Ecological Conservatives
By John D. Turner
2 July 2001

The dictionary defines "conservative" to mean "disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to resist change". Liberals, on the other hand, regard themselves as being "progressive", in favor of change. After all, wasn't that one of Candidate Clinton's rallying cries during the 1992 campaign, that America needed a Change? Liberals (read the National Democratic Party) always see themselves as the champions of change, and mortal enemies of Conservatives (read the National Republican Party) who, of course, are resistant to change and cling to the out-modeled relics of yesteryear.

Except, of course, when it comes to the environment.

When it comes to the environment, change is bad. The status quo is supreme. We must do nothing to upset the current balance.

Except of course, that this is patent nonsense.

Does anyone out there besides me remember that 20 years ago or so, we had a problem with global cooling? That we were about to enter another ice age? That the government had to do something quickly about the "problem" before the ice swooped down and destroyed us all? Well, we managed to dodge that bullet…and now we have "global warming". This of course, is "very bad" too, and all due to the deprivations of that evil creature bedeviling Mother Gaia, known as Man.

Unfortunately for the left, the Earth is not a steady-state environment regulated by a thermostat, like a climate-controlled home in Southern California. In real life, there are many variables affecting global temperatures; weather patterns, rainfall, the mix of gases in the atmosphere, and other factors pertaining to life on this planet. Many of these are poorly understood. Many are probably yet to be discovered. Scientists tell us that the Earth has been here for about 4.3 billion years; that life has existed here in one form or another for approximately 1 billion years or so, and that Mankind has been around for, at most, only one million of those years. Of this one million years, we have been studying the Earth, using the scientific method, for at best a couple hundred, with most of our research coming only in the last 50 years or so.

This means that Man has existed on this planet for 1/1000th of the time that the Earth has been capable of supporting life. Indeed, scientists tell us that it is totally due to the existence of life on Earth, that Earth is presently capable of supporting life as we know it. (Which sounds circular, but really isn't). The biosphere is a closed system, self-supporting, and self-regulating. And of this 1/1000th, the last 50 years or so represents 0.005% of mankind's tenure, or about 0.000005% of life's tenure on this planet.

There is nothing "normal" about the current state of our planet. It is simply the current state of the planet. It is not "normal" for the Earth to have polar ice caps, any more than it is "abnormal" for the Earth to not have polar ice caps; both conditions have occurred multiple times in the planet's history. Lower ocean levels than we currently experience are not more "normal" than higher ones, nor is glaciation more "normal" than its absence. Seasons of "bad weather" are not more abnormal than seasons of "good weather". All have occurred before during the millions of years the planet has supported life, and the billions of years of its existence, well before that peculiar life-form know as "Man" came on the scene.

Without mankind's presence, ocean levels have risen and fallen. The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere has varied considerably. Magnetic poles have shifted or disappeared completely, which probably had some effect on our magnetosphere and ozone layer as well. The average temperature of the Earth has varied up and down the scale. Local temperatures have changed, species have prospered, or vanished, all without mankind's careful guidance or careless interference. This will continue to occur, despite all we may do, despite all our political posturing. A minute change in solar output, for example, has more effect on the Earth than all our CO2 production or possible conservation could ever hope to accomplish. And we have absolutely no control over solar output, which, by the way, is not a constant.

This is not the only variable with great consequence for what happens here over which we have no control. There are probably a great many more of which we are, as of yet, completely unaware. We have only been seriously observing for around 50 years. The first International Geophysical Year was in 1957, the year I was born. The computer models on which global warming are based are in reality in their infancy, and simplistic in their approach. Their accuracy is limited by the current state of computer technology, the availability and reliability of the data input to the models, and our capability to accurately model processes which we do not as yet completely understand. Our models are crude, and highly susceptible to the principle of "Garbage In Garbage Out", so familiar to those of us who work with computers on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the "ecological conservatism" of the liberal ecologist. Change, overall, is neither good nor bad. Change is simply change. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not "global warming" exists, or whether it is caused by mankind's activities on this planet, or even whether or not we can actually do anything about it, why this knee-jerk reaction for status quo from a group that usually finds steady-state conditions abhorrent? Let's move back in time to the last ice-age, the height of which was around 18,000 years ago. At this point in time, the Earth entered a "global warming" period (without, I might add, the burning of fossil fuels, the spraying of chloroflorocarbons, or other such man-made "green house" gases). By the time the age ended, approximately 10,000 years ago, mean sea levels rose some 120 meters (around 390 feet for those of us who are "metricly challenged"). Estimates are that the coastline of New Jersey, for example, has moved inland at least 25 miles from where it was during that period. I can only surmise that had the liberal ecologists been present for this previous occurrence, there would have been much hand-wringing and shrill rhetoric for the government to "do something" about it. And yet, would any of us want to be living under the conditions imposed by the last ice age?

True, some species died out. However, many others flourished. The same holds true today. A recent article I read documents the effects of a 1 degree C rise in temperature over the past 50 years on an island located about 4,000 miles southwest of Perth Australia. This temperature rise has resulted in an approximately 12% retreat of the island's glaciers. The resulting effect to the ecology of the island has been startling. Areas that were previously poorly vegetated are now "lush with large expanses of plants". The population of birds, insects, and animals has expanded rapidly. The king penguin population, which consisted of three breeding pairs in 1947, now numbers 25,000. The cormorant has expanded from a "vulnerable" status to 1,200 pairs, and the fur seal has emerged from "near extinction" to a population of 28,000 adults and 1,000 pups. One can hardly argue that the effects of a one degree C increase in temperature for Heard Island has been a disaster, except perhaps for the glaciers.

It is true that the effects of a large increase in global sea levels would be disastrous for human populations living near the coast. Much capital would have to be expended to attempt to preserve coastal cities, and/or much capital would be required to relocate populations inland to new coastal locations. Dislocations would occur. Weather-related deaths would occur (most due to the stubbornness of people who are unwilling to face change, ironically enough). This is unfortunate, but nothing new. People die in weather-related events on a daily basis. And one thing is certain about life; it is a terminal disease. We may put it off for as long as we possibly can, but in the end we all die, and still the world goes on.

Much current animal and plant habitat would be wiped out. However new habitat would also be created. Life would continue to flourish on this planet, as it has in the past. Change would bring new opportunities for some, extinction for others. All this is, however, natural, part of the ebb and flow of life on this planet. The steady-state, conservative ecological fantasy world of the liberal ecologist is not.