Right-Wing Delusions about Liberty and Climate Change

Climate Deniers Threaten the Individual Liberty They Claim to Champion

The growing public demand for climate action has sent the American political right into paroxysms of apocalyptic rhetoric about socialist dictators taking away your cars, air travel, and hamburgers. This is another variation on the message that the right has been delivering for years: efforts to address climate change are antithetical to individual liberty. The whole argument, however, is predicated on a persistent denial of anthropogenic global warming. Once one accepts the reality of climate change, it becomes plain that the true threat to a free society is not aggressive climate regulation, but unchecked climate change itself. Yet the persistence of climate denial points to a self-destructive, pathological myopia on the American right: a refusal to acknowledge problems that require collective political action and a refusal to recognize that individual liberty itself depends on collective self-government.

It is true that any ambitious climate change policy would involve significant regulation and change everyday habits, making certain activities, like eating large quantities of meat, living in low-density suburbs, or driving a gasoline-powered vehicle, less readily available and more expensive. And yes, compared to the status quo, that would mean a reduction in individuals’ ability to make certain choices.

However, the status quo is not the proper baseline for comparison. The proper baseline is a grim future in which we do not enact regulations to rein in climate change. There’s no need here to reiterate the dire impacts of unchecked climate change — and the limits of our capacity to adapt to them — but people often overlook how these impacts would be fatal to anything resembling a free society. Increasingly frequent and severe weather events, massive population displacement, and mounting food and water shortages are invitations to draconian measures, martial law, and authoritarianism. As Eric Levitz writes in New York, climate change could also generate a defensive, ultranationalist response. Levitz imagines a future U.S. closing its borders to the climate refugees, while allowing mass starvation in developing countries to reduce overall demands on the biosphere. Not only would such an approach be unjust, cruel, and inhumane, but it would also foster a highly repressive siege mentality at home. One might also imagine localities becoming highly policed fortresses, barring entry to fellow U.S. citizens — especially the poor and people of color — displaced by natural disasters.

Ironic as it may seem, preserving the long-term prospects for individual rights — including freedom of speech, assembly, and movement, and even the right to private property — requires collective decisions that may actually restrict freedom of action in some spheres of life. Liberty does not actually flourish when government steps out of the way. Perhaps paradoxically, individual freedom is a common good that society must work together to achieve. Citizens must secure the conditions for liberty by democratically governing themselves through laws and regulations and confronting problems that can only be addressed collectively. Absent such collective political action, the resulting vacuum is filled by powerful private actors who can destructively exercise their will on society. Our failure to enact federal climate legislation has given the fossil fuel industry virtually free reign to pump billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and ultimately endanger the prospects for individual rights and democracy.

Similarly with guns. The National Rifle Association and its allies have stubbornly denied the need for gun control and have successfully prevented even modest regulations like universal background checks. The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre declared that advocates of gun control “hate individual freedom.” However, the proliferation of firearms in our country is not only fueling gun violence; it is also fostering a dangerously authoritarian fortress mentality, with metal detectors, armed guards, and lockdown drills in schools and surveillance cameras in public places.

However, rather than acknowledge the threat posed by climate change or by unregulated firearms, the typical right-wing response is to simply deny the problem even exists. I should point out that this denial is not really conservative. The conservative tradition, going back to Edmund Burke, has long recognized that society is a collective project. Rather, this willful ignorance is a kind of simplistic libertarianism, a wishing away of problems by those who cannot abide their collectivist implications. Guided by such delusions, those who profess to uphold liberty end up destroying it.

Professor of Government at Hamilton College