The Climate Conundrum

Last weekend I was one of many Australians surprised by the Federal election. I wasn’t surprised by the result, because I hadn’t been following the polls. Rather, I was surprised at everyone else’s surprise by the result. I didn’t realise that so many people believed a Labor victory was a foregone conclusion.

By now, you would think the left in advanced economies should be getting used to “surprise” losses to the right (particularly the populist right). But apparently even recent history holds no lessons for them.

The commentary following this defeat followed the usual, predictable narrative. Voters who supported the centre-right governing coalition were some combination of ignorant, selfish, bigoted and / or afraid. The most charitable explanations were that the voters were “let down by the education system” and “afraid” (of migrants), the least charitable were that they were stupid, selfish bigots. I’m not sure how the same national education system lets some voters down (those who vote for the right) but successfully educates others (those who vote left). But there you go.

The media (Rupert Murdoch) was also largely to blame. However not one explanation that I saw attributed any blame to the policies or discourse on offer by the left. In short, the problem is the diners, not the menu.

This is the Fawlty Towers approach to running a restaurant and Labor’s approach to political defeat. It’s funny when John Cleese does it, but it’s less funny when you end up with someone as uninspiring as Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. Someone whose most famous political stunt was bringing a lump of coal into parliament.

This brings us to the main point of this article: the climate.

Apart from indulging in some electorate bashing, the other main response I witnessed has been anguish about impending climate change now that we have someone with a pet rock running the country.

This is the subject I want to discuss.

There is a very widespread incomprehension among environmentalists, and the left in general, that people could continue to vote against action to prevent worsening climate change, given the risks associated and increasing evidence of what is in store. The election was branded “the climate election”, and still people didn’t vote for the climate. They (apparently) voted against their own children’s futures.


To find an answer to this apparently inexplicable conundrum, you only need to look at the email I received from the Australian Greens on the eve of the election.

The Greens email contains a list of 20 policy proposals. I have pasted them below. Of these 20 policy proposals, only 7 are about the environment. The other 13 are about economics (wealth transfer, markets) and social policy (drugs, asylum, animal welfare) and governance (corruption, political donations).

The way our political system works is that each party doesn’t propose an a la carte menu, it proposes a 3-course set menu du jour. So if I want the climate action entrée, I have to eat the stodgy Marxist main, a rather bitter slice of identity politics for dessert, and smoke an after-dinner joint on the balcony.

You might argue that climate change is the mains, and Marxism is the entrée, but fully 9 out of the 20 policies below are about wealth transfer and limits on markets while only 7 were about environment. And this is in Australia’s most environmentally focused political party. If I take a list of Labor’s election policies, I would expect to find a much lighter emphasis on environment, and indeed that it what I did find. In the first 15 policies on their website, the environment featured once.

This is the heart of the reason why Australian voters are not getting behind climate action, and it is also the reason why the political right has come to understand claims for environmental action as a rather thin sheepskin draped over a socialist wolf. In fact, the right has come to the conclusion that climate change itself – the whole concept of it – is simply a pretext for state control of the economy and large-scale wealth transfer.

One might ask why the right can’t dissociate the science of climate change from the left-wing economic policies that invariably accompany it?

Well, I think some economically right-wing people can, but they are a minority. And it’s understandable that they are minority when the left consistently insists on merging two separate political issues into one.

The politics of climate change have been transformed into the politics of wealth transfer.

Wealth transfer is a moral (or normative) issue. Observing and understanding climate change is a technical one. A technical issue – such as the temperature of glass of water – is something that we could, theoretically, objectively observe and agree on. The climate is more complicated than a glass of water, but we do have a reasonably good grasp of what is going on – in a broad sense – even if we’re uncertain about what the final outcomes will be and when they will occur.

A moral issue is subjective and different people hold different moral views. They can’t be established by some objective observation. If you think that we can’t all agree on objective science, or there is no such thing as objective science, I would ask you to consider the Montreal Protocol. This treaty to prevent the destruction of the ozone layer through the man-made emission of various chemicals was signed in 1982 and subsequently ratified by every single country on earth. Think about the leaders who ratified that treaty: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher. Not exactly bastions of left-wing environmentalism (there’s an interesting article on Thatcher’s conversion from climate action advocate to sceptic here).

So what went wrong?

To understand the lack of action, and indeed the denial of climate change by the political right, we need to distinguish between a detached observation of the observable fact of climate change, and the proposed solutions to the problem.

The solutions proposed by the environmental movement for climate change have been completely infused with other political (moral) views. The left has not been able to hold environmentalism “above politics”, so to speak. In short, the environment has always come second to their primary political objectives, which concern wealth redistribution, the structure of the economy and increasingly, identity politics. These are “social justice” issues.

Because the solutions to environmental problems have become infused with left-wing economic values, people on the economic right not only reject the proposed solutions to the problem, they often reject the fact of the problem. Recall Jonathan Haidt’s idea elaborated in “The Righteous Mind” that facts are always subsidiary to our moral views about issues. We have an innate moral position on certain political issues, and facts are marshalled in support of those moral views. Where the facts (climate change) seem at odds with our moral views (not disposed to wealth transfer), the facts get binned, not the morals.

Although some vested interests have always opposed climate action (just as some vested interests opposed action on the ozone hole), the political left have inadvertently acted as the midwife at the birth of climate change denial.

If you think this is a bit of an exaggeration, I suggest you google the policies of any environmentalist party or action group, or read this BBC article. Take any major piece of environmental policy (such as the Kyoto Protocol, Australian Labor’s carbon tax, or the US Democrats Green New Deal) and ask yourself, if this just trying to achieve an environmental outcome or is it more than that?

While climate change may be an objective, observable fact, the plans to do something about it very quickly descend into the moral quagmire commonly called politics. The question of “who should do what, and why” had to be resolved in the Kyoto protocol, and immediately the timeless economic questions about resources, free riding, externalities, and vested (national) interests come to the fore. None of these questions can be resolved objectively. All of them require politics, create winners and losers, and impose some form of moral view. In the case of the Kyoto protocol, the moral outcome was: rich will help poor, because the rich countries are the ones who created the problem and profited from it.

Sounds like an open and shut case, but your general moral disposition toward cooperating with foreigners, (sharing resources with them, making sacrifices on their behalf, and trusting them to keep their side of the deal) will shape your views on the Kyoto protocol and eventually, on the very existence of climate change.

The Australian Carbon tax is an example closer to home. Introduced by Labor (after a number of false starts as an Emissions Trading Scheme), the revenues from this tax could have simply been returned as a (equal) cheque to all taxpayers. Those who produced a lot of carbon dioxide would have received less than they had paid in tax, while those who produced little would have seen a net gain. This would have been an example of a “purely” environmental price signal that did not conflate any other political issues. However carbon taxes are described as “regressive”, because if they impact all taxpayers in an approximately equal way, they take the same absolute sum away from poor people that they do from rich. Because that money means more to the poor, and the rich don’t notice it so much, the marginal utility loss for the poor is higher. So it’s “regressive”. To offset this, Labor set about ensuring that poor people were compensated (or “protected”) more than rich people. This might be an obvious and fair policy combination for those on the left. For those on the right, it says “We’re going to save the planet and while we’re at it, you’re going to give me a bit more of your hard-earned cash”.

This gets to the heart of the moral outrage from the right. Ironically, the left is not seen as caring about the environment. They are seen as outrageous hypocrites who claim to care about the environment, but are actually parasites who insist that any dollar spent on environmental action must be accompanied by an extra dollar of welfare. It’s like some sort of tip or baksheesh, a corrupt little kickback, a protection racket, that hard-working people, trying to save the planet, are being forced to pay as a price for political collaboration on climate change.

The pure cynicism of this (perceived) position, the total indifference to the fate of the planet, and the willingness of hold it to ransom eventually convinces a lot of people on the right that the whole climate thing is just made up. It’s a scam. Morality 1. Science 0.

An underlying assumption in what I have written above is that environmental policy can be separated from the economic policies about wealth transfer and the role of markets that constitute our left-right economic political axis. For many of the “environmental left”, the two subjects are inextricably linked. The Guardian’s George Monbiot is one of the most vocal “eco-socialists” who expresses this view. The idea is basically that capitalism is responsible for our environmental woes, and preserving our planet requires the end of market capitalism and economic liberalism.

There are so many things wrong with Monbiot’s argument that I don’t know where to start. Here is a short list:

1. Right up front Monobiot defines capitalism as “growth” – none of the definitions of capitalism I can find include this. Usually it is defined as private ownership and markets. Even Marx doesn’t include growth. So he starts with a false premise.

2. Because it is easily demonstrated that non-capitalist systems such as the Soviet Union wreaked massive environmental damage, he re-classifies these as having a lot in common with capitalism. This is intellectually very weak – relying on the circular argument “if it grows (or destroys the environment), it’s capitalist”.

3. He ignores the pre-capitalist examples of environmental destruction – humans wiped out all megfauna everywhere outside of Africa (where it evolved with, and adapted to, us) as soon as we left that continent. Then we deforested – not recently, but tens of thousands of years ago. There are other examples, like Easter Island. Unfortunately, but like all living things, we are hard-wired to consume and reproduce as much as possible.

4. Growth = resource consumption. This is often true but not always. Getting a haircut increases GDP but does not consume any resources, other than labour. Monbiot knows this and he also knows that advanced economies have grown their economies while reducing (say) carbon emissions (if that can be taken as a loose proxy for resources). To obfuscate these annoying facts, he looks at the world economy to make the case for “recoupling”. That’s a sleight of hand.

5. He asserts that growth requires externalities – without any support. A simple counter example is recycling (and any circular economic activity). This increases GDP but decreases resource consumption. How? Recycling plastic creates more value than landfilling. Two plastic bottles – someone is paid to collect them both. In one case, someone is paid to dig a hole and bury the thing. In the other, someone is paid to sort it, grind it up, wash it, melt it down and re-cast is as something useful, which is then sold, or perhaps burnt for energy (which is sold). The value chain for the second bottle is higher, so higher GDP results.

6. “…bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy.” Another way of phrasing this is: “bizzare assumption that a person is entitled to private property and the fruits of their labour”. It’s true these are recent concepts and at odds with the history of humanity, but they are features of a liberal political system. One that Monbiot clearly has problems with.

7. The wealth of rich nations was built on slavery – this is nonsense. It is most easily debunked by noting that i) lots of countries had (and have) slavery – not all of them are rich – in fact the countries with the largest numbers these days tend to be dirt poor, and not all of the historic slave societies ended up rich (e.g. the Caliphate) and ii) it begs the question how European nations were able to enslave Africans in the first place, if it was slavery itself that made them rich (and powerful enough to enslave others). That puts the cart before the horse, doesn’t it? Slavery is morally abhorrent, but not the basis for industrialised wealth. Of course, if you think wealth is abhorrent, you tend to conflate them.

Despite all of the problems I have with Monbiot’s very ideological view on the causes of our environmental problems, he is intelligent enough to at least confess he doesn’t have a solution. In return, I will also confess that he does have half a point about capitalism, wealth transfer and the environment.

Given we tend to consume endlessly – regardless of political or economic systems – political systems which liberate us, our productivity and ingenuity and also give us the freedom to benefit from that, can result in a lot more production and consumption. The reason liberal market economies can wreak such environmental destruction on the planet is not because it is inherent in the system, but because environmental destruction is inherent in us, as a species. In fact it’s inherent in any species that can successfully subvert environmental resources to its (natural) drive to reproduce endlessly. You don’t see yeast suddenly deciding to stop reproducing because alcohol is toxic to it. It just stews in its own waste until it dies (and your wine is ready to drink).

The second point is about wealth transfer, and follows from the marginal utility problem mention above and our varying concepts of justice. If everyone needs to eat less steak, is it fair that the poor guy who has one per week drops to zero, while the rich guy drops from 10 to 9? Do we all have a “quota” of pollution we’re allowed to make, or do the richer people who (in theory) produce more useful stuff get to produce more bad stuff too? These normative questions underlie the infusion of wealth transfer politics into climate action. They can’t be fully “defused” from the solutions to climate change. But it would help to discuss them explicitly. And perhaps compromise on one form of justice (immediate equity) for another (our children’s futures).

A question for all of us is, can we solve the collective action problem that yeast can’t?

I don’t know if we can. But I do know that until the political left can reach out to the right with purely environmental policies, until we can put down our moral cudgels for a moment – a Montreal Protocol moment – we are but yeast.


Annexe – Australian Greens Policy List at the 2019 Federal Election

Only the Greens will lead a planned transition out of coal and support affected workers (1)

Only the Greens have a plan to build 500,000 affordable, accessible community homes

Only the Greens are committed to banning the corporate donations that corrupt our democracy

Only the Greens have a plan to create 180,000 jobs by transitioning from coal to 100% renewable energy by 2030 (2)

Only the Greens have committed to raising Newstart by $75 a week

Only the Greens can be trusted to #StopAdani (3)

Only the Greens have a plan to give every child a place in childcare and bring back free university and TAFE

Only the Greens have a plan to establish a $2 billion per year Nature Fund to protect and restore our environment (4)

Only the Greens have a plan to transition from coal exports to a world-leading renewable energy exports industry (5)

Only the Greens will close the offshore camps and bring every man, woman and child to Australia

Only the Greens are committed to legalising cannabis for adult use

Only the Greens have a plan to kick-start the electric vehicle revolution by investing in infrastructure and ensuring all new car sales are electric by 2030 (6)

Only the Greens can be trusted to clean up politics by establishing a federal anti-corruption commission with the power to investigate dodgy politicians

Only the Greens are committed to ending all live exports and cruelty towards animals

Only the Greens will fulfil our UN obligation to increase Australia’s foreign aid and development budget to 0.7% GNI

Only the Greens will reverse public broadcaster cuts to save the ABC and SBS

Only the Greens have a plan to end the private health insurance rort and ensure our public health system is properly funded

Only the Greens are committed to making Medicare-funded dental care available to all Australians by 2025

Only the Greens are committed to banning all new fracking and coal-seam gas projects (7)

Only the Greens have a plan to reverse privatisation and create over 17,000 public sector jobs