The Emerging Politics of Climate Change

Published in Arena magazine (Melbourne) No.92, Dec-Jan 2007-08

One of the enduring puzzles about the political response to climate change is the polite behaviour of those who are most aware of the impending problems. For many years activists have undertaken well behaved demonstrations, eloquent public statements and respectable lobbying but little beyond this range of polite political action.

Up to a point, this has succeeded. Such actions have achieved a level of understanding about climate change which is remarkable. But the speed of change in public consciousness has been matched only by the speed of climate change itself and the escalation of the threat it poses.

The latest reports suggest that the changes are happening faster than predicted.

As a society we are sleep walking to disaster. The paradox was well expressed in a recent article in, of all places, the London Times. The columnist Camilla Cavendish reported that she mentioned to fellow journalists that she was planning to write another column on the latest alarming predictions that climate change was speeding up.

The responses of her colleagues was a collective groan. One summed it up by saying: 'If it was really bad, they'd do something'. The human tendency to convince yourself that everything is OK because no one else seems worried is deeply ingrained, said Cavendish.

Cavendish cited a famous study of 'bystander apathy'. Two psychologists placed students in a room and asked them to fill out answers to questionnaires. As they did so, smoke began to trail up from a vent. The room filled with smoke. While some left the room, few reported the 'fire' but most stayed put and continued to fill out the 'questionnaire'. In another experiment the psychologists placed actors in the room who continued to write as the room filled with smoke. The inactivity of a larger unconcerned group reassured the naive subjects. The likelihood of the subjects to report the fire decreased as the number of bystanders increased. Cavendish concluded: 'Our tendency to shrug off responsibility seems to hold true even when we ourselves are in danger …it is human nature to wait for someone to go first'.

Today we are all living in a global room in which wisps of smoke are rising from vents. Yet we feel a curious paralysis over climate change.

There are two reasons for this which immediately spring to mind. First, the social consequences of climate change are gradual in appearing and are not dramatic. So our protests tend to be polite. By contrast, in the struggle against racism in the 1960s and 70s, individuals actually put their lives on the line as they took the struggle right into heartlands of racism. In the US civil rights workers were murdered. In Australia at the same time, a busload of students headed for a racist country town was run off the road. But such risks were taken because the results of racism was dramatic and immediate. Similarly with the Vietnam war. In both instances polite protest was supplemented by dramatic, non-violent action and the combination action was politically effective.

This is not a pleas for mindless violence or counter productive adventurism on climate change. There is a fine line between dramatizing an issue and achieving the opposite. But so far, on climate change, we seem to have been excessively cautious, just like the scientists predictions on speed of change. This period may now be coming to an end.

The second reason for the paralysis is the enormity of the problem. If we follow through the logic of the IPCC reports we reach some startling conclusions about the nature of the changes needed in the future. In absolute terms we need to use a lot less energy derived from oil and coal. Just how that might be accomplished without massive social dislocation and deprivation is something which is often dismissed with an airy wave of the hand. But such problems will have to be confronted and the social and political consequences will be volatile and unprecedented. The battle to lower use of fossil fuel will cause social conflict and economic disruption.

The reason for this is diabolically simple. Once all the efficiencies that can be made, have been made, with new lightbulbs, solar hotwater, insulating homes etc, there are two major ways to lower use of fossil fuel. One is by regulation and one is by the market. The regulated road involves mandating that an increasing proportion of electricity must come from renewable sources. This would see the price of electricity rise dramatically. The market road involves directly raising the price of oil and gas dramatically. Given that every piece of technology that underpins out lifestyle is predicated on cheap energy and given that the price which people will pay is likely to be elastic, and given that we must reduce the absolute not relative level of fossil fuel consumption, then the cost of energy will need to be enormous. And just to add a final twist of complexity, when we talk about the price of energy we are talking about far, far more than what we pay at the petrol station, and in our electricity bills. Rather we are talking about the cost of everything that is produced and is transported using energy and that includes, well, just about everything, starting with food, clothing and shelter.

All of this is by way of responding to an article in a recent Arena by Geoff Sharp entitled 'The End of Growth, then what?' The above scenario crudely sketches a number of the problems which I see as defining much of the landscape of future progressive political struggle. Rather than the end of growth we face the end of cheap fossil fuel. What has been known until now as 'the environment crisis' will become the axis on which turns most politics in advanced industrial countries.

I foreshadowed this in Beyond Right and Left arguing that for a variety of reasons we have enter a new historical era. The old political ideas of Right and Left have been shown to have failed. For progressives this means trying to work out some new intellectual and moral basis for their politics. A set of values was needed, I suggested, rather than a new ideology. Such a new political framework has to confront the energized Right which has transformed itself in the last 20 years into a form of militant economic liberalism. Beyond Right and Left made a number of important points about the future of political ideas of which I want to emphasise two.

The first was that progressives need to give up the utopian idea that an entirely non capitalist society can be created. By capitalism I mean the irreducible elements of the operation of the market and the institution of private property. The attempts to construct an economy and society without private property and the market have failed (in the case of the USSR and its satellites) or survive in partial form, (China) only because society is ruled by a party nomenclature capable of extreme violence.

Geoff Sharp acerbically noted that I am happy to 'rub along with neo-liberalism' by which I can only presume he means capitalism, since one of the main targets of Beyond Right and Left was neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is libertarian form of capitalism which emphasises expansion, choice and self interest. It has proven very dynamic but its very economic success is revealing its fatal flaw.

The climate change crisis highlights this flaw. The economist and environmentalist David Korten argues that one of the key weaknesses of free market economics is that corporations can 'externalize' their costs. That is, they usually don't have to pay for, or face the consequences of the true cost of their operations. It is basic to market theory that the producer must bear all the costs of production and that these be included in the selling price of a commodity. But in fact, corporations constantly try to externalize their costs. They try to 'free ride':

'Externalized costs don't go away - they are simply ignored by those who benefit from making the decisions that result in others incurring the costs. For example when a forest products corporations obtains rights to clear-cut Forest Service land at giveaway prices and leaves behind a devastated habitat, the company reaps the immediate profit and the society bears the long term costs. When logging companies are contracted by the Mitsubishi Corporation to cut the forests of the Penan tribespeople of Sarawak, the corporation bears no cost for devastating native culture and ways of life.'

A similar situation exists when corporations pollute the world with carbon dioxide. The normal and legal expulsion of waste into the atmosphere that arises from petrol and diesel powered trucks and cars is an example of externalizing costs. In this case the price will be paid by some of us in old age and by our children and our grandchildren.

So rather than 'abolishing the market' we must find ways of putting a high 'market value' on resources. Their wasteful use and poor levels of recycling depend on there being a fresh supply of cheap resources on tap. When natural resources are more expensive, individual behaviour and corporate practices change. It becomes sensible to carefully re-use and to recycle resources. When the costs of climate change are calculated, renewable sources of energy become more 'economic'. But as we have seen this involves major costs to society. High priced resources will exacerbate differences in wealth and income. Part of the battle to force business and industry as well as consumers to adopt sustainable practices will involve battles around what some have called 'a just transition'.

In this context, progressives should call for equality of sacrifice. The collectivist and egalitarian values associated with socialism will acquire a new relevance in the emerging political situation.

The second point about rethinking progressive politics in the age of climate change is the need to think laterally and boldly about political ideas. One point which surprised many people was my argument in Beyond Right and Left that there were continuities between green ideas and forms of conservative values.

This insight began by acknowledging that problems of the global ecology have confound traditional progressive ideas of liberalism and socialism. Both rely on notions of material progress and expansion. On the other hand, certain kinds of conservative ideas prove useful.

These ideas are based on what I called 'conservation values'. Such values emphasise that the current inhabitants of the planet are stewards of the biosphere which is part of a heritage for succeeding generations of humans. This 'green' idea is actually a very old idea, expressed by conservative philosopher Edmund Burke's view that society involved a contract 'not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead and those to be born.' This is the opposite to the short term view of neo-liberalism which discards traditions of all kinds, including that of our environmental heritage. These kinds of 'conservation values' are also the kind of values nurtured by indigenous and pre-modern societies.

The conservation or 'green' values are found in neither liberalism nor socialism which have a shared view of endless progress in which no limits should be placed on the economy or on humans' needs. By contrast conservation values involve a recognition of limits and the concept of 'enough'. Conservatives prefer the 'sufficient to the superabundant', as Oakeshott said. The concept of 'enough' is an important assertion in the face of the radicalism of neo-liberal economics and its growth fetish.

The intersection of conservation and 'green' values with aspects of conservative philosophy is paradoxical yet it is a sign of the new times we live in. To be radical now is to want to conserve, in some sense.