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Conservatives and climate change

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COMMENTS

20 November 2009 09:40

Crikey's Canberra press gallery correspondent Bernard Keane highlights a speech on climate change by a Senator I had never heard of before, Simon Birmingham, a Liberal from South Australia. Below is a paragraph of Birmingham's speech, followed by Keane's approving comment:

"For these reasons I believe, as I have said in my previous contributions on these bills, that we should give the planet the benefit of the doubt and opt for action ahead of inaction when it comes to climate change mitigation.  It is, however, a case of making sure that we get that action right."

The conservative position on climate change must surely be one of risk management – the risk of not taking action is far greater than the risk of taking action in the event the climate change hypothesis proves flawed. Like conservation, which had its historical roots in the conservative side of politics, climate change action should be as much at home on Right as on the Left.

The argument that conservatives ought to favour climate change action on risk management grounds is superficially attractive, and in fact I have suggested it myself. But on further reflection, I don't think it withstands much scrutiny. There are an endless number of risks that governments could spend money on to mitigate, but most are dismissed or receive little attention because they are considered too remote or unlikely. A catastrophic asteroid strike on the earth is one example.

So ultimately, you have to buy into the science of climate change to a large degree, otherwise why bias that risk over others?

Perhaps a better way to get conservatives on side is to pitch the issue (and the proposed solution — carbon trading) in terms of efficiency. Even if long term predictions about the effects of global warming turn out to be incorrect, the mitigation measures we put in place now can reduce the resources we consume while maintaining economic output.

A focus on efficiency could also have exposed one of the weak points of the Government's approach, which contains a giant sop to big business. Had the Coalition concentrated its attack on what carbon trading will cost the consumer, rather than the big end of town, and even made some proposals to offset the cost by helping households improve efficiency, they may have got some populist traction. (This is all moot, of course, since the Coalition looks to be imploding over the issue.)

But really, this is fiddling around the edges, and you cannot 'sell' climate change to conservatives solely on risk mitigation grounds or on the economic opportunities climate change creates. The problem is that carbon trading and improving energy efficiency are both really hard, not just at the political level but for ordinary consumers and voters. And as Alex Evans says, most people would rather avoid the work:

The blockage we’re up against here is laziness, inertia and inconvenience on a large scale. Reducing emissions is a big hassle. We know this, because even though study after study shows that it’s essentially cheaper than free for people to insulate their lofts, they still don’t.

But we’re not just talking insulating lofts. We’re talking about changing the entire energy system – how you heat your home, how you get to work, how your power is generated, how it’s distributed from there to you. It’s like the hassle involved with changing your bank, times a hundred and forty seven.  If someone told you that the quid pro quo for incurring that much hassle was the creation of 12,000 new engineering jobs in the north-east of England, you would look at them and say, “So?” 

The “opportunity” argument just doesn’t stack up against the tedious, time-consuming, expensive, unglamorous reality that will be the transition to a low carbon economy – and I think we’re doing ourselves no favours in sticking with it.

I think we need to look seriously at the last time Brits were persuaded to take on this much hassle – namely rationing, during and after World War Two – and ask how they were won over. It wasn’t about opportunity. The arguments that got them to put up with it were not about how much healthier they’d be on their new diets (true though this was). Instead, they were persuaded by a story about personal sacrifice that would make them part of a heroic shared undertaking in the face of an existential threat. 

And even then, they moaned like hell.

Our problem now is that Brits, like other OECD consumers, don’t perceive an existential threat - just as their grandparents probably didn’t either (‘Phoney War’, anyone?) until they saw enemy planes overhead and the incendiaries started to fall.

So the default setting is that we’re also stuck waiting for incendiaries to fall: shocks, in other words, that are large enough to scare people, because right now those are the only things that will prompt us to get out of our fundamental un-seriousness about climate change.

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