Regretfully, it’s too late for ‘no-regrets’

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What’s the pathway for real sustainability following the Australian Election?

By Peter Burnett

Like many people, I was surprised by the win for conservative parties in the recent Australian election. I know there were lots of factors in play, but I thought that the extreme weather of last summer in particular had propelled climate change to the top of the political agenda, especially in the minds of young people, who were enrolled to vote in record numbers. I was reinforced in my views by much of the political commentary. Progressive parties seemed to have reached a similar conclusion, campaigning hard as they did on ambitious environmental policy platforms.

How wrong I was

Financial issues, especially proposed tax changes, appear to have weighed more on the minds of voters. The views of one young voter, who appeared on the television show ‘Q&A’ after the election, seemed to me to encapsulate the electoral mood. This voter commented that she was concerned by climate change (and also, she implied, by the expected opprobrium of her climate-voting cohort) but ultimately voted conservatively because of her concerns about the more immediate impacts of progressive party tax policies on her family.

While the election result could be attributed to various one-off factors, from an environmental perspective the underlying problem is that environment continues to be framed as an issue of progressive vs conservative, left vs right. Unless both sides pursue strong environmental policies then we cannot hope to sustain the policies necessary to avert the ‘dangerous climate change’ of the UN Climate Convention, let alone other disasters such as the loss of a million species predicted in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The divide over environmental policy was not part of the political landscape when environmental concerns first became prominent in the public consciousness in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rather, it emerged much later as vested interests, realising the implications of the policies necessary to counter environmental decline, pushed back hard, including by framing issues in terms of the ‘environment vs jobs’ dichotomy that reflects the dominant and still-powerful post-war paradigm, that of economic growth as progress.

A clash of paradigms

Can we return to bipartisanship? This would require a shift from a growth paradigm to one of sustainability. In pure policy terms the case for such a shift is clear: the growth paradigm became outdated around 50 years ago, when humans realised that the environment was a limited, rather than unlimited, resource. The sustainability paradigm that emerged in response rests on the recognition that we can only consume nature at the rate at which it renews itself. If we exceed that rate, we are headed for disaster.

In political terms however the case is far from clear. The growth paradigm is based on ‘growing the economic pie’ and gives a ‘win-win’ outcome: grow the pie and you grow every slice, including the slice constituted by government spending on the environment. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’, as they say.

The sustainability paradigm on the other hand gives a ‘win-lose’ outcome. If we consume to our hearts’ content, we court disaster at the expense of future generations (if not our future selves). If on the other hand we live within our environmental means, we do the right thing by future generations, but at the expense of constraining our own consumption, especially by those who do, or aspire to, consume a lot.

And who wants to give government a mandate to constrain consumption, unless convinced there is no other way to look after their children and grandchildren? Although this has been a logical conclusion to draw for over 50 years, this framing has yet to be adopted generally, in part because so many people have a vested interest in either clinging to the growth paradigm or watering down the sustainability paradigm.

This watered-down version of sustainability is that we can live within our means simply by using environmental resources efficiently, with the bonus outcome that efficient consumption will save us money. Another win-win, achieved for example by switching off lights in empty rooms. We might have got away with such an approach in 1969, but in 2019 it’s far too late for such a ‘no-regrets’ approaches.

It’s time (?)

I argued in an earlier blog that it will probably take a significant environmental crisis to generate the social consensus necessary to support a paradigm shift. I still hold that view, although there is at least one example of a country finding an easier path. In the period 2005-2009, the United Kingdom shifted from a bland incremental climate policy to an ambitious goal, enshrined in law, to an 80% cut in emissions, from a 1990 base, by 2050. There was no crisis, but a confluence of factors conducive to change.

The UK Government had commissioned the influential Stern Review, which argued the economic costs of not acting (Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out that climate change is the “greatest and widest‐ranging market failure ever seen”). Al Gore produced his influential documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (aimed at alerting the public to an increasing ‘planetary emergency’ due to global warming). And future Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to modernise the Conservative Party (then in Opposition) and actually beat the Government to the punch in opting for ambition. And the Global Financial Crisis gave the UK Government an opportunity to present ‘green economy’ measures as a major part of the solution to the crisis.

Whatever the precipitating event, we will only respond effectively to environmental issues when we abandon the growth paradigm in favour of one built around sustainability. If that happened, environmental policy would become much more like foreign policy: generally bipartisan because we are all in favour of Australia being a secure country able to pursue prosperity under an effective international rules-base order. If only Australia had a David Cameron or two (circa 2006 of course, not the Brexit David Cameron).

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay