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Putting Conservation Back into 'Conservative': Why Climate Change is not Just for the 'Left'

Monday, 4 November 2013  | Byron Smith

To many Australians, conservatism and concern for the environment are seen as mutually exclusive. Pro-green ideas are often associated with the Greens, whose political stance is generally seen as somewhat to the left of Labor and so a considerable distance from the centre-right parties of the Coalition. The Coalition have generally branded themselves as pro-business and pro-economic growth, frequently emphasising their desire to reduce environmental regulation ("green tape").

For the last few years in particular under Tony Abbott, the topic of climate change has become highly polarised in Australia. While Abbott now publicly endorses the official Coalition policy of accepting mainstream climate science, many of his comments and actions have helped to undermine the idea that climate change represents a major threat to Australian interests, the idea that Australia might have a significant international responsibility for taking the lead in cutting emissions or the idea that taking climate change seriously ought to be a priority for the federal government. 

Yet conservation of the natural world used to be a more central conservative ideal. Conservative icons have in years gone past been at the forefront of ecologically responsible pieces of legislation. Richard Nixon created the EPA and passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. George Bush senior strengthened the Clean Air Act. Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol (the single most effective international environmental agreement in history). Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader (at least amongst developed nations) to sound the alarm on climate change and was instrumental in bringing together world governments to sign up to the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Malcolm Fraser secured some of the most important legislative protections of the Great Barrier Reef.  

And still today, in some parts of the world, green conservatism doesn't sound as oxymoronic as it does to some in Australia. Angela Merkel (who shares with Thatcher both the distinction of being the first female leader of her nation as well as a background as a scientist) has shown strong international leadership in discussions of biodiversity and climate change. David Cameron, as opposition leader, helped to build tripartisan support for the UK's climate legislation, which has some of the most ambitious legislated targets for a major economy in the world. When the UK's Climate Act was passed in 2008, only five out of six hundred and fifty MPs in the House of Commons voted against it. Furthermore, plenty of conservative institutions have spoken strongly of the need for serious climate action: the Pentagon, CIA, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Energy Agency, major insurance companies and many more are all on record as calling for strong climate policy and/or warning of the serious dangers of unmitigated climate change. 

Indeed, listen to this speech from former UK Foreign Secretary and former Conservative party leader William Hague: 

"You cannot have food, water, or energy security without climate security. They are interconnected and inseparable. They form four resource pillars on which global security, prosperity and equity stand. Each depends on the others. Plentiful, affordable food requires reliable and affordable access to water and energy. Increasing dependence on coal, oil, and gas threatens climate security, increasing the severity of floods and droughts, damaging food production, exacerbating the loss of biodiversity and, in countries that rely on hydropower, undermining energy security through the impact on water availability. As the world becomes more networked, the impacts of climate change in one country or region will affect the prosperity and security of others around the world."

- "The Diplomacy of Climate Change," delivered 27th Sept 2010


Climate change is not an issue of ‘the left’. It is not ‘just an environmental issue’. There may be a variety of suggestions of how best to respond to it at a personal, communal and policy levels, about the mix of mitigation and adaptation (both are necessary), about the overlaps and tensions between this challenge and others that we face (especially the food, water and energy challenges that Hague mentions), but it is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon or which will remain on the margins of our ethical, political and, yes, even spiritual discourse. 

I am here working with the assumption that human caused climate change is real and that unmitigated climate change is an increasingly serious threat to the stability of the world order. Unless you're willing to reject the consensus of every scientific institution of national or international standing to have examined the evidence and taken a position on the matter, then you'll join the Coalition's official acceptance of the science on this matter. While there are all kinds of competing claims in the media, and it is easy to get confused and lose the forest for the trees, it is no virtue for conservatives to stand opposed to such a strong scientific consensus. 

Nonetheless, there may be some very personal reasons that some people resist the scientific understanding of climate change. For many people, acknowledging the existence and severity of the threat of anthropogenic climate change involves a reassessment of significant parts of our life story. It can mean realising that some of our most cherished experiences and dreams have a terrible cost associated with them. For those who have earned a livelihood from carbon intensive activities, it can threaten the virtue of some major life achievements and raise the question of whether one's life may have done more harm than good.  

To put it in Christian terms, acknowledging the reality and significance of anthropogenic climate change can require repentance. And that is too high a bar for some, who would rather reject the science than reassess their lives. But for Christians, God's grace assures us that the painful path of awakening to the ways we may be hurting others is the only path into true peace and joy. 

And so this means that conservatives will need to move beyond endlessly debating whether or not the climate is changing (it is), whether or not humans are the primary drivers of recent warming (we are), whether the net impact of the coming changes will be positive or negative (overwhelmingly negative). Instead, conservatives need to focus more time and energy developing positive, constructive responses that actually address the root causes and tackle the major features of the threat. Despite the fluctuations of popular attention and understanding, the long-term trend will only be towards an increasing awakening of the electorate towards the gravity of our climate predicament. Conservatives will need to address those in their midst who resist the scientific understanding of this issue and build credible climate policies that will actually deliver emissions cuts on the scale and at the pace required to avoid serious climatic consequences. In developing these ideas, it is heartening that there are plenty of reasons for a conservative to take climate changes seriously. 

If you are against big government, then strong climate policy makes good sense. For if the mainstream scientific understanding is basically correct, or if you accept there's a decent chance it might be (another assumption described as conservative), then weak climate policies around the globe will result in increasingly serious threats and disruptions to a wide variety of human and natural systems. Such disruptions will bring with them the need for increasingly big government down the track. Paul Gilding puts it like this: 

"What do you think is going to happen when large areas of expensive coastal real estate are damaged and even larger areas collapse in value as a result? An insurance crisis, a credit crisis and economic costs – all requiring big government intervention. Guess who steps in when there’s a food crisis and asserts new controls over trade and the market? Big government. What’s going to happen when major infrastructure is threatened by rising seas and extreme weather? Do you think the market will be left to run its course when power supplies, airports and freight transport facilities are threatened? No, government will step in and fix it. It will be messy, ugly and inefficient but it will certainly happen." (http://paulgilding.com/cockatoo-chronicles/cc20101214biggovernment.html)


The more effective mitigation policy is today, the less will be need for disaster management policies in coming decades. 

Furthermore, if you are a fan of the free market, then you'll be opposed to market distortions. Two of the greatest market distortions today are (a) the more than $500b annually in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry (including roughly $11b just in Australia), and (b) the fact that, unlike every other industry, the fossil fuel industry is allowed to dump their waste product into the global commons for free. Everyone else has to pay to dump their garbage but not those whose main waste product is carbon dioxide. Lord Stern, formerly chief economist at the World Bank (generally seen as a bastion of conservative economics) has thus described this externalising of the costs of climate change as the largest ever market failure. 

To counteract this kind of failure, where the costs of an activity are externalised and so not included in the market's deliberations, the idea of putting a price on pollution was developed by right-wing US think tanks in the 1980s and championed by conservatives as an optimal response to acid rain. The idea of taxing undesirable things in order to reduce taxes on desirable things also has a long history in conservative thought. 

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan famous said: "Government's first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.". Unmitigated climate change is one of the largest threats to the people of Australia in the medium to long term. Failing to do our part in lessening this threat (and indeed actively contributing to a degree that far exceeding our population size) is a failure of our government's first duty. 

Conservative Christians also have extra reasons for taking climate change seriously. Most major Christian denominations have adopted official statements calling for climate mitigation and adaptation out of respect for the Creator and love for our vulnerable neighbours. More importantly, the scriptures direct us to a wise and loving concern for God's good creation and the whole community of life in which we take our particular role. The gospel of Jesus gives us no reason for sinking into despair over the scale of the challenge, nor for abdicating our responsibility to seek the common good and a provisional, partial imperfect justice today. If we wish to walk in the way of Jesus, then brutal honesty regarding the challenges we face is both necessary and possible. If we follow a risen Lord, then we have hope that no act born of love is in vain. 

In the end, I am a climate conservative. The idea that we might pass on to our children a planet that bears some resemblance to the one we received from our parents and to the one on which human civilisation developed is a fundamentally conservative instinct. Those who want to alter fundamentally the chemical composition of the oceans and atmosphere for the sake of short-term profit are the true radicals. There are, as Bill McKibben has said, few more radical ideas in human history.


Ralph Reilly
November 5, 2013, 12:08PM
I usually vote Green / Left for all the reasons outlined above (and some other social ones), and I've been really struggling to find a way to communicate with my friends who vote Conservative / Right about things like this that appear to matter to all of us, regardless of how we vote.
Byron Smith
November 5, 2013, 7:41PM
I have sometimes pointed out to people of conservative convictions that, arguably, the Greens are currently the most conservative mainstream party in Australian politics, as the others are committed to paths that involve the transformation of the planet into something unrecognisable to our grandparents (and probably to us).
Gordon Preece
November 7, 2013, 12:42PM
Excellent piece, Byron, and essential to reframing the overly politicised debate. I think an additional reference to add is Waleed Aly's "What's right?" in Quarterly Essay a couple of years ago. It reframes Conservatism's caution and balance of power perspectives as opposed to many Australians' neo-liberalism which is really a radically risky utopian project.

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