Edmund Burke and silver buckshot

Byron Kennard Contributor
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If you are (a) an environmentalist, and (b) a Burkean, how do you establish a position on global warming? Are you conflicted, confused? It so happens I am (a) an environmentalist and (b) a Burkean, and I am neither conflicted nor confused. To the contrary, the precepts of Edmund Burke provide me with a position on the issue that I take to be both sound and clear. Moreover, Burke provides a useful guide to remedial action.

Edmund Burke (1729-97), of course, is the Anglo-Irish politician and writer regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. He is best known as the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he wrote to express his profound hostility to the revolution’s spirit of total, radical innovation.

Burke’s central point was that we should not meddle with complex systems we do not understand, especially when civilization rests upon the system. The French revolutionaries were violently dismantling a monarchic system that had endured serviceably, as Burke saw it, for a thousand years. (Burke was writing in 1790, during the revolution’s balmy inception, when most of his countrymen were hailing the fall of French absolutism. Presciently, he predicted the coming of the Reign of Terror and the military dictatorship that followed.)

Burke’s thinking applies full force to global warming. Climate, after all, is a complex system we do not fully understand, a system on which civilization totally relies, and a system we are meddling with on a grand scale. There are, for example, now about one billion cars and light trucks on the planet emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels never seen before.

Scientists cannot tell us with certainty what the full range of effects of this will be. But our common understanding of how the world works — derived from millennia of rigorous, even harsh human experience — tells us the impact is far more likely to be bad than good.

So what changes do we need to make to curb global warming? Here I think Burke’s advice is particularly apt now in the absence of scientific certainty and congressional legislation on the issue.

It is true Burke opposed radical innovation but he did not oppose change as such. “We must all obey the great law of change,” Burke declared. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.” The question, then, is how change should occur. Burke’s answer was that change must be sought organically.

To me, as an environmentalist, organic is the key word. Organic means occurring or developing naturally, without being forced or contrived. There is no hierarchy in nature to impose things from above. Nature is decentralized. It experiments on the small-scale, changing things incrementally. After rigorous testing, only those adaptations that prove workable in nature’s boundlessly complex web are assimilated.

Thus, if we are to follow Burke’s advice in efforts to address global warming, we should look for remedies that are decentralized, small, incremental, and proven. These exist in abundance. Here’s the idea: there’s no silver bullet that can reduce the threat of global warming. Instead, we need a vast number of small, incremental reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — that is, silver buckshot.

Silver buckshot gets the job done through commonsense, easy-to-understand measures.

More than 900 specific silver buckshot options for states and localities have been identified by the Center for Climate Strategies (CCS), a non-profit organization that helps states tackle climate change.

What CCS lays out is not rocket science. The options consist of ordinary prudent things we should be doing anyway, like periodically updating building codes to reflect the increasing availability of new, highly efficient materials and products and the rising cost of energy.

Ease of comprehension is politically advantageous. Homeowners, for instance, may not understand cap and trade, but they can surely understand how routine maintenance of residential air conditioning systems can reduce their electric bills.

CCS recently issued a report that assesses how the most cost-effective of these state and local options could perform. This report concludes that “Assuming full and appropriately scaled implementation of all 23 actions in all U.S. states, the resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions would surpass national GHG targets proposed by President Obama and congressional legislation, and would reduce U.S. emissions to 27% below 1990 levels in 2020, equal to 4.46 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.”

Silver buckshot relies on the deployment of existing proven technologies; not on exotic, complex technologies like “clean coal” or geo-engineering that will take years of costly R&D to develop if indeed they prove viable at all.

In the last decade or so, entrepreneurs have flooded the marketplace with so many clean tech innovations it’s almost impossible to track them. Scott Sklar, the former executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, has made a valiant effort to do so.

Sklar, now an adjunct professor at George Washington University, has compiled 23 studies that “show how commercially-available energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies can meet the world’s and the United States’ energy growth without fossil fuels and nuclear energy.”

Sklar’s collection, for example, includes a study of commercial building rooftops which soak up huge amounts of solar energy. A report of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory asserts that 22 percent of all buildings could be zero-energy consumers using today’s solar roof technology.

Another example is an MIT report showing how geothermal energy could meet 10 percent of U.S. needs by 2050. Another report shows how water energy (tidal, wave and ocean currents and thermal) could also generate 10 percent of U.S. energy. Sklar has aggregated the most conservative assumptions of these studies to reveal that they add up to more than 100 percent of U.S. future energy needs.

Are these green technologies so radical that Edmund Burke would oppose them? I think not. Though new, they have been tested under the most rigorous conditions. Indeed, few endeavors are harder to start than a clean tech business. The innovative technology has to demonstrate both that it meets a market need at a reasonable cost and that it does not adversely affect public health or safety. Validating an innovative clean technology is a cumbersome, costly, time-consuming process.

On top of that, advanced technology entrepreneurs must often compete on a playing field dominated by the large, well-entrenched industrial-era companies they seek to displace.

Those who survive the long march to commercial viability are the stronger for it. They have evolved organically. And that should satisfy Burke, who emphatically declared, “Never, no, never did Nature say one thing and Wisdom say another.”

So here’s where I come out. To address the threat of climate change, you don’t have to be a Burkean; but if you are a Burkean, climate change is a threat you must address.

Byron Kennard is Executive Director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment, a non-profit organization located in Washington, DC.