Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Climate Change and a new Conservatism

I have elsewhere addressed commentary that focuses on the idea of need for reform as if it were an end in itself, and in particular the idea that the reform needed was more "microeconomic" reform.

In an earlier piece I labelled the NBN and addressing climate change as great Gillard reforms.

Today Shaun Carney writing for the Fairfax press declares a wider death of the "reform era" and hence the struggle that Gillard will face. In doing so he notes the incredible shift in support over the last four years on the proposition of a price on carbon.

Today I want to suggest we need some clarity of language to discuss the issue, and then see how various campaigners operate in this space.

The first language to define are the three policy stances of "reactionary", "conservative" and "progressive". These are all stances in the way policy should respond to change, and hence how policy should respond.

A reactionary believes that the new changes and problems we face are due to errors in our earlier responses and hence seeks a return to an earlier policy. Work Choices can be fairly described as reactionary - based as it was on the H R Nicholls society and its fixation on the Harvester judgement.

A conservative believes that the new changes and problems we face are possibly transitory, certainly not as great a threat as imagined and that things will sort themselves out. A neo-liberal faith in markets can be seen as a mark of a conservative, they might acknowledge a crisis but that it is better to let the market work through the problem than to intervene.

A progressive believes that the new changes and problems we face require new solutions and that good public policy is made by rapid and targeted response. The words attributed to Keynes "When the facts change, I change my mind" typify this approach. The embrace of competition policy and free trade in the 1980s was progressive not reactionary, as the kind of market envisioned had not existed before.

These three terms actually define different concepts than the concepts of Right and Left. These terms more correctly refer to the policy position taken on the issue of equity. The Left are typically the champions of "social justice", a desire for which leads to calls for greater intervention by the state in the organisation of economic affairs.

Given that the starting point for modern western political philosophy was first a feudal system and then an imperial system, the political Right has historically been made up of reactionaries and conservatives, while the Left in advocating change is progressive.

The importance of the distinction can perhaps be seen in the politics of climate change. The move to put a price on carbon is politically right not left biased - because the "efficiency of markets" is antithetical to equity. It is however progressive.

The response of many environmentalists is a call for less energy consumption - a simpler life, embracing permaculture, home veggie patches and local markets. This looks largely a policy of the Left in that it focuses on equity, but it is also reactionary - it harks back to "simpler times".

The third kind of response is the conservative response. That can range from Nick Minchin's view that there is no problem (it is all a Left conspiracy) or that action by us alone is insufficient (a kind of Left argument that action by us is inequitable).

Where politics gets interesting is how the three strands of reaction, conservatism and progress interact. The development of democracy in the UK offers many great examples of how strange coalitions formed between the three groups - which often coincided with the interests of aristocracy, the middle class and the workers.

The significance now of this analysis is the claim of Carney that we face a new conservatism. It is my contention that what we are seeing is the use of a well-worn playbook from the conservatives on this issue.

The best prior example to look at was simply the republic debate. In the early phases of the push for a republic the conservatives demanded the progressives be specific about their model before they were prepared to debate it. Once a model was chosen the conservatives successfully attacked the model because it was conservative - the attack on "the politician's republic" ignored the fact that it modelled the reality of how Governor-Generals are already chosen.

In the climate change debate the conservative response really did wait for the firm proposals to emerge before reacting. In the process they allowed those wanting change free range to express their different stances. Those stances range all the way from the most market oriented (emissions trading) through carbon tax through various levels of non-market "direct action" proposals. A strand of the Left favours direct action. The Greens actually sank the Rudd ETS because they don't trust the market mechanism. This week we still saw a respected competition commentator adopting the Left anti-market view.

While allowing the progressives to diverge, the conservatives have taken up the cudgels to question the need for action. First there are the attacks on the principle that there is climate change, or if there is that it is man made.

The Fairfax press gave sceptic Bob carter two cracks at this recently.

These attacks do highlight an error of the hubris of the scientists - a detailed debate about actual warming is the wrong debate. The discussion needs to be that if the theory is right, by the time temperature changes become significant enough to be conclusive proof the opportunity for all action will be over. That is that conservatism as a philosophy needs to be attacked, we simply can't risk waiting to see.

Carter does try to attack the underlying theory, but as Sou notes this is where he fails. But there are still too few people making defences like this one rather than simple abuse.

As a last crazy act the conservatives are embracing the Left policy of direct action - but only for the reason identified by Malcolm Turnbull. Direct action is the easiest policy to unpick, it is progress that permits future reaction.

The Australian public has not become more conservative, it is just that they understand more about convincing the public and playing to their base fears. Declaring loudly that "the science proves it" doesn't cut it in a world where many don't "believe in evolution", where the health risk of mobile phones is assessed using the logic "I have cancer, I used a mobile phone, therefore my phone caused my cancer".

The progressives need to repeat the fact that by the time the evidence on climate change becomes irrefutably conclusive it will be too late.

When the standard of scientific debate is to assert that because CO2 is a colourless odourless gas it cannot be poisonous you need to use more than just science to win.

Finally, the ALP finds this a particular challenge since it hasn't tried to market a philosophical stance for about thirty years!

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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