‘What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia’ by Waleed Aly Quarterly Essay 37, March 2010
The following extract is a very interesting and insightful discussion of the politics of climate change in Australia. You won’t find this extract on any website because QE does not do digital publishing, even for subscribers. So enjoy the privilege! Some thumbnail definitions of the political labels used by Aly are provided for your assistance. But the whole essay is well worth reading, buy it from your local bookshop or newsagent.
Nineteenth century Millsian liberalism sought to protect the individual from the persecution of society. The role of the law and of government was therefore not to impose a majority will, but to ensure the liberty of the individual. Millsian liberalism was progressive in the sense that it sought to improve the human condition, but like Burkian conservatism it did not accept the right of a person or a policy to impose radical utopian designs on society.
The laws, governance structures and institutions of the West have long since evolved to embody the principles of liberalism. Once liberalism itself became institutionally customary and traditional, conservatives embraced it. Liberal conservatism is associated with a range of ideas anchored in the priority given to individual liberty-including most famously, a firm belief in free enterprise, low taxation and small government. For liberal conservatism, the citizenry is a collection of individuals, not groups.
Neo-liberalism is neo for a reason: it is derivative from liberalism but importantly distinct. Neo-liberalism conceives of society entirely through the lens of the market. The market therefore becomes far more than an economic concept: it becomes an organising principle for politics and society. In a market society, things obtain value only once they are commodified, because they do not have an inherent cultural or ethical value, as tradition might have had it.
Within this framework, it makes no sense to ask what should be done about the market’s negative consequences. By definition, there are none. Everything from heightened inequality to environmental degradation is to be tolerated in a neo-liberal world because neo-liberalism lacks any vigorous means of critiquing its own consequences.
Neo-liberalism is a thoroughly progressive political ideology. It is above all a prescription for freedom; it promises ongoing economic growth and unending social change to create a world of perfect individual liberty. Government interference in the economy is an evil because it is the road to serfdom, not merely because it hampers economic growth.
Modern conservative politics is bedevilled by a philosophical inconsistency. Having unleashed the radically transformative power of the free market, the defenders of tradition have become the apologists for radical change. But rather than vacate the social realm as neo-liberalism would have them do, conservatives have attempted the opposite. In a vain attempt to restore the balance, conservatives have resorted to a new and strident brand of cultural politics that is not truly conservative but nostalgic: a pining for past social stability and coherence that is no longer feasible. In Australia this cultural politics embraces “culture wars”, Anzac nationalism, “history wars”, values talk and border protection. This modern brand of cultural politics is belligerent and rhetorically clear, but it is not ideologically consistent, because it is impossible to reconcile neo-liberalism with traditional conservatism. It is neo-conservatism, and its seminal exponent was John Howard.
In the mid1970s arch US neo-conservative and former Trotskyist Irving Kristol warned of a creeping “new class” whose members are “not much interested in money but keenly interested in power”, specifically “the power to shape our civilisation-a power which, in a capitalist system, is supposed to reside in the free market. The ‘new class’ wants to see much of this power redistributed to government where they will then have a major say in how it is exercised.” This “new class” consists of “a goodly proportion of those college-educated people,” namely “scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of larger foundations, the upper levels of government bureaucracy.”
CLIMATE CHANGE: A FIGHT TO THE POLITICAL DEATH
At first blush, climate change might seem to be the kind of issue that is ideologically neutral. It is, after all, a matter of scientific determination, not political persuasion. It is not about theories of human society, but observation of natural phenomena. That, of course, is a misleading portrait. As it happens, climate change is the most ideologically charged issue we are likely to witness for generations.
Let us admit up-front the most obvious, but resolutely denied, fact of the climate change debate. It is not, for many of its participants, about science at all. That goes for those who want action as much as those who deny climate change exists. Unless we ourselves are climatologists, the truth, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is that none of us really has any idea about climate science. We are unlikely to have pored over the refereed journals where the scientific debates take place. Even if we have, we are very unlikely to have been able to understand them. We might cite statistics, and the conclusions of scientific reports, but we lack the intellectual tools to evaluate them. For those who accept climate change as a real and present danger that demands political action, this is not much of a problem. The overwhelming weight of information available to the public suggests that a very large majority of climate scientists are so convinced of the reality and danger of climate change that they are now more concerned with how bad the problem is, than whether it exists. True, that information is filtered through media-as most public information is-but climate believers are prepared to accept what appears to be the conventional wisdom among those best placed to know. They cannot honestly claim to know the veracity of climate change for themselves, but they are happy to delegate this task to climate scientists,, and to rely on the media to transmit their findings. In this way, there is a clear parallel with the scientific consensus on the theory of evolution. Most people cannot honestly claim sufficient scientific knowledge to adjudicate on the issue independently, but since almost every scientist seems to subscribe to the theory, they accept it.
There is nothing particularly unusual about this. In fact, we take this approach to most issues in life of which we do not have direct knowledge. Most of us do not, for instance, have any way to measure inflation or unemployment-we rely instead on economists to measure these things and tell us. Then, we almost never read their reports, instead placing our trust in media reports that give us the figures. Without delegating this sort of information-gathering, we would simply be unable to live our lives.
For those who deny climate change (or describe themselves as “skeptics”), problems arise. The overwhelming scientific consensus projected through mass media means they have two choices if they wish to maintain their denial: 1) they can find a scientist they consider to be authoritative who espouses their view; or 2) they can attempt to engage directly with the science and make their own judgement. Often they do both, appealing to the authority of a particular scientist and attempting to argue their case from the scientific data directly. The first approach, at least, is a more honest one. The second is comically dishonest. Few things are more absurd to witness than a blogger, journalist or pundit who is not a scientist attempting to make the scientific argument against climate change. The very endeavour is deceitful because it represents to the world that the denier has the scientific skills necessary to interpret the data, when this is almost certainly not true. Science is not simply the production of data. It is the discipline of being able to discern which data are relevant, which data are reliable, and then of knowing how to interpret them. These are not skills available to just any internet junkie.
The option of appealing to the authority of a scientist who denies climate change may be more honest, but it raises conundrums of its own. Why accept the word of a scientist who appears to be in a very small minority? Certainly, it is possible for a majority of scientists to be wrong, and for a minority to triumph in the long run, but on what basis can the layman be confident that that is true in this case? Here again, the climate-change denier has two options: 1) to argue that the relevant scientist is in fact not in the minority-or at least not a small one; or 2) to argue that the majority of scientists are in fact lying. Either view is almost inevitably conspiratorial. The first argument implies that the media have(probably deliberately) misled their audiences as to the true state of scientific opinion, and that all scientists given the task of assessing the issue for governments around the world as well as the United Nations are chosen because they comply with climate-change orthodoxy. The second argument raises an obvious question: why would these scientists be lying? Presumably it is because they are ideologically driven or they derive some other benefit from lying. Perhaps they are being bribed, or they are seeking the favour of people in power. Either way, this argument rests on a conspiracy theory that climate change is an ideological construction.
That sort of view echoes very closely the neo-conservative idea of a “new class”: the leftist elite identified by Irving Kristol that is after the power to remake our civilisation. Scientists, you will recall, were among this new class. It is therefore entirely plausible within this worldview that they would approach their scientific work with the ideological ambition of increasing the size of government and imposing their orthodoxy on the world. The science of climate change fits the bill perfectly: it implies an increased role for government that must intervene in the workings of the market to limit environmental damage.
Of course, it is possible that climate-change activists are motivated more by their ideological commitments than by their trust in the scientific consensus. It is conceivable that staunch opponents of capitalism may leap on the opportunity climate change provides to argue for the destruction of the market’s political dominance. But it is also conceivable-and probably much more common-for climate-change believers to take their position based on trust in what they perceive to be conventional wisdom. Climate-change denialism on the part of non-scientists, by contrast, is always an ideological or an emotional process. The intellectual lengths required to sustain it are only feasible for those who have pre-existing reasons for wanting to deny it. That may be because its implications are devastating for one’s present livelihood-as might presently be true of certain farmers, or people working in high-emissions industries-in which case the response is probably emotional. Or it might be because it counters one’s deeply held views of the world, in which case the response is ideological. Here again we have an echo with anti-evolutionism, which is often the position of non-scientists who see evolution as a threat to their religious convictions. In each case, it is a result-orientated approach to the issue. It begins with the position (denying the apparent scientific consensus), and then looks for ways of supporting it.
This is crucial to understand in making sense of conservative and neo-conservative responses to climate change. Neo-conservative politics is far more compatible with climate-change denial than with its acceptance. Denial quenches the neo-conservative thirst for an enemy elite, dividing the world once more into friends and enemies, and turning the discussion into an ideological contest. But most importantly, it allows neo-conservatives to retain their ideological fidelity to neo-liberalism, concealing the fundamental contradiction between the two things. The simple fact is that neo-liberalism is incompatible with the politics of climate-change response. In order for neo-liberalism to be preserved, climate change must, in the first instance, be denied.
The reasons for this are easily deducible from the central neo-liberal idea that the market is not simply a means for generating and distributing wealth in society: it is a social and political rationality. As noted above, this implies that the market itself is the arbiter of political value, and that accordingly its consequences cannot be deemed unjust or negative in any meaningful sense. Hayek himself noted fleetingly the possibility of environmental degradation from the operation of the market, but apparently considered it unimportant. It is this sort of thinking that drove Reagan’s decision to cut the funding of the Environmental Protection Agency and reject that agency’s proposals to counter the environmental concern of the day, acid rain. Reagan simply thought acid rain was unimportant, and saw this environmental agenda as an additional restraint on industry. And in the kind of neo-liberal and neo-conservative fashion that is now extremely familiar, Reagan doubted the scientific evidence that suggested acid rain was caused by pollution from American industry. It is noteworthy that Reagan’s attitude towards ozone-layer depletion was more environmentally active, but then the economics were very different, too. American companies were further advanced in developing alternatives to CFCs than their European competitors, and so they stood to benefit handsomely from a global agreement to reduce CFC production. In each case, the decision appears not to have been made on environmental grounds.
The problem for neo-liberalism is that climate change, as articulated by the scientists that warn us about it, is so self-evidently catastrophic that it simply cannot be dismissed as unimportant. Similarly, if its ultimate cause is carbon emissions-overwhelmingly from untrammelled industry-then it becomes impossible to sustain the neo-liberal position that the market’s consequences should simply be accepted rather than regulated. The rendering uninhabitable of much of the planet just cannot be theorised away in this manner. That leaves neo-liberals with only the option of denial. That denial takes two main forms. The first is outright denial of climate change as a phenomenon, where arguments are put that the planet is actually cooling rather than warming, contrary to what climate-change orthodoxy tells us. The second form of denial accepts that climate change is occurring but argues that it is simply the natural process of climate variability that we have seen throughout the planet’s history, and that-most importantly-it is not the result of human activity. The market is thereby exonerated, and neo-liberalism can remain intact.
There is much at stake here. Climate change presents more than a political challenge for neo-liberalism; it threatens to invalidate it. In this respect it is an even a greater threat than the global financial crisis, because it is still open to neo-liberals to claim that the problem in that case was that neo-liberalism was not applied with sufficient rigour. That is a less plausible argument on climate change. The battle over the truth of climate-change science is therefore a political fight to the death for neo-liberalism. In ideological terms it is similar to the Cold War, with one important exception: there is no clear, distinct and unified ideological opponent akin to communism.
That is where neo-conservatism becomes so important to climate denialism. It constructs the ideological foe that is needed to sustain the fight. Against this background, it is wholly unsurprising to recall Senator Nick Minchin’s deeply ideological take on the issue:
For the extreme Left it provides the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the Western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the Left, and the, and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.
A clearer expression of the neo-liberal neo-conservative faith is difficult to find. Climate change is basically a conspiracy of the “new class”. It is the continuation of communism by other means, the reignition of the Cold War. The natural consequence for Minchin-one of the Liberal Party’s most neo-liberal members-is that he cannot accept the reality of climate change without losing the ideological war he has constructed. Environmentalism simply must be the fringe ideology of the Cold War’s vanquished combatants. Any chance that the environment might become a mainstream issue-particularly where it suggests the curtailment of capitalism-shakes the very foundation of Minchin’s worldview. Minchin is not alone in his dystopian vision. On his recent tour of Australia, the celebrity sceptic and former Thatcher adviser Lord Christopher Monckton played to a similar theme, warning that accepting climate change would place us at the mercy of a huge army of new bureaucracies to enforce the will of those whom you do not elect on those whom you do. And this is what they were going to be given the power to do: to take control over all formerly free markets and set the market rules. So control or to rig the market.
By the time Monckton had described climate-change protestors at Copenhagen as “Hitler Youth”, it had become clear that this was not a matter of life or death of the planet. For such ideologues, it is much more important than that.
This helps explain why it is that a person’s position on climate change can be predicted with quite remarkable accuracy from the seemingly unrelated matter of their social politics. I cannot claim to have surveyed the Australian commentariat comprehensively, but I cannot immediately think of a single columnist or broadcaster who spruiked Howard’s neo-conservative cultural politics and who is not also a climate-change denier or sceptic. If such a person exists, he or she is certainly in a very small minority. A brief survey of the Liberal Party politicians so angered by the ETS includes a striking number of those with something approximating neo-conservative cultural politics: Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz, Sophie Mirabella, Cory Bernardi, Bronwyn Bishop, Nick Minchin, Tony Abbott (though Abbott is a more complex character than the others), Wilson Tuckey (although he is always a unique case) and before the latest showdown, Brendan Nelson. By contrast, the ETS-friendly Liberals seem overwhelmingly to be those whose cultural politics differ from those of Howard: Malcolm Turnbull, Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey, Judith Troeth, George Brandis, Greg Hunt. John Howard himself did finally propose an ETS before the 2007 election, but it was a hasty concoction. He had held out as long as possible until he saw the political inevitability. The correlation, even if not necessarily complete, is certainly strong enough to suggest there is an ideological continuity at work here.
The split is truly remarkable when one considers exactly what the proposed ETS was. It was scarcely a green manifesto, and indeed was clearly vulnerable to attack on environmental grounds. It gave large wads of compensation to the nation’s biggest polluters, and was tied to modest emissions reduction targets-less than those demanded by the scientific orthodoxy. Most fundamentally, though, it was a market-based solution to the problem. In this respect it is about as close as neo-liberalism can get to mustering a response. Indeed, it is a testament to the ideological dominance of neo-liberalism that this is the approach the Labor government favoured. There are several other ways one might choose to respond to climate change. The simplest, and probably the most effective, would be to introduce a carbon tax. An approach that gives radical priority to the environment over industry would use regulation to make certain levels of emission illegal. Only someone in debt to the logic of neo-liberalism would conceive of responding by creating a new market, this time in what are essentially pollution permits. It provides entrepreneurs with the chance to make money from climate-change policy in a way that neither a carbon tax nor regulation does. It also keeps intact the narrative of a market society. If ever a climate-change response was going to be acceptable to a neo-liberal, this was it.
Moreover, it had been negotiated under Turnbull to reduce the economic shock its implementation might have. This gave it some important conservative credentials. With polling consistently showing that a significant majority of the electorate wants action on climate change, and with international politics stumbling ineptly towards some kind of action, it could well be argued that some kind of climate-change policy, at least in Australia, is inevitable. The political implications were clear enough to Malcolm Turnbull to declare that a Coalition without a climate-change policy would be wiped out in the next election. Even the new Liberal Party leadership, built on the support of climate-change denialists and sceptics, seems tacitly to have accepted that assessment, with Tony Abbott pledging immediately on taking the leadership that the Liberal Party would develop an effective policy, but that it would not be an ETS or a new tax. Given these facts on the ground, it is entirely open to a conservative to adopt Arthur Balfour’s pragmatic dictum that there is “no point in resisting what [is] bound to come.” The role of the conservative, then, would be to minimise the impact of the change. Surely that is precisely what Turnbull attempted to do by negotiating an ETS with the Labor government that enraged environmentalists but reduced the economic disruption inherent in Labor’s original bill.
The result has been perverse. Initially we had the spectacle of Tony Abbott considering a climate-change response through regulation. This is probably the most radical option for tackling climate change that exists. It is the kind of thing a progressive does. It is certainly no neo-liberal, although Abbott has long established his neo-liberal credentials and quickly found himself talking up the prospect of reintroducing elements of Work Choices. Then, upon the resumption of parliament, Abbott’s Coalition released a climate-change policy that permits industry to continue with “business as usual” without any increased costs at all. Detail is scant, but it seems the policy is tied not to emissions but to what Abbott has called “emissions intensity.” The difference is crucial. “Emissions” denotes an environmental concept concerned that concerned with absolute environmental impact. “Emissions intensity” is an economic concept that considers the rate of emissions against productivity. Accordingly, emissions may continue to rise while emissions intensity remains constant. The Coalition’s policy, then, could see an increase in emissions without consequence, provided those increased emissions occur in line with “business as usual.” Only where polluters increase their emissions intensity will they be penalised, and to date there is no detail on how severe those penalties would be-or even if they would outweigh the increased profits pollution might bring. We know only that these penalties will be set in consultation with industry and that they are “only expected to apply in exceptional circumstances.”
That all sounds resoundingly neo-liberal because it makes sacred the market’s “business as usual” operations. But consider that under this policy, industry may apply for grants from an Emissions Reduction Fund for projects that reduce emissions. Here it is the State that becomes the arbiter of which projects get funded, and (presumably) it is the taxpayer who funds it. On this point, the Coalition’s policy is one of central planning. Abbott has managed to conjure a policy that, depending on which aspect one considers, is both more and less neo-liberal than an ETS, which is to say it is philosophically inconsistent. It is difficult to know what to make of this in assessing the implications for conservatism’s future direction, or indeed whether we should take it seriously enough to analyse it in ideological terms at all. Abbott’s own position on climate change seems to be one of high scepticism, and probably denial. His policy appears to be a gesture to those in his party and the electorate who are demanding some sort of action, but one which does not offend the denialists that make up his support base. Asked why he would propose a solution for a problem that he does not believe exists, Abbott responded by saying he did not wish to impose his view of the issue on the entire nation: that is, this is an exercise in symbolic politics on the basis that Abbott recognises the need to be seen to be doing something. At this point Abbott’s divergent messages seem merely to express the state of ideological confusion in which the Liberal Party presently finds itself.