Conservatives for the Climate

Apr 25, 2019 by

The New York Times

How a skeptic of the science changed his mind.

David Leonhardt

By David Leonhardt

Opinion Columnist

Polluted floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey surrounded homes in Beaumont, Tex., in August 2017.CreditCreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

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For anyone worried about climate change, Jerry Taylor is an intriguing figure.

He “spent years as a professional climate denier at the Cato Institute, arguing against climate science, regulations, and treaties in op-eds, speeches, and media appearances,” the MIT Technology Review explained. Taylor’s view, as he told Vox’s David Roberts, was that “it’s unclear how big a problem it is, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and there’s probably more of a chance that it’s going to be a relative non-problem than it will be a problem.”

But then Taylor began to change his mind.

First, he was willing to continue reading the scientific evidence with an open mind. And it became strong enough to persuade him. “While one can do some gymnastics to continue to defend the ‘there’s nothing to see here, folks’ argument, it became harder and harder,” he told Roberts.

Second, he was influenced by a couple of arguments from other conservatives — much as I hope that his own arguments may now persuade still other conservatives. One argument pointed out that climate change damages private property and impinges on people’s freedom. Another came from the risk-management ideas of Wall Street — that even small risks with terrible potential consequences must be taken seriously.

“If this sort of risk were to arise in any other context in the private markets, people would pay real money to hedge against it,” Taylor said.

In 2014 Taylor founded the Niskanen Center, which is doing important work imagining what a healthy conservative party could look like in this country. (David Brooks and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait have written more broadly about Niskanen’s work.) Having a non-destructive climate policy is, of course, a big part of the answer.

For anyone looking for other conservatives making the case for climate action, try:

  • Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, who — perhaps not coincidentally — is based in the coastal state of South Carolina. “Make no mistake,” she wrote after Hurricane Harvey battered Texas. “We are being warned.”

Several of these conservatives think a carbon tax is more politically realistic than I do. Taylor, for example, makes the case for such a tax in his recent critique of the Green New Deal. But I’ll say this: If the conservatives who are worried about the climate can win enough Republicans to their side, a carbon tax may become more feasible than it is today. That would be very good news.

Our biggest disagreement

I thought of Taylor this week, because my colleague Ross Douthat suggested we devote another segment of “The Argument” podcast to climate change. He did so after I told him that it had been the hardest subject for me to discuss with him. On many other subjects — health care, religion, abortion, criminal justice and more — I understand where Ross is coming from even when I disagree with him. But I don’t understand how someone as smart as he is can be blasé about climate change.

In this follow-up conversation, we managed to find more common ground, just as he predicted. If you listen and have thoughts, send me an email at

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt  Facebook

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