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On Climate Change, the GOP Is an Outlier

A recently published survey finds eight of nine major conservative parties around the world at least admit climate change is a problem.
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(Photo: Jim Larkin/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jim Larkin/Shutterstock)

Conservatives deny the existence of human-caused climate change, or at least believe the issue is overblown. Right?

Sure—if you're talking about the United States. The rest of the world is an entirely different matter.

"The U.S. Republican Party is an anomaly in denying anthropogenic climate change," Sondre Batstrand of the University of Bergen writes in the journal Politics and Policy. His survey of election manifestos of nine prominent right-leaning parties around the world finds "most of them support climate measures, even in the form of state interventions in the market economy."

Only two right-wing parties—those of the U.S. and Australia—expressed strong opposition to regulation or taxation of carbon.

Not surprisingly, he finds conservative parties tended to favor market- and/or technology-based approaches to mitigating climate change. Nevertheless, only two right-wing parties—those of the U.S. and Australia—expressed strong opposition to regulation or taxation of carbon, with most others considering some degree of state intervention as part of the solution.

In addition, most conservative parties back "international cooperation, agreements, and treaties." Some explicitly argue that such agreements should be based on a market approach; Sweden's Moderaterna party believes "trading with emissions permits remains the main weapon against greenhouse gases."

Batstrand looked at the official positions of the leading right-wing parties in the U.S., United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and Australia. He then compared those policy statements with the fossil-fuel reserves of each nation.

Consistent with conservatives' pro-business orientation, he found right-wing parties in nations with large coal reserves tend to support technological fixes rather than a massive move to renewable energy sources. Germany's Christian Democratic Union, for example, supports the development of "clean coal" technology, which most experts consider an oxymoron.

On the other hand, the ruling Conservative Party in Canada proposes a variety of approaches, from energy efficiency in homes to the development of renewable energy sources, specifically mentioning a major hydroelectric project.

"The Canadian reserves of oil, gas, and coal do not hinder the party from proposing a transition away from fossil fuels," Batstrand writes. Perhaps being that far north—where the effects of climate change are likely to be felt first—instills a sense of urgency lacking elsewhere in the world.

Some other excerpts from party manifestos that Bastrand highlights:

  • The Conservative Party in Great Britain "proposes to establish a Green Investment Bank and a floor price on carbon to stimulate low-carbon energy production. 'Instead of using rules and regulations to impose a centralized world view,' it proclaims, 'we will go with the grain of human nature, creating new incentives and market signals which reward people for doing the right thing.'"
  • Partido Popular in Spain emphasizes "sustainable and efficient transport, energy efficiency, forests as carbon sinks, and a global agreement on the issue."
  • The National Party in New Zealand states that it "takes climate change seriously, and we are committed to making sure New Zealand does its fair share." However, its manifesto is lacking in specifics, beyond planting trees and encouraging energy efficiency in businesses and households.
  • Australia's Liberal Party rejects the carbon-trading approach, promising instead to allocate significant sums of money for "projects designed to reduce carbon emissions" and "putting carbon back in soils." (The sacking of that nation's hard-line prime minister earlier this month gave environmentalists hope that the ruling party's policies might change, but his replacement seems to be sticking with the party's stated policies.)

So the U.S. Republican Party is an outlier on this issue, both in denying climate change as a problem (it is alone among the nine parties surveyed to take that stance) and in rejecting international treaties.

But with their emphasis on the widely debunked notion of "clean coal," or avoidance of the entire issue of coal's contribution to greenhouse gases, many of the world's other conservative parties also seem to be in denial. They find themselves doing a delicate dance, attempting to address their constituents' climate change concerns without alienating their national fossil-fuel industry.

Still, once you agree on a premise—climate change is happening, and it's worrisome—you can debate over the best technological approaches to tackle it, or what combination of government regulations and market forces will be most effective. That sort of substantive debate between political parties is, sadly, not possible in the U.S., at least for now.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.