Understanding the ideological divide of climate change

Published in the Australian Financial Review on 14 February, 2020. Australian politics is deeply fractured on climate change, the defining environmental issue of our age. We are more divided on this now than a decade ago, and much more divided than when the issue first emerged 30 years ago.

Central to this is energy policy where the left frame climate change as a cause, symbolised by aspirational emission targets and the iconography of renewables. Conservatives see energy as a service, prioritising cost and reliability, with emissions reduction acknowledged but subordinate to these primary functions.

This division isn’t new. It is simply a return to the decades old ideological brawl between the left and the right over the environment.

It is an antipathy built on deep distrust. At the extremes conservatives see the environment as a trojan horse for the radical left, hiding behind the veneer of sustainability to push their socialist ideology starting with big tax and spend governments.

The left see environmental harm as chronic, institutionalised vandalism by corporates and governments, who will always put profits ahead of managing the collective asset of the natural environment, a problem only solved by heavy regulation and public ownership of capital.

These extremes rage against and fuel each other. While held by a minority in the debate, they have continued to drag the two major parties away from the centre, where the solution actually lies.

Protecting the environment was a conservative idea. The first environmentalists were wealthy industrialists and benevolent patriarchs who established the conservation movement. Early Presidents of the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Conservation Foundation were Prince Phillip and Sir Garfield Barwick.

Environmentalism was radicalised in the 1960s and 70s, reflecting broader social changes at the time. Conservation was worthy, but it was too polite and only part of the problem.

The environment business model shifted from courting private money to inciting public outrage. This required campaigns built around creating conflict and then filming it.

Complex environmental problems were distilled into simple struggles between good and evil. By necessity there were villains, always villains: mining and resources companies, Japanese whaling fleets, the French Government.

When climate scientists started to report their concerns in the 1980s, they weren’t part of this political eco-system. Their warnings were taken on face value by Governments, who were initially over-confident of managing climate change, having just successfully ratified the Montreal Protocol to protect the hole in the ozone layer.

As a result climate change was at first uncontentious, a bi-partisan issue. Margaret Thatcher backed action in 1990, George W Bush ratified the initial United Nations agreement in 1992. In Australia the Coalition under Andrew Peacock and John Hewson supported significant emissions reductions.

It was only when governments moved to act on their commitments that things began to unravel. Cutting greenhouse emissions, as it turned out, was a much tougher proposition than cutting chlorofluorocarbons.

In 1993 a modest energy tax proposed by newly elected US President Bill Clinton was swiftly vetoed by his own Democrat controlled Congress. Two years later the Keating Government rejected a modest carbon tax because it would undermine its “no regrets” policy, which would only support emissions reductions that did not adversely impact the Australian economy.

The Howard Government simply continued this line of reasoning, but by then the full fury of the environment movement had swung in behind climate change. John Howard negotiated a soft emissions target at the international negotiations, launched modest support for renewable energy and waited for the world to move more decisively.

For their efforts Howard was demonised while Keating was made into a musical.

Ahead of the 2007 election and fuelled by the political fallout of the crippling Millennium Drought, both major parties moved with astonishing speed to outbid each other on climate policy.

For a moment it looked as if crisis had forged political consensus on the sensible middle path: a Treasury-led emissions trading system which harnessed the power of markets to drive urgent environmental reform.

But things that are quickly won are easily lost. The global climate consensus evaporated in the face of the global financial crisis. Governments around the world were painfully reminded of the political difficulty of prioritising long term environmental outcomes ahead of more immediate human interests.

This remains where Australia finds itself today. Both sides of Australian politics have abandoned the first-best, efficient centrist path and retreated to policy platforms which resonate with their respective bases.

Labor now plays the activist, casting climate change as a cause and pitting plucky renewables against evil coal and gas. It talks a big game of emissions and renewables targets, but its underlying policy platform is, at best, unconvincing and at worse, reckless.

Meanwhile the Coalition have returned to the “no regrets” narrative of jobs and lower power prices, while they kick the tyres on a new coal fired power station in Queensland to placate their hardest-liners.

Neither model is credible in isolation. The solution frustratingly lies between the two systems: a pragmatic approach to climate and energy that finds the cheapest way to cut emissions while avoiding undue economic harm. It sounds so simple.