Monday, November 13, 2006

The Politics of Climate Change

As may be becoming clear I am feeling increasingly convinced of the case that curbing our emissions in order to stop or reduce climate change is a bad idea. It would appear that I now have a side in the climate change debate; responding to the well evidenced, but still uncertain in scale and nature, trend that man is contributing to a global warming by adapting to it rather than attempting to control it.

However, choosing a side presents new questions because it would appear my side is losing. There is now no mainstream voice in UK politics which stands in opposition to the consensus behind Kyoto-plus. This should clearly be a cause for the Conservatives if any party, however, those who blame the Tory position on Cameron have missed the point. I was struck by this when I saw Iain Duncan Smith in the 18 Doughty Street commentary on their interview with John Howard. When Howard's rejection of Kyoto came up Duncan Smith simply wrote the difference off as a consequence of European versus Australian norms. There is no mainstream voice within the Conservative party willing to challenge the green agenda openly and, as such, Cameron's commitment to a Kyoto-plus solution to climate change is essentially unchallenged. If we had a different leader we would not have a different policy on this although we might talk about it a lot less.

This lack of political opposition to the Kyoto-plus climate agenda is a result of public opinion. Iain Dale reports a Times survey of top business leaders which found 81% in favour of fighting the threat of climate change with taxation. If the current skeptics of climate change are not succeeding in convincing even those enterprisers at the head of business then they have no hope of convincing the broader population. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that even those who are not in favour of green taxation rarely get particularly angry about it. As a result the environment, as I predicted earlier in his leadership, has functioned as a very effective dog-whistle for Mr. Cameron, building his reputation for being nice and acceptable to the middle class, while costing him little in broader terms. This means that environmentalism is an even stronger political case than the raw numbers imply.

Of course, the strong form of environmentalism as advanced by people like Monbiot cannot win, people will not give up the horizons the 20th century has opened to them, but that does not preclude a costly, Kyoto-plus, solution which appears to be where the current consensus is taking us. That our fiercest enemies are more angry at current policy than we are does not necessarily indicate a victory; that Respect polls poorly does not mean that we have won the fight against statism.

I think that the current strategies deployed by skeptics of Kyoto and other attempts to avoid global warming tend to follow one, or several, of three strategies which are intellectually useful but cannot win the public debate:

Firstly, hey oppose climate change curbing schemes as a violation of free trade, free market or other principles and argue that these, while they may help climate change will be more broadly harmful. Frum, in a recent post on the stem cell debate in the US, highlighted why this is ineffective when he wrote about how the right tends to lose when it pitches principles against visibly suffering or otherwise emotive people.

In global warming you have a big emotive threat promising many losers along with current threats to big cuddly polar bears set against harms to rich, industrial "polluters". This disparity could be compensated for if, when people wrote describing the harms of taxing energy-intensive industries, they took care to point out that the people who will wind up paying most for a tax on carbon will be Northern manufacturing employees whose jobs dissapear to parts of the world where energy is not similarly taxed. A tax on emissions necessarily acts to kick the parts of the UK economy which are down and this will have human consequences.

Secondly, many attack the science behind IPCC or other reports and the science behind climate change; the classic example of this is Bjorn Lomborg. This is an important contribution to the intellectual debate over climate science but is a poor strategy for winning the public debate over the proper policy response. As the public, quite sensibly, has a limited patience with climate science they will make the decision based on the heuristics available to them such as the availability heuristic (discussed on this blog before). As this is a big public issue it is widely covered in the media and this frequency convinces people it must be true.

Finally, there is the argument that there really is nothing we can do. This is quite an easy argument to make as it is made for the skeptic by the alarmists daily in the pages of the Guardian. All that is needed is to take these arguments to their logical conclusion. The reason that it is less effective in the public debate than this would suggest is that it requires an admission of helplessness which is electoral poison. Admissions of uncertainty or a lack of omnipotence never look good when matched against even a slight possibility of success.

The problems skeptics have in this debate are similar to those I experienced trying to argue against the minimum wage at LSE. Arguing that the minimum wage is illiberal achieved little to no effect, liberalism is, sadly, dead in the populace at large even if it is still the language of the elite. Equally, arguing the ineffectiveness of the minimum wage makes little to no difference; point out that the minimum wage will make someone's situation worse and they'll just tell you how bad their situation is as if that was a rebuttal. What I found effective was a third option: discussing negative income tax style policies as support for those in work. This is a distinctly right wing response and takes better account of economic incentives. Offering this meant that I was no longer arguing 'against' the poor and the emotive advantage of the left was lost to them.

For the climate change debate there would seem to be three important alternatives that the skeptics can promote:

The first is to emphasise the market driven reduction in carbon intensity. A lot of Franklin's arguments about how it could be profitable to reduce emissions highlight why energy intensity has been falling and should continue to at quite a rate, this wasn't helpful to his case but it can be taken as an unintentional part of the human response to global warming that does not involve artificially increasing the cost of energy.

The second is to focus on specifically adapting to some of the concrete harms of climate change, for example flooding and malaria. In Britain this will probably add up to putting extra investment into our coastal defences, the policy of conceding to erosion in certain areas probably needs to be reconsidered. However, in the Third World, where the consequences will be more severe, it is a solid case for international aid to assist with the adaptation, both through assisting with the establishment of superior coastal defences and through both existing methods to combat malaria, DDT, and new ones, the vaccine that GSK and the Gates Foundation are working on.

The third is to think about some of the more outlandish solutions Lawson highlighted. Mechanisms to respond if some of the scenarios envisioned by those predicting a climate change apocalypse. This would be a genuine precautionary principle for an event that we shouldn't expect but which could spring at us. While many of these schemes lack plausibility they share that with the threat they are designed to offset; the match is good.

These strategies offer a genuine right wing response to climate change. They should be the focus of any campaign to unsettle the use of climate change as a tool to drive an agenda fundamentally hostile to liberty and human progress towards an ideal of overcoming the restraints biology and our surroundings have placed upon us.


Anonymous said...

suggest you give it to the national front-good luck

edmund said...

annoymous what a brilliant post- how filled with ratioal argument ( we all know how anti-environmentalism is hte singal policy of hte national front) ect.

Good post I think though it missues the cnetral point- environmentalism is popular because people arne't paying for it yet- the diffence in the US is people realize (at the elite level) that they willh ave to pay and are not willing to take the costs of screwing over their economy to delay global warming by a year.

Let's have a refenrendum on doubling energy taxes and see what the result is... never mind 81%

Matthew Sinclair said...

Edmund - we can't "have a referendum" as we're losing the debate so those in favour of Kyoto-plus decide the policies. Instead, they're going to set up a load of taxes which, as I set out, hit Northern manufacturers and our wider economy but it will be far from obvious that the energy taxes are the cause (Northern industries have already been suffering). It won't be possible to hold the green movement properly accountable for what they do... especially if they still have public sympathy.

Anonymous - I really hope that's a joke. If it isn't I pray for that brain cell you're torturing.

edmund said...

your response is a good one ( and I don't think really contradics mine) and my refendra is poining out how an anti-green government could win. I do think that these taxes will have to be payed for somehow-and will end up costing money- and people will not like that ,even if it's reflected in prices of goods instead

Anonymous said...

back on line! 1900-population=1.6billion; 2000-population=6.1billion;2100-population=back down to 1.6billion.there aretoo many of plus gives us a chance. THE GREENLAND ICE CAP MUST NOT MELT.WE MUST STOP IT IN ITS TRACKS.IF IT GOES-WE GO; WELL ALMOST ENTIRELY. THIS IS A BIT OF A STERN COMMENT. HMMM!!!!!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

further-am i too near the knuckle for you-is it too scary-should i be more abstract. food beckons signing off for an hour.

Minor Ripper said...

Pretty shocking that Australia was alone on the island with the USA on Kyoto in the first place. It's becoming increasingly clear that Bush is a complete, utter lame duck as more and more former 'allies' like Blair and Howard break with him publicly...