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The power of the fragment: why politicians have turned their backs on climate

A recent Vote Compass poll shows 61% of Australian adults want the federal government to do more to tackle climate change; 18% want it to do less. This figure, consistent with many polls over the years…

Strong action on climate change has been undermined by the fragmentation of politics. kukkurovaca/Flickr

A recent Vote Compass poll shows 61% of Australian adults want the federal government to do more to tackle climate change; 18% want it to do less. This figure, consistent with many polls over the years, squares with various developments in Australian politics but contradicts others.

The Howard Government lost the 2007 election in part because it was not seen to be doing enough to tackle climate change. When he was prime minister the first time, Kevin Rudd’s popularity fell sharply when he appeared to abandon plans to reduce Australia’s emissions. And Malcolm Turnbull is the preferred Liberal leader in substantial measure because he is more hawkish on the issue.

Against these examples, the Gillard government’s support fell after it introduced the carbon price. And now both major parties are watering down their commitments to reduce emissions.

The truth is the Australian public does not know what it wants its government to do on climate change. A large majority wants it to do something, but the government seems to lose support whenever it does anything. The only notable exception (and perhaps because many people don’t know it exists) is the Renewable Energy Target, first introduced by the Howard Government as a sop to public anxiety.

For any political leader unwilling to exercise leadership on the issue, trying to respond to climate change leaves them uncertain which way to turn.

The confusion and fretfulness over how to respond to global warming is an expression of the uniqueness of climate change among environmental issues. It ought to be simple: the science tells us that to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to the widely accepted target of 2C, rich countries such as Australia (and especially Australia) must reduce their emissions by 25-40% by 2020. They must continue to reduce them until they are at least 90% lower by the middle of the century.

All of the economic modelling shows the required transition in the energy economy would come at modest, even trivial, overall cost. Yes, there would be substantial adjustment, including job losses in old energy industries as they are replaced by new ones. But dealing with structural change has not prevented governments in the past from undertaking major reforms, such as tariff cuts, competition policy and forest protection. By any measure, these have been much less important to the nation’s future.

Part of the difficulty lies in the way politics has transformed over the last 30 years. The 1980s’ convergence on neo-liberalism, accelerated by the collapse of communism, has not seen the populace coalesce around a common conception of the national interest. Instead, it has fragmented.

In place of a grand ideological contest over who should rule, the centre has relinquished its authority. Politics today is increasingly dominated by rancorous and self-righteous groups that constellate around specific issues.

The fragmentation of politics, which goes beyond traditional pressure group activities, is in part due to a better educated population more willing to challenge traditional forms of authority. In itself this is a good thing. The exception is when the authority being challenged really does know best, as is true of immunology and atmospheric physics. In this case a little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing. The internet gives as much access to disinformation as it does to information, and some are not educated in how to judge the difference.

Climate politics has been caught in this new dispensation. There is an irony to this because it is one of the few cases where the objective case for a strong action is overwhelming. Yet we have seen politicians anxiously trying to catch the public mood, seemingly unaware that the mood is determined by a raucous and angry minority of so-called sceptics.

Tony Abbott beat Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal Party leadership by one vote after backbenchers were spooked by an organised torrent of emails, phone calls, faxes and letters flooded into their offices. Julia Gillard’s support never recovered from the “JuLiar” campaign promulgated by a small but determined and well-organised campaign that echoed not only in the blogosphere but in the mainstream media too.

The new kind of interest group politics can be highly effective when the majority is willing to tolerate it. In what might be called “the equation of influence”, if we take a small number of activists and multiply it by their level of passion the product will be bigger than the one we obtain by taking a very large number and multiplying it by a care factor that ranges from periodic hand-wringing to “couldn’t be arsed”.

While most Australians are concerned about climate change they are not concerned enough to take on strident deniers in everyday situations. Al Gore recently put it this way

The conversation on global warming has been stalled because a shrinking group of denialists fly into a rage when it’s mentioned. It’s like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage every time a subject is mentioned and so everybody avoids the elephant in the room to keep the peace.

We see most starkly the power a rampant faction can wield in the Republican Party in the United States, where those who led it a decade ago are saying: “What happened? How did we allow the Tea Party to capture our party?” They were not willing to resist those fired-up people and now they have to figure out how to take their party back. Because the Tea Party is like a poison that, until it is sucked out, will prevent the Republicans ever regaining their former influence.

Though not as decisive, the Coalition parties in Australia have experienced a similar invasion. We’ve seen, for example, party conferences pass resolutions against the teaching of climate science in schools.

The question arises of whether an Abbott government, by pacifying the anti-science activists, will provoke the broad and diverse body of the “climate concerned” into a phase of much more intense activism?

The reasons for exasperation will come thick and fast from the new government: the appointment of charlatans to senior advisory positions, evisceration of the federal climate change department, winding back legislation, including the Renewable Energy Target, rising emissions as the Direct Action Plan fails, and Australia taking a spoiling role at international meetings, especially the crucial Conference of the Parties in Paris in 2015.

Taking the long view, perhaps a reactionary government is what climate activism needs to reverse the equation of influence, to force the polity to leapfrog the half-measures we have seen so far. After all, it is what the science demands.