The carbon tax debate heats up

bray_thumbDr Daniel Bray



This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 3 March 2011.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of a carbon tax has unleashed another round in the climate change fight, this time with the added complications of minority government.

With the Labor government on a knife-edge, the politics of climate change will be fought in survival mode and a dual position in the national interest seems as distant as ever.

US Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton’s visit late last year was an important reminder of the largely bipartisan nature of security policy in Australia. Despite backbench rumblings from time to time, Labor and the Coalition have agreed that the US relationship is far too important for national security to be used as a political football. On climate change, however, an issue at least as important for Australia’s long-term security, the political debate is riven with partisan trench-warfare. The  stalemate is damaging to Australia’s national interest and cannot be allowed to continue.

Given the long-standing scientific consensus, why is climate change an unreasoning issue? Last year, a Newspoll found that 80 per cent of Labor supporters and 62 per cent of Coalition supporters believed that climate change is occurring and more than 90 per cent of these respondents from both camps believed it was at least partially caused by human activity.
In addition, many sections of business community see a carbon price as inevitable and are calling for quick and decisive action to provide long-term investment certainty. This is hardly the basis for the political partisanship we see in Parliament today.

Clearly, the politics of climate change in Australia centre on doubts about the science and the role of lobbyists from carbon-intensive industries in reinforcing these doubts in the minds of citizens and parliamentarians. But these factors cannot in themselves explain the partisan nature of the debate or, specifically, why the sceptical position is more prominent on the conservative side of politics.

To explain, we need to look at the ideological width of climate change politics. Progressives of all kinds see climate change as a market failure that must be remedied through state measures to transform society. Conservatives, in contrast, oppose any enhanced role for government in managing and implementing solutions that threaten traditional values.
In these terms, the policy divide between Labor’s market mechanism and the Coalition’s strategy of government intervention might seem bizarre. But these policies are in fact consistent with their established ideological commitments.

Let me explain. Against the instincts of the political left, the Labor policy announced last week uses the state apparatus to incrementally set up an emissions trading scheme. Negotiations will continue with the Greens, who have criticised previous policies for having inadequate targets and being overly generous to carbon polluters. But the joint announcement with Greens leader Bob Brown suggests that the basic idea of a market-based mechanism has been accepted by the key players needed to secure the legislation’s passage.  This is an important signal in building broader political consensus in Parliament and among key interests in civil society.

Conservatives are suspicious of climate science because accepting the consensus implies advocating social changes they are inclined to resist.These suspicions are heightened when climate change is perceived as a cover for socialist and green agendas. As such, the Coalition is resisting the implementation of a new mechanism that would radically transform the economy as a whole; they want to avoid a ‘‘great big new tax on everything’’. The emphasis is instead placed on technical fixes funded through recurrent government revenue that do not disrupt the existing social and economic order.

What are the prospects of the major parties overcoming these ideological differences and forming a bipartisan position in the national interest? The answer lies in the development of a conservative argument for climate change action. According to British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, the conservative disposition is to ‘‘prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to misery, the actual to the possible’’. The conservative position is, therefore, to limit the amount of climate change and its disruption to society through rational policy-making based on the facts.

This means climate policy should be developed according to the traditional rules and methods of scientific truth-seeking. It means that policy should be based on the established truths that emerge from these inquires rather than marginal contrarian views or the idealistic dreams of left-wing opponents. It means being risk-averse in times of uncertainty by taking out insurance against the possibility of catastrophic events.

As the 2008 Garnaut Report pointed out, this policy prudence is evident in defence spending, which absorbs several percentage points of gross domestic product each year  as insurance against relatively low probability threats such as war between states.

With the potential for widespread economic disruption as a result of increasingly frequent natural disasters, geopolitical instability in our region, and the mass movement of environmental refugees, climate change is a long-term security issue that will only increase in significance.

The time has come for both major parties to look beyond their short-term political horizons and begin to forge a bipartisan position in the national interest. Climate change mitigation is simply too important to be left to the daily grind of party politics.

Dr Daniel Bray is lecturer in international relations and teaches security studies and environmental politics at La Trobe University.