I missed the opportunity to say that the "no-consensus-on-warming" crowd now sounds a lot like the tobacco lobby arguing that the link between smoking and lung cancer has not yet been established. Even without this observation, my response was incorrect. So the man asked his question again to give me a fresh chance to get things right. I said I didn't understand why social conservatives are generally so hostile to environmental concerns. Shouldn't conserving come naturally to conservatives?
Apparently not. Economic conservatives, for whom The Wall Street Journal is the primary spokesman, are dismissive about most environmentalism. When President Bush announced he would not abide by the Kyoto protocol calling on America to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the Journal hailed him for "refusing to bow before the environmentalist holy of holies."
Derisive references to environmentalism as a quasi-religion of the softheaded tend to play well among social and religious conservatives who generally don't respond to arguments from big business. These references remind all conservatives that the most extreme environmentalism does look a bit like an ersatz earth religion, with humans as the poisonous intruders who shouldn't be here. But why do social and religious conservatives so often fall in line with business executives who dismiss environmentalists as wackos?
One reason is that environmentalism rose out of the same 1960s agitation that social conservatives believe was so ruinous to the general culture. Some environmentalists give the impression that the movement is simply part of the left, thus managing to alienate potential supporters on the right. This is a major strategic mistake, but an understandable one, given the hostility to the environment that Republicans have produced over the past 20 years.
Issues of class are a factor, too. Environmentalists tend to come from well-off elites with the luxury of worrying about the snail darter and the state of the global environment in 2050. When a candidate like Al Gore appears, it is relatively easy for Republicans to connect the dots and associate environmentalism with elite Democratic stances that appall so many conservatives.