The Conservative Environmentalist: A Dilemma of Political Morality

I am a senior at Gonzaga University (’18) from New York, New York. I took Dr. Henning’s Global Climate Change Ethics class in Fall 2017. I am studying Political Science and Criminal Justice. This essay was a reflection on my experience in Dr. Henning’s class where I confronted issues of political partisanship as they relate to climate change and morality.

I have always been critical of the core curriculum at Gonzaga. I search for value in the classes that I am required to take and I am often left wondering how they will pertain to my life outside of academia. Sometimes I am able to find that value immediately, other times it takes awhile, but only once has a class ever left me feeling that it had been entirely pointless or invaluable to life outside of college. After that experience I was frustrated with the University and the entire concept of “core requirements”. That said, I picked Global Climate Change Ethics carefully. I wanted my final philosophy class to add value to my life or at least relate to my concentration and vocational aspirations. I also kept in mind that I am generally a libertarian with deep conservative values walking into a class with a title almost as liberal sounding as “Women and Gender Studies”. I was unsure of my thoughts on climate change; I don’t understand science and I generally don’t try to form opinions on things that I know little about. Even so, I hoped my questions would be answered and solutions would be offered. And of course, the “libertarian” in me would only take those questions seriously if they could be answered with unbiased information. The first half of this course answered all of my questions and more, while the remainder of the semester had an impact on my life unlike any class before. 

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As previously mentioned, I avoid forming opinions before understanding the facts of the topic to a certain degree. I have heard my grandparents make the argument that global warming cannot be true if it is snowing or polar bears still have ice to walk on. I’ve heard that it’s just part of the liberal agenda (not relevant, but perhaps still true) or some crazy scheme otherwise. I have also heard the exaggerated doomsday “we will all answer to God soon” side, or the preaching vegan that can do no wrong. Looking back, I think I avoided this topic because it is so hard to take the surface arguments seriously and the thought of walking into a classroom for fifteen weeks listening to it sounded hellish. How could I find value in something that no one can even properly argue about? The first class discussion made me feel more comfortable immediately. For once, I found a professor who could openly recognize that there is more than one side to the story. He emphasized that as a class, we should get used to the controversy and even invited discussion. Throughout the semester I realized that it is because the “sides” don’t matter. The scientific facts and the consilience of the evidence are enough to prove the severity of the problem. At the very least, climate change is a problem every single person is going to face eventually. As we learned, however, science does not offer the sufficient solution I had hoped for in my free write.

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While science answered most of my original questions, I have been left with more unanswered questions that pertain to “real life” than I know what to do with. Until the last class I still wondered whether individual action would make a difference to the situation. For a long time I have followed a personal philosophy of taking as little from the world as I realistically can. Does it matter that I’ve never learned to drive because I refuse to take part in pollution for personal convenience? Does it matter that I do not eat meat? I do so many of the things that we are told will keep our footprint to a minimum and I have faced the challenges and arguments that come with that long before I had the facts that I do now. However this class has been the only time I have seen the power of the individual legitimately challenged for its worth in the world. Understanding climate change is only the beginning of a complicated solution. I was ignorant to the depth of this problem and not only am I left to grapple with the physical effects of climate change, but its implications on society, relationship with the earth, the value of life in all forms and how humans are supposed to proceed based on how we define and relate to those things. Studying geoengineering and stewardship in particular led many of us to the conclusion that we cannot leave the issue of climate change entirely up to the individual, as much as it pains me to say. I have been forced to face the idea that my efforts to keep my footprint to a minimum are simply inaction disguised as action. While it has been comforting to think I have been helping the world in some way, I am facing the reality that even though individual action may not be worth much, it is the only thing one can do to “help” as the debate drags on.

At first I was discouraged by feeling powerless as an individual, which will likely frustrate me for a long time. However that frustration is a reflection of the practical and ethical values and dilemmas that I have taken from this course that I will continue to confront long after college.



  1. Racheal,
    I really like the topic of this blog post. Specifically, I was interested in the superficial arguments that we hear all too often. I can definitely relate with the “its snowing, global warming is a myth” argument. How can we begin to grapple with the true facts of global climate change, much less have meaningful conversation and progress, when people cannot even properly argue against the topic? Its very frustrating, and has left me often wondering what to do as an individual. I have not taken the ethics of global climate change class yet, although I am signed up for it next semester. I am currently in another one of Henning’s classes, environmental ethics, and I have found many of the same difficulties. For example, I knew animal ethics was an issue. We dove deep into the topic, and have studies many different perspectives on the argument (enough so to make me go vegetarian). Yet, when I discuss this with others who have not had the same education as me, I often get superficial answers grounded in fallacies. “The meat is already dead, it doesn’t matter if you eat it or not.” “How else are you going to get your protein?” It is impossible to achieve any progress with the topic when others simply do not understand the true scope/science behind it. So, as an individual, it can be really difficult to continue the fight in understanding my own ethics, while trying to relate them to others. However, I agree that we must continue to confront these struggles as individuals, in college and beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Racheal,
    I enjoyed reading your piece, especially coming from your libertarian perspective. As I personally identify as a liberal, it was interesting to get into the mind of someone who has different political views. I understand your struggle with being able to have a valid and productive argument about climate change when people don’t even know the facts or science behind it. It feels like until that information becomes common knowledge to people, it’s hard to talk about the steps we need to take from here on out to solve such a pressing issue like climate change. However, in some of my other classes I’ve found it useful to talk about climate change not from a scientific perspective but an economic, religious, or philosophical one. Sometimes you don’t need to explain and convince people of the science and instead just focus on the economic, religious, or philosophical benefits that could be offered when we make the changes necessary to stopping climate change. On your point about individual action not being worth much, I have to agree and disagree. I agree in that individual action alone will not solve climate change. Real solutions must be framed from a collective platform. However, that doesn’t mean that individual actions have no value. After all, it is only when like minded individuals come together that collective, unified action is possible. In addition, living your individual life by your own environmental ethic provides meaning and purpose, which I believe improves the quality of the kind of life you live.

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  3. Racheal,
    I feel as though I need to commend you for your pursuit of knowledge. It can be very easy to go through life believing what we have been told from a young age. If more individuals used their time at Gonzaga as an opportunity to educate themselves on topics they are unfamiliar with, in order to gain a more complete understanding of the world in which we live, I think we would all leave the university more fulfilled, yet we would also be struggling with bigger questions. I find it interesting that even though we have all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips, think the internet, we continue to hold fast to what we are comfortable with. The idea of applied ethics is something I have been struggling with, more specifically, moral consistency. You mentioned questioning the value of the individual however, ought we behave in ways that are consistent with our worldview, regardless of the actual impact? That I do not know. I love the second cartoon that you added, indicating the economy is more important than our existence to many of the powerful and those in high places. it is shockingly accurate.

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  4. Racheal,
    Its funny that I stumbled upon your post as we are about to graduate and myself being an Environmental Studies major. Politics is sometimes so easy to talk about in college because this is where we are supposed to talk freely when we have disagreements. The topic of climate change was a touchy subject even before this past presidential election but reading your post today made me thinking about where I am going after graduation. I grew up in a place where it is both conservative and liberal. A place I still call home and plan to live for the rest of my life. Dr. Henning does an amazing job when it comes to showing all sides of the story because I too took his climate change class and felt that each side was represented as best as it could. The real world is just around the corner and taking in all that you wrote makes me think that we need to address more of the views that go overlooked. We need to see how individualistic our society is while understand that it works as a whole. Politics is just one part of the whole and many of the issues we got throughout society are inter-sectional. We can’t address one thing without another but then the question is how do you fix one when it is inter-sectional. Like you I struggle with this question and will after graduation but do see how it could be both. We need to stop thinking neither this or that and part of this process maybe using different vocabulary as well. Like I said, I grew up in a place that is liberal and conservative yet I never truly thought about picking a side until college. That could have been a good or bad thing but now I still hold true the values of just doing the right thing. Doing the right thing can very from person to person but to me that is seeing what is true and acting accordingly. I’m very glad to have read your piece and see how much you took away from it. Individually we can help as you say but also just having those discussions and realizing the big picture can go a long way. We need to see how the big picture is where we need to go with or without labels or sides that we hold on to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Racheal,
    I really enjoyed seeing a different view on climate change and I think it is critical for the progress in climate discussion to have these debates/discussions. When it comes to personal responsibility towards the earth and climate change I often found myself in the same situation as you, “discouraged, powerless, individual.” I felt like this for a few years and it wasn’t until I started bringing these issues up in conversation and telling people why I decide to give up meat that you start to see a lightbulb switch in some of your peers. It doesn’t need to be convincing or propaganda to get your point across, It can be as simple as a genuine conversation that can get people to think for themselves about climate issues and that is a very powerful ball to start rolling.


  6. Rachael,
    I really liked the perspective that you wrote with and explained how it influenced the way you engaged with the class and the subject matter. I think that it is important to be critical and to challenge what is said, especially when choosing to formulate an opinion after you have seen the evidence, rather than before and then searching evidence that backs up your belief. What you wrote about was very relatable to me, as I come from as I come from a small conservative minded town that is very engaged in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, while at the same time questioning climate change. So coming to Gonzaga, I was torn, the need for conservation had been impressed on me from a young age, but whether climate change was true or not was still not something I knew much of. The way you wrote about searching for evidence before you had formed your opinion is the same route that I took through the Environmental Studies program, waiting to learn what information was out there to make sure my personal beliefs were well educated and informed. I also agree with what you had to say about your individual choices not having a real impact on the environment. This is something that I have wrestled with myself, wondering if the extra precautions that I take in my daily life, such as walking as much as I can, recycling, etc… really amounts to any noticeable good. With this, rather than seeing myself as an individual, I try and see myself as part of a larger community of people that are also doing what they can to reduce their carbon footprint, leading hopefully to a combined reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. I do not know if this is the right mindset to have, and it may still be a fruitless effort, but it does still help me stay positive that individuals can help in the climate crisis we are facing today.

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