Why can’t we agree on fixing the Environment?

Of tribalism and short-termism, and other diabolical drivers of disagreement

By Peter Burnett

There are strong arguments that looking after the environment is as much a conservative idea as a progressive one. Since most on the political Left also support pro-environment policies, why then can’t we get bipartisanship on the environment?’

Some believe there is a Conservative fundamentalism that is so wedded to the free market and opposed to ‘big government’ that, when confronted with a global problem requiring a collective response, such as climate change, they’d rather deny the facts than accept any form of collectivism.

Free market fundamentalism is not the only factor pushing politicians on the Right in particular (although not exclusively on the Right) to oppose substantive action on the environment.

The major parties of the political Left and the Right are really coalitions of groups with overlapping world views. Labor is a coalition of unionised labour and social progressives, while the Coalition includes ‘small l’ liberals, social conservatives, free market fundamentalists, regional interests and even libertarians. Different pressures have more or less traction with different groups within these coalitions and some of these pressures combine to drive opposition to comprehensive action on the environment.

I’ve tried to describe some of these drivers below. As all of them are socially undesirable, I’ve also included suggestions (potential solutions) for how society might weaken their influence.

Vested interests

Politics is resource-intensive. Politicians need to get their messages to voters, but mass media advertising is costly. Both old fashioned approaches such as door-knocking, and modern social media are low-cost, but using them (legitimately) is still resource-intensive and volunteers are scarcer than ever. We have public funding for elections, but it’s not enough. As a result, politicians are dependent on campaign donations, especially large ones from big business and other vested interests. This makes the politicians beholden to these donors.

Solution: Full public funding of elections and more transparency about who’s influencing whom; eg, making ministerial diaries public (currently this is done only in Queensland and NSW).

Tribalism

We live in a time of declining support for traditional institutions and values, and increasing polarisation. Social values are now more diverse, relative and fluid: your truth is as good as mine and people are not ‘rusted on’ any more. As a result, coalitions of support in politics are based less on ideological commitment and more on loyalties. These loyalties are more personal and thus less amenable to compromise. People are more likely to defend positions because they are loyal to, or face pressures from, members of their political tribe. In the environmental sphere, this polarisation has been exacerbated by the rise of Green parties and the resulting association of the environment with them as a Left, even far Left, issue. The Greens are seen by many on the Right as extreme and their ideas not to be associated with, reinforcing the tribalism.

Because tribalism is driven by interests more than values, it can seem irrational when viewed through a policy lens. On the Left, it might mean, for example, propping up an uneconomic industry in preference to facilitating industry restructuring, driven by loyalty to unions and existing workers. On the Right, it might mean opposing a price on carbon in the face of any amount of advice from economists that this is the most economically efficient response to climate change, driven by loyalty to business interests.

Solution: seek to mobilise public opinion to override tribal loyalties. Of course this is more easily said than done. ‘Get Up’ may an example of doing this, although some argue that it is really an arm of the Labor Party. Transparency measures will help here too.

Short-termism

Another problem is short-termism, the constant focus of governments on the next election, which is never far off under three year terms. Short-termism tends to squeeze out any good policy which has a political downside, which includes most things environmental.

This problem is exacerbated by careerism, the modern political phenomenon of pursuing politics as a career straight out of university, rather than starting later in life, after a successful career in the real world (including in trades and the many other careers that don’t call for tertiary education). The result is to increase the incentive for politicians to place their political careers ahead of everything else because, politics aside, they have mortgages and no other experience to fall back on.

The result of all this is a major disjunct: most environmental issues involve short term pain for long term gain, while politicians seeking election crave short term gain, even at the expense long term pain (for others). Their priority is to dispense the sugar hit to win votes, and to sweep the structural issues under the carpet. This will encourage, for example, small one-off environmental grants while discouraging major reforms such as carbon pricing.

Solution: longer Parliamentary terms and independent institutions, one to monitor and report on the environment over the long term and another to provide deep policy analysis and advice on environmental sustainability, as the Productivity Commission does for the economy.

Diabolical drivers of disagreement

At the end of the day, despite the availability of mitigating reforms, the tribalism of modern politics seems entrenched. In the current political culture, a pro-environment coalition of conservatives and progressives is fanciful, despite the underlying common ground.

I think it will take an environmental crisis, and a very large one at that, to change that culture. I’d love to be wrong.

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