the U.S. by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an activist think tank. CEI, long opposed to mandatory action against global warming, was instrumental in persuading President Bush to abandon his 2000 campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from old power plants.

A CEI press release featured this passage from Klaus' book: "The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy, and prosperity at the end of the 20th and at the beginning of the 21st century is no longer socialism. It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism."

The lead paragraph of The Washington Times' May 30 story about his Washington visit echoed that theme: "Environmentalism," says Czech President Vaclav Klaus, "is the new communism, a system of elite command-and-control that kills prosperity and should similarly be condemned to the ash heap of history."

Klaus was also quoted as saying that "global warming is a religion conceived to suppress human freedom," sounding another argument by some conservative commentators.

In April, for instance, CEI fellow Iain Murray had published an excerpt from his book "The Really Inconvenient Truths" on the British website Spiked, which included this passage: "Just as environmentalism has replaced Marxism as the central economic theory of the far left, so too has environmentalism begun to replace liberal Christianity as the left's motivating religious force."

Also on May 30, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declared in a column that he is a "global warming agnostic" and approvingly offered the "unscrupulous ideology" quote from Klaus' book.

Krauthammer also compared climate-focused environmentalism both to leftist collectivism and to authoritarian religion:
"Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but – even better – in the name of Earth itself.
"Environmentalists are Gaia's priests, instructing us in her proper service and casting out those who refuse to genuflect."

National Review Online, or simply NRO as it self-refers, "receives about one million hits per day – more than all other conservative-magazine websites combined," according to Wikipedia.

NRO's extensive stable of blogs – 11 at this writing – includes one dedicated to climate change and related issues. Called "Planet Gore", it was launched on Feb. 14, 2007, with a complaint that "the hyped-up rhetoric (about global warming) doesn't always accurately reflect the complexity of the issue. That's where 'Planet Gore' comes in."

Readers were told that NRO had "gathered a team of experts to report and comment on the myriad scientific and economic issues surrounding the global warming debate. So check back regularly for informed news and views about climate change, alternative energy, environmental activism, and of course, Al Gore's carbon footprint."

Gore is a frequent target for jabs by contributing bloggers, who sometimes call him "the Goracle" (and, at least once, "the Boracle").

In keeping with the blog's first-day promise to keep up with the former vice president's carbon footprint, there was a onesentence blog post on Sept. 2, which was headlined "Al Gore's Carbon Buttprint" and approvingly directing readers to a different, non-NRO blog. The linked blog post was titled "Obese People to Blame for Global Warming?" and illustrated by a photo of Gore in an especially hefty incarnation.

Other recent targets for "Planet Gore" contributors' critical comments have included the wind power industry, energy businessman T. Boone Pickens' wind- and gas-promoting energy plan, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and his Republican opponent John McCain's climate proposal.

Chris Horner (a CEI senior fellow who blogs at Planet Gore along with fellow CEI fellows Murray and Marlo Lewis) lamented on Sept. 4 "McCain's misguided cap-and-trade scheme." "You know," he added, "that Kyoto-style job-killer that is causing so much economic hemorrhaging in Europe?"

One key political figure who has drawn "Planet Gore" bloggers' positive notice is McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, who has said she doesn't attribute global warming to human causes. Quoting her Republican convention speech calling for more oil drilling, nuclear plants, "clean coal," and alternative energy development, frequent "Planet Gore" contributor Edward John Craig called the Alaska governor a "Planet Gore Pal."

The strong opinion-journalism character of offerings like the NRO blog is seen in the world of conservative journalism as a selling point.

Matt Labash, a writer for The Weekly Standard, the magazine launched in 1995 by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., was asked in a 2003 interview by JournalismJobs.com why he thought conservative media outlets had gained so much popularity.

Labash replied:
"Because they feed the rage.We bring the pain to the liberal media. I say that mockingly, but it's true somewhat.We come with a strong point of view and people like point-of-view journalism. While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually."

Certainly, strong points of view have been on display in The Weekly Standard's recent attention to interrelated energy and environmental issues.

In an Aug. 5 item on the sole blog of the magazine's website, for instance, Weekly Standard editor (and The New York Times columnist) Bill Kristol commented favorably on an NRO article:

"I've had the contrarian instinct for a while that global warming had peaked (both substantively and politically) as an issue. Al Gore's Nobel Prize felt like a pretty good contrarian indicator. And now the (oil-)drilling issue is beginning to feel a little like tax cuts thirty years ago – key to, and emblematic of, a pro-growth, populist/capitalist/anti-declinist agenda."

Such commentary is supplemented by the conservativeviewpoint reporting of Weekly Standard writers.

On Aug. 25 – four days before McCain tapped Palin as his running mate – an article by Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen F. Hayes featured interviews with both McCain and Palin on the question of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Hayes reported that McCain had disclosed he was then reexamining his opposition to oil production in the refuge and that he would consult Palin on the issue.

An excerpt from the article, which assumed more significance after Palin's selection for the GOP ticket:

"I continue to examine it," (McCain) said. So does his staff. McCain's campaign has been quietly studying the ANWR issue and discussing the potential consequences – good and bad – of a policy change.

But in our conversation on August 13, McCain added a new wrinkle. When I asked him if he had consulted Palin about ANWR, he said that he had not yet done so. He added, "I probably should," he said. "I will."

So I called Palin to ask what McCain can expect to hear. The answer is that Palin, who has been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate but has not been vetted, will make a straightforward case for drilling in ANWR. She says McCain's willingness to take another look atANWR is "very encouraging."

"It bodes well for him as a pragmatic and wise and experienced statesman," says Palin.

In 2002, Reason's science correspondent, Ronald Bailey, was the editor of the CEI-published book, "Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths."

In 2005, however, he had concluded – in an article titled "We're All Global Warmers Now" – that "anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up."

He followed that with a 2006 article – "Confessions of an Alleged ExxonMobilWhore: Actually no one paid me to be wrong about global warming. Or anything else" – in which he conceded he may have been "too skeptical (about manmade climate change), demanding too much evidence or ignoring evidence that cut against what I wanted to believe."

Bailey's evolving thinking on the subject was highlighted in an article in Reason's July 2008 issue, which comprised a transcript of a debate sponsored by the magazine on climatechange policy.

One of the three debate participants, Bailey said anthropogenic global warming is "a real problem," then explained that he favors a carbon tax, rather than a cap-and-trade approach, as "the least bad way" to regulate climate-changing emissions.

"As a good libertarian," he added. "I thought I would like cap and trade. The problem is I've been watching the European attempt to do this, and it's a complete disaster."

Bailey has continued to explore climate-related policy issues in some of the articles he regularly writes for Reason Online.

On July 1, he examined differing policy approaches, concluding that the carbon taxes he favors are "a political pipe dream" and that a cap-and-trade approach is likeliest to prevail.

On July 29, he took a stab at estimating potential costs for realizing Gore's challenge to produce all electricity in the U.S. from carbon-free, renewable sources within 10 years.

And on Aug. 12, he discussed a side-effect of state mandates for more renewable production of electricity – "a land rush in the Southwest as would-be renewable energy producers vie for the best spots, especially for locations suitable for producing solar energy" and resulting conflict "between the energy and conservation wings of the environmentalist movement."

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2008

 

Bill Dawson