An Inconvenient Truth: Christie Is Right on Climate

Until last week, many conservatives considered New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a hero. Some were even clamoring for him to enter the presidential race. Now, however, some of the same conservatives are branding him a heretic, even as he embraces policy decisions they support. What’s going on?

Last week, Christie vetoed legislation that would have required New Jersey to remain in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions through a regional cap-and-trade program. The bill was an effort to overturn Christie’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the program. Given conservative opposition to greenhouse gas emission controls, the veto should have been something to cheer, right? Nope.

The problem, according to some conservatives, is that Christie accompanied his veto with a statement acknowledging that human activity is contributing to global climate change. Specifically, Christie explained that his original decision to withdraw from RGGI was not based upon any “quarrel” with the science.

While I acknowledge that the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are increasing, that climate change is real, that human activity plays a role in these changes and that these changes are impacting our state, I simply disagree that RGGI is an effective mechanism for addressing global warming.

As Christie explained, RGGI is based upon faulty economic assumptions and “does nothing more than impose a tax on electricity” for no real environmental benefit. As he noted, “To be effective, greenhouse gas emissions must be addressed on a national and international scale.”

Although Christie adopted the desired policy — withdrawing from RGGI — some conservatives are aghast that he would acknowledge a human contribution to global warming. According to one, this makes Christie “Part RINO. Part man. Only more RINO than man.” ["RINO" as in "Republican in Name Only."]

Those attacking Christie are suggesting there is only one politically acceptable position on climate science — that one’s ideological bona fides are to be determined by one’s scientific beliefs, and not simply one’s policy preferences. This is a problem on multiple levels. Among other things, it leads conservatives to embrace an anti-scientific know-nothingism whereby scientific claims are to be evaluated not by scientific evidence but their political implications. Thus climate science must be attacked because it provides a too ready justification for government regulation.   This is the same reason some conservatives attack evolution — they fear it undermines religious belief — and it is just as wrong.

Writing at MichelleMalkin.com, Doug Powers warns that ” if some politicians think they can swim in the waters of AGW without getting wet or soaking taxpayers, they should think again.” In other words, once you accept that human activity may be contributing to global warming, embracing costly and ill-advised regulatory measures is inevitable. Yet it is actually Powers, not Christie, who is embracing a dangerous premise. As Christie’s veto shows, he understands that the threat of climate change does not justify any and all proposed policy responses. One can believe the threat is real, and still think cap-and-trade is a bad idea. Christie’s critics, on the other hand, seem to accept that once it can be shown that human activity may be having potentially negative environmental effects, this alone justifies government intervention. Yet the environmental effects of human behavior are ubiquitous. Human civilization necessarily entails remaking the world around it. So if recognizing negative environmental effects leads inevitably to governmental intervention, there is virtually no end to what government needs to do, global warming or no.

How inconvenient, then, that even the vast majority of warming “skeptics” within the scientific community would agree with Governor Christie’s statement that “human activity plays a role” in rising greenhouse gas levels and resulting changes in the climate.   The Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, for instance, has written several books acknowledging human contributions to global warming.  In Climate of Extremes: The Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know (co-authored with Robert Balling, another “skeptic”) for example, he explained that there is an observable warming trend and that human activity shares some of the blame.  Michaels and Balling are labeled “skeptics” because they don’t believe the warming is likely to be as severe or as disruptive as most other climate scientists, but they readily accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming.  (See, e.g., p. 27.) Their rejection of a climate apocalypse — and not a denial of human contributions to climate change — is actually the view of most climate “skeptics,” and nothing Christie said is incompatible with that view.

As I’ve written before, it would be convenient if human activity did not contribute to global warming or otherwise create problems that are difficult to reconcile with libertarian preferences. But that’s not the world we live in, and politicians should not be criticized for recognizing that fact.  Further, even if one accepts the “skeptic” perspective on climate change, there are still reasons to believe climate change is a problem, as I explain here. This does not require endorsing massive regulatory interventions or cap-and-trade schemes; there are alternatives.  In the end, politicians should be evaluated on their policy proposals — and commended for the courage to acknowledge politically inconvenient truths.