Easy riders and raging bulls

Opinion Article

2009 December, 5

Let me put forward one way to think of the climate wars. Think of a square divided into quarters.  

The horizontal axis describes where people stand in relation to whether global warming is real. It  traverses a spectrum of views ranging from strong climate change believers on the far left to the strong  climate change denier on the far right.  

The vertical axis describes the relative level of economic security of people. This spectrum ranges from  those enjoying strong economic security at the top to those who are most economically insecure at the  bottom.  

People sit at numerous points along these axes.  

On the centre-left side of the belief spectrum are those who may not be completely convinced of the  scientific evidence of global warming but who think that precaution is the right policy. On the centre-right side are those who do not completely deny the scientific evidence but who reject the ideological  zeal of the believers on the far left.  

Political affiliations do not completely correspond with the left-right spectrum between belief and  denial.  

There are individuals who confound this typology because there are political leftists who are deniers  and rightists who accept the scientific evidence for man-made global warming: for example, former  British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the world's first political leader to take climate change seriously and who was instrumental in establishing the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction  and Research.

It is a measure of how the once politically neutral question of whether climate change was scientifically  true has mutated into an increasingly polarised ideological war that the hero of conservatives  worldwide is on the wrong side. If Thatcher were climbing on to the world stage today I doubt she  would be batting for Clive Hamilton and Bob Brown's team. She'd be opening the batting with Nick  Minchin, and slogging Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme for sixes  into the stands.  

Once-mild sceptics on the centre-right are being pushed further right, recoiling from the righteousness  and the moral posturing of the zealots on the left.  

The believers on the left seem oblivious to the extent the religious nature of their fervour alienates  potential supporters. The price being paid for the West's progressive classes re-finding God in the  environment makes many a sceptic yearn for the time people went to church for spiritual succour.  Natural revelation has long provenance in Christian theology, but the Greens' religious atheism is  repellent to many.  

Conversely, the fact too many on the other side are animated by a wilful obscurantism and see all  things through the prism of that old chestnut, political correctness, excites their opponents on the left  into paroxysms of righteous rage.  

What better accelerant for right-wing fury than Hamilton? What better provocation for leftist apoplexy  than Minchin?  

But let's now get to the point of my schema. Most of Australia's climate change action policy advocates  come from the top left-hand box. They believe that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and  that urgent and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. They are also economically  secure. All of the media and the legions of educated people who believe in global warming fall within  this quadrant.

Yes, there are also believers who are economically insecure but they are not the heartland of climate  change activism. If they also dread climate change, their relative economic insecurity nevertheless  affects the kinds of policy responses they may support or reject.  

Pacific Islanders and other such people who are directly confronted by rising sea levels and believe in  climate change causation comprise those in the bottom left quadrant who are economically insecure but  believe in the need for action on climate change.  

The top-right corner is occupied by the economically secure who don't believe in (or even care about)  climate change and resist action. Capitalists whose pursuit of self-interest has transmuted from natural  calling to German social theorist Max Weber's iron cage of an endlessly unfulfilling accumulation and consumption, and who are at least honest enough not to cloak their economic security under a mantle  of moral worthiness like the wealthy Al Gore, occupy this corner. There is much scope for cynicism  among this mob, but it is a toss-up as to what's worse: climate policy activists who want others to pay  costs of ameliorative action but who will ensure that any cost they themselves bear will not be a great  burden, or those archetypal cigar-chompers who don't give a damn. One is blatantly selfish, the other  more subtly so.  

I am on the upper side of the economic security axis. Though almost all my relatives and the people  most dear to me are economically insecure, and though I intimately know and work with people in  poverty, I must confess this: I have no idea what it would mean for electricity bills to go up by, say,  $50 a month. I think I could easily afford such a rise. And if I were asked to pay this increase in return  for saving the planet, then I would probably readily consent. In fact my altruistic sacrifice number is  probably significantly higher than $50.

Like many educated, middle-class professionals who earn a good salary, I have lost a real  understanding of what an increase in the cost of living such as this means for lower-income people.  Growing up in an extremely low-income family does not guarantee this empathy.  

There is a policy issue here: it is easy for people above the income security line to devise and advocate  climate action policies that allocate costs that are affordable by us but that are a big deal for the  percentage of society for whom $50 a month makes or breaks a family budget or for whom any greater scarcity of employment is a life disaster.  

There is also a potential political issue here.  

When economically insecure people realise that climate action advocates are largely economically  secure and can afford the costs that will be incurred by the policy choices they are advocating, they  may revolt in the way Tony Abbott hopes they will. Where do you sit in this quadrant?

Easy riders and raging bulls