Matthew Gibson

Conservatism has been one of the main political ideologies of western-style democracies since before WWII. It comes in many flavors, from the Centre-right Liberal-Conservatives of Europe to the more traditional Christian evangelists of the United States. Mix in regional labels and a sprinkle of historical particularities, and it becomes increasingly difficult to define what each particular conservative actually stands for. One could argue that Conservatives, perhaps more than any other ideological group, each have their own unique vision of what the ideology means to them, and how its implementation would take shape in practice. A tentative universal definition, presented by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, reads as follows:

“ […] is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, […]  the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss”.

However, regardless of the accuracy of definitions, one tenant of conservatism is becoming more widespread amongst conservative youths in particular; the need to get serious about fighting climate change.

This push has led to the birth of the new label Green-Conservatism, or “Green Blues” in reference to the movements traditional blue color. Serving as both an alternative to climate denying far-right movements and radical left-wing green parties, this new brand appeals most to those with moderate right-leaning social views and a commitment towards the environment. As this new phenomenon becomes increasingly popular, it warrants a wider study, to unveil the crucial role it is to play in the political future of Europe.

Before diving deep into Green Conservatism, it must be clarified that, as disparities in conservatisms are so vast, we will limit ourselves to the realities of conservatism within the European Union. This demarcation thus includes parties (and their voters) such as the German Christian Democratic Union, Spanish People’s Party and Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal, alongside most of the European People’s Party family, while the American Republican party lies firmly outside the scope of our analysis.  

Even though there is much optimism arising from the push for a green transformation of the conservative movement, major challenges still remain. In order for Green Conservatism to become mainstream amongst right-of-center parties across Europe, it is crucial that environmentalism ceases to be a cause exclusive to the political left. The current trend within green parties to align themselves with exclusively progressive causes and monopolize the “green” label alienates many voters that truly care for the environment. An overreliance on government intervention, stifling of free-market innovation, and conflation of climate causes with other social issues cause a bitter divide, making it impossible for effective multi-partisan policy to be enacted. Indeed, this presents a bitter message to voters: one must be left to be green, no compromise allowed. Solving this issue requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, green parties must become more inclusive of political ideals beyond the scope of left-wing progressivism. An acceptance of the fact that private sector innovation, alongside free-market policies, are crucial for a competitive sustainable economy would go a long way in enabling increased political cooperation. On the other hand, Conservatives must be willing to reciprocate the overture. Left-wing Green parties often cite the unacceptable alliances between Conservatives and the far-right across the EU as a red line that makes cooperation impossible. Through the shift towards green conservatism, a break with the far-right is finally possible. Voters lost to radical counterparts will be amply replenished by the waves of young voters brought by a climate-concious approach, rejuvenating the Centre-right and solidifying its electoral future.

Apart from the ample rewards of attracting young voters, what other incentive exist for Conservative parties to go green? In fact, free-market Conservatives have much more skin in this game than they currently acknowledge. Climate change is fast becoming a destabilizing reality, with rising sea levels and hazardous climate conditions forcing many from their homes. Moreover, some observers are already beginning to theorize that climate disasters and resource depletion will cause widespread conflict and migrant flows. These terrible circumstances are sure to have a substantially negative impact on the political stability of the EU, as social tensions flare in the wake of an unprecedented immigration crisis. For Conservatives, to whom social stability and order are paramount for a successful nation, this must be avoided at all cost. Furthermore, rising sea levels, caused by increased surface temperatures will pose a critical threat of annihilation to Europe’s coastlines and the iridization of its farmlands. Needless to say, the conservation of Europe’s physical landscape ought to also feature high in the list of Conservatism’s objectives. Without our land, there can be no traditions, no heritage, and no future for Europe.

It is clearly of no use to pontificate on the need to include conservative solutions to the climate debate without actually postulating some. Firstly, conservative perspectives emphasize the need to ensure Europe’s strategic autonomy with regards to energy supply and distribution. Currently, Europe lags behind other great powers in terms of the development of a robust renewable energy industry. A great opportunity thus presents itself to, proverbially, kill two birds with one stone, by ensuring the EU’s economy’s health and also spreading sustainable technology across the globe. This could be done not only through public sector investments, but also through an effective incentive structure that rewards firms that invest in sustainable technologies. The Spanish renewable energy company Iberdrola, built out of the initiative of Basque-Spanish conservative administrations, and which currently stands at the cutting edge of sustainable development, is a powerful example of how conservative initiatives can pave the way. Moreover, the promotion of a “Green Free-Trade Zone”, which improves the ability of countries taking sustainability goals seriously to market their goods in advantagous conditions, has been posited by various Green Conservative think-tanks in the United States, and could soon find its way to the EU. If enacted, it would reinforce the transatlantic link that conservatives have defended since the end of WWII, while also incentivizing neighboring nations into sustainable development that allows them entrance into the agreement. These are just a few of the initiatives that Green Conservatism can bring to the table, and they hide within them an untapped potential for economic growth and sustainable prosperity.

It is not outlandish to question at this point, after reading through ambitious proposals to solve climate change, whether they do in fact align with the definition of Conservatism described in the opening paragraphs? Many, most especially those that are hostile towards the tenants of Conservatism, will argue that the passive nature of the ideology precludes it from being a spearhead for sustainable development. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatism is not about a rejection of the future, but rather an appreciation for the present, and as such runs not contrary to progress, but acts rather as a beacon for its safe development. Perfection is unattainable, utopian by definition, and any deviation from the current social order that so much wealth has brought must be approached cautiously. Indeed, it is the very cautiousness that frustrates its opponents which makes conservatism so reliably effective. Conservative perspectives ensure that while Climate change is combatted, national economies remain strong, moving into the future with sensible and sustainable financial investments.

Nonetheless, the premise of this article rest upon one vital assumption of modern European conservatism, a preoccupation with climate matters. Many will see the rise of Donald Trump in the US or Marine Le Pen in France as a direct contraposition to this premise. Alas, one thing must be asserted with no doubt: these figures, alongside their political movements, are not conservative. Xenophobia, racism and populistic rhetoric run contrary to the spirit of the great conservative thinkers of the nineteenth century, who paved the way for generations of political leaders on the basis of charity and solidarity. Climate-savvy conservatism bases itself on the same compassionate and merciful roots that led Christian Democrats to construct the modern European welfare state, and to heal the religious scars that had besieged the continent since the reformation. It is in their image, and in their honor, that this new version of the movement should stride on.

When setting out to write this piece, one of the main uncertainties I faced was determining who the audience for it was. Indeed, most conservatives are already aware of the need to get serious about fighting climate change. Thus, the importance of this article lies perhaps in reaching those less exposed to “blue” ideas. It is my hope that, as the movement completes its inevitable transition towards climate friendly policy, it will be easier for people of all ideologies to pool their efforts, tackling our generation’s greatest challenge. Few concluding words seem more fitting than those of the Terminator himself, Green Conservative Arnold Schwarzenegger:

“We simply must do everything we can in our power to slow down global warming before it is too late. […] We can save our planet and also boost our economy at the same time.”