What is the message in these pieces? The argument being made is that the climate change campaign is part of the long history of liberal progress that is threatened by a conservative opposition to change. A response to climate change means change to society and this is a good thing as change means progress. The only people, so the argument goes, who would oppose change are those with vested interests and those who are instinctively, and therefore ignorantly, conservative.
Tim Colebatch, the economics editor, explains the disappearing consensus on climate change this way:
Every landmark step that has made us the country we are proud of has been opposed by people motivated by inertia, familiarity with the way things are, or by vested interest.
If you oppose an emissions trading scheme, argues Colebatch, you are no different to those who opposed the abolition of slavery:
Two centuries ago, when William Wilberforce led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, the counterparts of Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce fought to defend it as an area of legitimate business in which governments should not interfere. Yet who thinks we should allow slavery today?
Colebatch isn't even pretending here to be a dispassionate scientific type, arguing from evidence. He is committed emotionally to a kind of Whig interpretation of history, in which change brings about progress, and therefore idealistic, moral people see themselves as "progressives" driving on change, against the selfish or ignorant objections of "conservatives" (who drag their heels) or, worse still, against the resistance of "reactionaries" (who want to change things back).
I can understand the emotional appeal of this view. You get to attach yourself to a progressive cause (which climate change has become) and feel like you are doing something meaningful in advancing humanity toward some ultimate end.
I can also understand why the Whig view was once taken seriously. The idea of liberal progress must have seemed more reasonable when European societies were dynamically on the rise in the 1700s and 1800s.
Even in the mid-1900s there was still an advance in the material standard of life in most Western countries, which must have helped prop up the idea of linear progress.
But today? It's a difficult idea to buy into. The West is clearly in decline relative to the Asian powers. Family life is more unstable than it once was; fertility is below replacement level; the arts have become generally low-minded; and the male wage hasn't improved in real terms since the 1970s.
Liberalism today seems not so much progressive as suicidal.
Tim Colebatch is wrong. We needed people in previous decades to take a firmer stance against destructive forms of change. Let me give just one example. When I was in my mid-20s there was a change in the culture of middle-class family formation. Whereas people would once have thought of settling down some time after completing university (early to mid-20s), it became the norm for university educated people to defer marriage and family to some vague period in their late 30s. Even at the time I thought this was a crazy development and I naively expected the powers-that-be to step in to correct the damaging situation.
But they never did this and we now have large numbers of women regretting missing out on marriage and motherhood.
And instead of admitting that the change was misdirected, liberals routinely respond to the complaints of these women with the idea that the change was good and progressive but that some people would inevitably be losers (the idea that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette).
One of the other columns on climate change in today's Age was written by a lecturer in politics, Dr Paul Strangio. His argument is that the Liberal Party was always a liberal rather than a conservative party; that John Howard swung it to conservatism; and that this is why a conservative opposition to an emissions trading scheme has appeared. The message to Liberals is that they are betraying the whole history of their party by voting against a trading scheme.
Dr Strangio is probably right about the liberal roots of the Liberal Party. He quotes one of the early Liberal Protectionist statesmen, Alfred Deakin, who dreamed of a party that was:
Liberal always, radical often and never reactionary.
I'm more sceptical about the claim that John Howard somehow stole the Liberal Party for conservatism. Howard has actually criticised his successor Rudd for being too little change-oriented:
The Rudd Government comes up very short. I can't think of a major thing it has done, except spend the bank balance that Costello and I left behind. Nothing else.
The final opinion piece is by a young woman, Amanda McKenzie who directs a "Youth Climate Coalition". She begins modestly by calling for environmental stewardship:
As a young person I have a simple request of the current generation of decision makers - please leave the planet in at least as good a condition as you found it.
This is a good start. It leaves out the liberal ideology in favour of a simple request for responsible stewardship. But then she becomes alarmingly alarmist, claiming that only 50% of young Australians are going to survive warming:
the best-case scenario in the Government's policy position gives young Australians a 50 per cent chance of enduring climate disaster.
No surprise, then, that she doesn't end with a simple request after all. She wants change. Big change.
In 2050, people will look back at 2009, at the actions of our leaders and know if they deserved that title. Did they make the difficult call to transform Australia and transform the world ...
So climate change ends up being used once again as a cause justifying the transformation of the world.
Just don't ask to see the data justifying this change. It's all been settled you know. Back when we had that debate, you know, that long open-minded debate we had back in ... well, I'm sure we had it some time ago ... didn't we?