Why can’t we agree on fixing the Environment?

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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.

Sustainability and ‘big government’

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A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change

By David Salt

Why do people deny climate change? Are they ignorant? Are they stupid?

I’m a science writer. I place great store in the scientific process and accept what the overwhelming majority of scientists say about climate change – that it is real and endangers all that I hold dear (including the wellbeing of my children).

But I’m also aware that many powerful people don’t accept the scientific evidence on climate change, and these people go out of their way to block meaningful engagement and action relating to it.

A case study in denialism

As one example, Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister of Australia (our most powerful elected office), recently told an international forum: “Certainly, no big change has accompanied the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past century from roughly 300 to roughly 400 parts per million or from 0.03 to 0.04 per cent. Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia, the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s. Sometimes, they do more damage but that’s because there’s more to destroy, not because their intensity has increased. More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”

Now Abbott is dead wrong about the two central points in this quote. Weather events are becoming more severe because of climate change, and sea levels are rising. There are vast quantities of empirical evidence from multiple studies demonstrating this. What’s more, there is a strong scientific consensus that the impacts of climate change will increase significantly as carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise.

And yet Abbott is far from alone in his beliefs, and many powerful people from the Conservative side of politics peddle the same set of falsehoods that prop up climate-change denialism.

Are they ignorant? As Prime Minister of Australia, Abbott had ready access to the world’s finest scientists; indeed many have gone out to their way to explain the science to him. He had at his fingertips the best knowledge around but has either chosen to ignore it or not engage with it.

Is he stupid? He was a Rhodes Scholar and made it to the top office in the land. He’s not stupid.

In any case, ignorance and stupidity are just two ‘excuses’ that might be invoked in an effort to explain the irrational situation of powerful people denying a demonstrable truth. Greed, vested interest and corruption might be other explanations, as might the ideas of sunk investments and system inertia. While each of these ‘justifications’ might apply in some situations, for me they simply don’t explain the entrenched visceral opposition to the idea that we need deep and concerted action to address climate change.

A core belief

As a younger man I believed in ‘rationality’ and common sense, and that a fact was a fact. The challenge of climate change (and sustainability) was simply a problem of information deficit. In other words, more information would eventually solve the problem.

As I matured, the evidence supporting climate change increased. The case for doing something became ever more compelling. But, rather than act on that evidence, political forces gathered to neutralize our capacity to deal with it. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, as one example, have been rising in recent years when our international commitment was to reduce them.

Better science and science communication is not working. Stupidity, ignorance and all the other possible reasons mentioned above play a role but for me they don’t explain the underlying force behind denialism.

And then I heard a talk by Naomi Oreske, a prominent science historian from the University of California (and co-author of the widely acclaimed book Merchants of Doubt) discuss the strategies of denialism. Whether it’s tobacco or ozone depletion or acid rain or pesticide regulation, the claims being made by deniers (she said) is always the same: extra regulation means an expansion of government and a constriction of freedoms – and this is an assault on Neoliberalism Conservative ideology which holds that big government is bad, markets are good and individuals should be free to maximize their wealth as they see fit.

As I reflected on this, it became crystal clear: the ‘idea’ of climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change).

And the longer I thought about it the more I was convinced that here is ‘good’ reason underpinning climate change denialism. That’s ‘good’ as in strong, deep and powerful, not as in virtuous or right.

Anathema

Our world view is the well spring of our identity, the thing that gives substance to our meaning and to what we hold as important. And our world view is the frame through which we interpret everything around us, and the information presented to us. If that information does not conform to our world view, we often ignore it or distort it so that it does. Indeed, psychology has often demonstrated that attacks on our core identities often make them stronger.

In any case, the argument that a Libertarian ideology lies at the core of climate denialism makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also my response to Peter’s reflection on sustainability being a Conservative idea.

Maybe Peter is right; maybe I am too. Our arguments are not mutually exclusive.

If we are right, however, it’s reasonable to suggest that effective policy for sustainability will necessarily involve an engagement with Conservative and neoliberal ideology on several fronts. At the very least it will involve presenting ideas on sustainability and global change that are framed in a manner that Conservatives will engage with.

Environmental sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

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In the face of a worsening global crisis, can’t we find some common ground?

By Peter Burnett

‘The Environment’ has been a major public concern for more than fifty years now. Surveys consistently place the environment among the issues of greatest social concern, while numerous scientific reports continue to document a general and ongoing environmental decline. What’s more, the effects of environmental decline are becoming increasingly obvious, not only through intense heat, drought and cyclones, but also as previously unknown phenomena such as multiple coral bleaching events and arctic wildfires.

With all this concern and things getting worse, you’d expect action, but paradoxically, having gained considerable momentum in earlier years, environmental policy seems to be moving more slowly as the problem worsens, like an icebreaker that slows and eventually becomes stuck as it moves further into the pack ice. Even the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which looked at the time like a significant breakthrough into more navigable policy waters, now looks to have been no more than a patch of thinner ice. Optimists can retain some hope because of growing indications that renewable energy technologies might mitigate climate change, despite policy efforts. Yet technology is much less likely to solve other dimensions of environmental decline, especially biodiversity loss. We still need good policy.

The greatest obstacle to progress on policy is the polarisation of political views on the environment. In modern discourse, we have become so used to associating environmental concern with the political Left that we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for the environment, especially when seen through a sustainability lens, is actually a fundamentally conservative idea. Perhaps navigable policy waters can be found in the roots of environmental concern, among older notions of what we would now describe as environmental sustainability.

Good husbandry

Concerns about human impacts on the environment go back to antiquity. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato compared the denuded hills of Attica to bleached skeletons, while just over 2,000 years ago the Roman writer Columella lamented the depletion of agricultural land on the Italian peninsula.

Searching for a solution, he argued the need to maintain the ‘everlasting youth’ of the Earth through good husbandry. This is as clear a definition of sustainability as any you’ll find today.

In the early modern era, the roots of sustainability can be traced to the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and his theories of private property. Locke argued that by investing their labour in harvesting goods from nature, individuals gained the right to regard them as private property. But he attached a proviso to this. The right to convert natural goods into private property would apply only where there was enough left in common for others, in good condition. This provides another good framing for sustainability.

In usufruct to the living

In the eighteenth century, the French Revolution prompted Thomas Jefferson to reflect on the rights of the present generation to bind those coming after, leading him to argue that ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’. This was a reference to the Roman civil law concept of ususfructus, which was the right to use the land and take produce, without impairing its capacity to produce. (This is not old hat. Margaret Thatcher made much the same argument in her famous statement to the 1998 British Conservative Party conference that no generation has a ‘freehold’ on the earth: ‘All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.’ )

Early sustainability concerns were not just philosophical reflections. Wood shortages affected a number of European countries in the early modern era. In 18th century this prompted discussion in German forestry circles on how to use natural resources in the interests of present and future generations, leading Von Carlowitz to propose a principle of nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use). This implied the need to keep the harvesting of trees within rates of regrowth.

Two centuries later, in 1908, US President Theodore Roosevelt, riding the Progressive Era tide of public interest in conservation, established a National Conservation Commission, which then made the first survey of the natural resources of the United States. Even into the early years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ of economic growth after World War II, the economist Ciriacy-Wantrup was arguing that we shouldn’t run nature down because the cost of restoring it would be unacceptably high.

Society is a contract…

None of these arguments is even slightly suggestive of what might be described today as a ‘Green Left agenda’. In fact, you could argue that conservatives were all over this issue more than a century ago. What is common to the arguments is an express or implied concern for the future, especially a social obligation to future generations. This is entirely consistent with the argument of another conservative, British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, that ‘Society is a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born’. This concern is also the essence of ‘intergenerational equity’, the principle underlying the modern ideal of environmental sustainability.

With broad support for environmental causes on the Left, and with the strong conservative pedigree of sustainability, why isn’t there bipartisan support for policies to keep the environment in good condition for future generations?