BY BEN HABIB.
In the past fortnight, Australian political discourse has been dominated by the debate over the pricing of carbon. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a draft carbon pricing policy with the Greens and the independent members has sparked off a vicious volley of hyperbole from those who would object to carbon pricing. The electorate has vacillated somewhere between cautious and hostile on the policy announcement. The ALP has not helped its cause with four years in government characterised by inaction, hot air and spin. We sit now poised at the beginning of a debate over a great systemic reform that will shape our nation for years to come. In many ways, this debate is a battle for Australia’s soul.
A Strange Debate
Both major parties have adopted disingenuous positions on carbon pricing. Much has been made in the popular media of Julia Gillard breaking an election promise not to introduce a carbon tax. I hate to spoil the party, but governments of all stripes regularly break election promises; it’s part and parcel of the unrealistic commitment auction that characterises every election campaign. In this case, however, this ‘broken promise’ is actually an acknowledgement of a real problem that needs to be addressed. Rather than running from a commitment, the ALP is finally stepping up to make one. The conservatives will raise hell about this broken promise, but it is music to the ears of left-leaning voters that have bled away from the ALP toward the Greens.
Any wounds the ALP sustains over the ‘broken promise’ are self-inflicted. Labor put themselves in this position by abandoning their commitment to climate action this time last year in the death throes of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership. It was a foolish position to take on a policy issue of such gravity.
In terms of policy, we have a delicious ideological irony in that the ALP is spruiking a market-based emissions trading system (albeit with an interim set carbon price), while the key plank of Coalition’s ‘Direct Action Plan’ features large government handouts to companies who can demonstrate emissions efficiency savings. Who would have thought fifty years ago that one day Labor would have embraced the key tenets of economic liberalism at the same time as the Coalition dances with the ghost of Karl Marx!
To top it off, none of the commitments made by the major parties to date even come close to what is necessary to achieve the emissions reductions mandated by the scientific evidence. Once the smoke of self-interested hyperbole clears, it is the emissions reduction target that really counts.
The Bottom Line: Nature Doesn’t Negotiate
All the protagonists must not forget that the baseline for this debate is not the malleability of the political process or the economics of policy choices, but rather the tolerance level of the Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere for human interference in its chemical composition through greenhouse gas emissions. Natural systems are governed by processes dictated by the laws of physics and chemistry. These natural laws are not amenable to the vagaries of human political economy.
There is no triple bottom line. The ecological, economic and social pillars of our society are not equal. In fact, the economy is a social construct of human societies, which are themselves dependent on the ecological systems in which they are located for sustenance, resources and waste disposal. To put it another way, wealth is created in human societies by the exploitation of resources from the natural environment. If the natural environment is degraded such that those resources are poisoned or become unavailable, then no wealth can be created.
Carbon price objectors and climate deniers espouse positions that are essentially tricks of alchemy. Their positions assume either that wealth creation is not connected with the natural world, or that the resource stocks and pollution sinks of the ecosystems in which we live are infinite. On a finite planet, both positions are ludicrous.
The plain truth is that the overwhelming scientific evidence is pointing to a catastrophic threat to our planet and the human civilisations which live on it, a catastrophe that is already underway. These are the new baseline conditions in which human societies and their economies will operate. A carbon pricing mechanism is a method of a) lessening the severity of, and b) adapting our society and economy to these new conditions. The objector/denier positions are maladaptive responses (or lack thereof) to the new ecological baseline.
Time for Honesty: This is a Negative-sum Game
The point of a carbon pricing mechanism is to increase the incentive for polluting industries to be more energy efficient and therefore less carbon intensive. If the government compensates polluting industries for this price rise, it will distort the intended carbon pricing market signal and remove the incentive for efficiency. These industries will inevitably pass on the added carbon price to consumers, which is why it is important that revenue from the carbon price be re-distributed to those people and families at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder most exposed to cost of living increases.
Let’s be brutally honest though. That compensation will be cancelled out by the direct (insurance, personal disaster recovery) and indirect costs (taxes, levies) of paying for the reconstruction after natural disasters. These costs will continue to rise as we confront inevitable climate change impacts, but they will rise far further if we do not make carbon mitigation happen in short order.
The consecutive natural disasters of last 12 months have been instructive in this regard. Remember, climate science tells us that extreme events are becoming more frequent and more severe. Governments can usually absorb the impact of one large-scale disaster event. However, when they occur consecutively, as they have in Australia over the summer with the floods across the eastern side of the continent along with Cyclone Yasi, governments need to rustle up more money from somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ is the taxpayer, and we’ve seen evidence of this in the Gillard government’s proposal for a levy to pay for flood reconstruction in Queensland.
We are all going to pay for climate change-related damage. The weaker we make our carbon pricing mechanism, the less effective our greenhouse gas mitigation efforts will be and the greater in turn will be the financial burden of disaster recovery. Indeed, every country in the world is facing this equation.
The blunt fact is that there is not going to be any win-win outcome for anyone. Whatever happens, there is going to be a net cost. The strength and robustness of the carbon pricing mechanism will determine how big that net cost is going to be. While our political leaders may be trapped in the rhetoric of perpetual growth, in the longer run they are doing the public a great disservice in their dishonesty about this fundamental point.
The fact that such dishonesty is necessary is a harsh indictment on the social awareness, the critical thinking capacities, and the material greed of the Australian people. There are many reasons why we have come to this point, as I have explored in my previous posting Making Climate Action Happen, Part I: The Plague of Manufactured Consciousness. The unfortunate irony is that multiple global problems, of which climate change is one, have arrived at the very moment when the Australian public is least intellectually equipped to deal with them constructively. This is a problem for any government attempting to sell a carbon pricing policy.
What’s the Objection? It’s All About Perspective
Social cleavages clearly have relevance to a debate over a systemic economic reform as big as pricing carbon. So let us explore now the differing perspectives of those who object to a carbon pricing mechanism.
According to the proposal introduced this week by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, it is the companies who are big greenhouse polluters who will be targeted by the carbon price mechanism. The men (and occasionally the odd woman) who run companies in high polluting sectors have been educated to believe that the profit motive supersedes all other considerations and that the public interest is advanced when companies are allowed to maximise their economic welfare. Serving the public interest thus does not require the visible hand of government intervention. Rather, they believe the government should stand back and let the market economy function according to the logic of the profit motive. This is their ideological objection to carbon pricing.
Their economic objection, again, relates to the profit motive. They argue that a carbon price will erode profits and therefore dividends to their shareholders, and that they will be at an unfair disadvantage to companies overseas operating without the constraint of a carbon price. This is an interesting argument, given that many of these companies are the multinationals who run these operations abroad.
They also view, rightly, that a carbon price may signal the beginning of the end for their industries. After all, many climate scientists have argued that the coal industry, for example, has to be wound down if we are to have any chance of realistically meeting the greenhouse gas mitigation targets mandated by the scientific evidence. It is in this context that we may see alliances of convenience form between high polluting companies and the unions who represent workers in those sectors. Indeed, a negative union response to the carbon price mechanism is potentially destabilising for the ALP.
What about individual families and people from the working classes? The objection here is a very practical one. People in this group are rightly concerned about cost of living pressures, with many living day-to-day under financial stress. As one would expect, they are sensitive to any potential rise in their living costs that could add to this stress. It is these people that Climate Change Minister Greg Combet has indicated will receive compensation for any carbon price-related costs passed down the retail chain by the big polluters.
As we know, it is people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum that are least resilient to economic and environmental shocks. The problem for this group is, cost of living pressures are increasing anyway due to rising energy (related to the global oil price as well as local electricity infrastructure constraints) and food prices (linked to the rising oil price, as well as rising demand, land degradation, market speculation and climate change impacts world wide). In the context of rising cost of living pressures, the government will find this group hard to win over.
Next, we come to the middle class, overwhelmingly the largest and most diverse class conglomeration in Australian society. The middle class in any society tend to be a conservative group. As members of the technocracy they are rewarded with a small slice of luxury which they tend to guard jealously. Yet their grip on the perch of luxury is tenuous, with many having achieved their lifestyle comforts through high and unsustainable levels of debt. In spite of this illusion, they don’t like having their ‘entitlements’ clawed back and they don’t like being told that their way of life is flawed: “you can’t tell me what to do, I have a right to my SUV and my jet ski.” The implicit austerity message of the carbon price mechanism is precisely the kind of admission that the carbon pricing debate and the climate change phenomenon more broadly are forcing upon them. I should know, I’m part of this group.
There is a common thread running through all of these positions, at the level of assumptions and worldviews. Those who reject the need to price carbon also tend to privilege economic considerations above environmental protection. If we dig a little deeper, we find assumptions like these: humans exist separate from the natural environment, that the natural world can be tamed by humans and that Earth exists for human exploitation. You’ll also find an assumption that the Earth’s resource base can be exploited indefinitely to supply this material luxury, with the help of science, technology and the free market. All of these assumptions are hubristic rubbish, a testament to human arrogance and ignorance as to how natural systems work.
The Dangers of Fear Politics in the Context of the Climate Emergency
Nonetheless, it is easy to spook people who hold these views when they are confronted dissonant information like climate change. Since the beginning of the 2010 federal election campaign, the politics of this country have been particularly ugly, even by the grubby standards of ordinary political discourse. The Coalition in particular have been forthright in their demonization of various social groups, be they asylum seekers, Muslims, environmentalists or the gay and lesbian community. They adopt these Machiavellian tactics because there is clearly a short term political benefit in appealing to the base prejudices of Australian voters.
However there is no action without consequence. Australian society is complex and diverse, characterised by many cross-cutting ethnic, economic, social and cultural cleavages which, when activated by fear politics, can divide the community. We’ve seen what happens when fear politics breathes life into prejudice and hatred in the shape Pauline Hanson and the Cronulla riots.
Let’s put this in the context of the many overlapping global problems we are experiencing in the age of consequences: climate change, peak oil and rising energy prices, food insecurity and rising food prices, the global financial and sovereign debt crises. These problems are increasingly placing members of our community under acute stress, a phenomenon that is only going to get worse over time. History tells us that in such times, people under pressure tend to look for scapegoats, blaming demonised social groups for their hardships. Tony Abbott and company are playing with fire. Playing fear politics in the context of the age of consequences is like lighting a match in a petrol factory.
Rioting for Austerity
The carbon price objectors and their affiliated climate denier cheerleaders are fighting to preserve a way of life. They will scream, kick, scratch and resort to all kinds of dirty tactics to defend that way of life. Those who favour climate change action are advocating for a new way of life, a world which is only just starting to take shape. In these kinds of debates, those defending something have a huge advantage over those advocating something new. The defenders can use fear as a powerful weapon to spook those considering change. Indeed, their commitment to their cause is a level above that demonstrated by climate activists.
In his 2006 book entitled Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, British writer George Monbiot suggested that people in developed societies would not “riot for austerity”. Ross Garnaut has also stated that climate mitigation policy cannot ask people to sacrifice their standard of living, because they will refuse.
Yet a growing number of people are doing just that, choosing to live more simply because the futility of trying to maintain perpetual growth on a finite planet is obvious to them. And as the local author’s of the Border Mail’s weekly Living Lightly column demonstrate, the people are discovering a physically, emotionally and spiritually more fulfilling lifestyle in the process.
These new environmentally-conscious lifestyles are potent ammunition against the fear-mongering of the carbon price objectors and climate deniers. At this crucial stage, carbon-conscious living must incorporate political activism to confront the objector/denier cabal. If we don’t “riot for austerity” right now, we risk ceding
The Battle for Australia’s Soul
It is no understatement to say that the carbon pricing debate is rapidly developing into a battle for Australia’s soul. If fear politics is allowed to triumph in this debate, Australia’s greenhouse gas reduction effort will be stalled for many years, years that we don’t have the luxury of wasting in combating the climate threat. If fear politics wins the day, we will have lost the opportunity to influence the global climate mitigation effort. If fear trumps necessity, we are likely to miss the new green industrial revolution that is beginning to envelop the world and the economic and adaptive opportunities this will bring.
The politics of climate mitigation will be messy. However, there is one fundamental point that we need to remember: if our political solutions do not match the well-documented seriousness of the climate change threat, we will all lose. It has never been more important climate activists and more broadly those people who long for a caring and just society to make a stand and reject baseless spin and the politics of fear politics, from whichever party and in whatever form it emanates.
For detailed analysis of the carbon pricing debate and the government’s specific policy proposal, take a look at these sources…
- ABC Radio – The World Today, Visiting advisor ‘astounded’ by carbon debate
- ABC Radio – Mornings with Fran Kelly, Former UN climate chief on carbon pricing
- New Matilda, Martin Jones, Give us something to talk about
Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.