Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Climate change & the liberal mind

The Age newspaper is in full campaign mode right now. We've reached a critical moment in the climate change debate in Australia, with a significant number of Liberal Party MPs breaking ranks and opposing an emissions trading scheme. The Age wants to neutralise them politically and has published not just one but three opinion pieces devoted to this end in today's edition.

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?


  1. When it comes to a free media on this issue in Australia, we might as well be living in the Communist USSR! Not a word about the Hadley CRU emails exposed by hackers (which if true compromises a massive amount of evidence for 'climate change'), but plenty of propaganda.... What happened to investigative journalism, media debate, and freedom of opinion?!

  2. Old hat, exactly right. The Age devoted at least two broadsheet pages to the climate change issue yesterday but didn't even bother to report the Hadley CRU emails.

  3. Thanks for picking up on this Mark.

    By the way, Liberal party leadership spill on today at 1pm...

    Hopefully Turnbull gets the arse.

  4. Anyone who was a partner of Goldman Sachs can't be considered conservative. Turnbull is in cahoots with the bad guys, no way he would do anything to jeopardize the bill.

    Who do you think is going to do the trading of carbon credits? You can bet Sachs will be in it up to their elbows.

  5. Interesting, the climate change debate has been a bit quiet in New Zealand over the last week or so.

    The current National government taken a middle of the road position on the carbon tax issue, which is probably suppressing the debate to some extent.

  6. The idea that governments are capable of stopping or reversing such climate change (if it does exist) is never questioned.

    If AGW is real and was caused by 200 years of Industrialization, then I'm sure it is a done deal. It seems a bit of reach to expect us to believe that humans just so happened to stumble on the technology to detect it in time to prevent catastrophe.

  7. Amanda McKenzie says that only 50% of Australians will "survive" climate change? So twenty million people will be killed by warmer weather in the next couple decades? I cannot believe that this passed the editor. Hang on, we're talking about the Melbourne Age... yes, I can believe it.

  8. As in all matters, money is at the root of it all.

    European governments and the EU as a whole, including the main opposition, must have outlines of the budgets for at least the next five years. All these budgets are predicated on the assumption that there is a bonanza to be had from Anthropogenic Global Warming/Climate Change. After all they have spent an enormous amount of capital, both political and monetary, for this outcome. They cannot now afford to accept that AGW/CC is a scam. For one, there is suspicion that they were privy to the scam. For another, each and every government in Europe, plus the EU, would go bust without this AGW/CC money.

    If the EU and any thet supr-national government in the offing, can be bankrupted and destroyed, that would be the best thing that could come out of this sorry episode.

    That would also be the best legacy for our children, apart from the huge amounts of taxes they will not be forced to pay.

  9. Here is a new Video on "global warming" very informative.


  10. Don't be too hard on left-wingers. It's not their fault, they are just bound by their physical impossibility of admitting error.
    Of course, one should try to understand WHO owns/controls the "free media" that seems to employ exclusively people that have a certain world view.

  11. Please note also an increase in the level of overtly violent and veiled threat responses to critics of AGW.

    Not unusual to read descriptions of opponents of this supra-government tax scheme as scum, cockroaches, killing our children, glad when they're dead, smash their ignorant faces, messageboard hard man worship and so on.

  12. "Don't be too hard on left-wingers. It's not their fault, they are just bound by their physical impossibility of admitting error."

    Science is being sullied in this debate.