06 November 2013

The Abbott government: climate policy as culture war

by David Spratt, first published at ReNewEconomy

Overnight in London, former prime minister John Howard gave the climate-denialist Global Warming Policy Foundation's annual lecture, telling his audience:
I've always been agnostic about [climate change]… I don't completely dismiss the more dire warnings but I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated… I don't accept all of the alarmist conclusions… You can never be absolutely certain that all the science is in.
 Agnosticism masking denial has been Howard's trademark. In February 2007, he told Lateline that 4-to-6 degrees Celsius of climate warming "would be less comfortable for some than it is now".  Yes, really!

Howard's art has been well adopted by his protege and now Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott. In both opposition and government, the Abbott-led LNP is prosecuting climate policy as a "culture war", a broad social polarisation between two conflicting sets of values, principally on the relationship between science and ideology, the role of government, the relationship between humans and nature, and the future of the fossil fuel industry and of society's technological path. In some aspects it is not dis-similar to the politics brought to Washington by Newt Gingrich and, in a more extreme form, by the Tea Party, exemplified by Abbott's recent "(carbon) taxation equals socialism" pitch.

The Abbott government's climate policy exist in the space between denial and delay. It is founded on:
  • conservatism and the preservation of the status quo against change: a desire to hold back the tide and champion the interests of the fossil fuel industry, even while recognising that a huge economic–technological tide of change is closing in;
  • a commitment to neo-liberal, deregulatory economic policy: defence of free-market capitalism against higher levels of state intervention and regulation;
  • an instrumental view of nature as a resource for exploitation;
  • an anti-scientific stance, which extinguishes the distance between science and ideology and drives a culture war with a religious component against secular science and environmentalism; and
  • the ethos of "politics as warfare", the virtues of confrontation and political extremism, and the dumbing-down of politics.
 The Abbott government's strategy is to:
  • remove regulatory and tax imposts on the fossil fuel industry and carbon pricing, inhibit the growth of the renewable energy sector, and diminish the effectiveness of the climate action and anti-fossil-fuel-industry movements;
  • formally accept climate change as real, but downplay the human role: persistently deny any link between climate change and impacts including more extreme events (for example, their response to the October 2013 NSW bushfires), accompanied by a chorus of backbench denialist rhetoric;
  • dumb-down and politicise climate science, exploit scientific uncertainty;
  • tar climate action with the brush of Labor's political incompetence;
  • promote fear of economic loss, by claiming climate action will "put at risk our manufacturing industry, penalise struggling families, make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia";
  • utilise the politics of resentment; and
  • ruthlessly exploit the myth of cost of living pressures, in particular carbon pricing and RET as the main culprits for higher electricity prices.
 But there are also realities that the Abbott government is desperate to avoid.  These include:
  •  more and more intense extreme weather events driven by climate change;
  •  "connecting the dots" between extreme events and climate change. Lenore Taylor in "Coalition deploys straw man against burning issue of climate change" tells why the government was "desperate to keep bushfires and climate change apart” for fear its climate policies would be found wanting;
  • constructing the narrative about climate impacts, rather than electricity prices and taxes. The government cannot deal with a narrative about people in Australia and not distant places, about now and not just the distant future, about connecting the dots, about record heat and heatstroke deaths, about extreme floods and property, about how family and friends will live in a hotter and more extreme world, about how a retreating coastline will affect where we live and work, a story about health and well-being, about increasing food and water insecurity, and the more difficult life that children and grandchildren will face.
  • government ministers and members being drawn into discussion about climate impacts, for which most of them are very poorly prepared. In his infamous BBC interview, Greg Hunt said that  the Coalition had taken ''science off the table'' when it came to climate change, and ''We're not debating it";
  • narratives about the responsibility of political leaders to "protect the people" and protect the Australian way of life from the impacts of climate change, exemplified by the approach of Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt. 
The Abbott government will not be persuaded by reason and is not interested in compromise because this is a battle to be won, and compromise and negotiation are signs of weakness. For this government, fighting enemies is more important than reality-based policy-making. This is about the politics of resentment, fear and revenge, about winning, and about debilitating the enemy. Culture wars are not primarily about policy detail, but about building legitimacy and establishing dominance. These are Abbott's goals and, in a fashion of being mirror opposites, they must also be ours.

A culture war mentality pervades the prime minister's thinking, and was well described by Damon Young in Monday's Sydney Morning Herald:
 Tony Abbott recently pronounced the former government ''wacko''… Abbott's message – that the former government is uniquely irrational and inept – is so consistent and vehement, it is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister is not genuinely committed to some version of this idea… He describe(s) the Labor government as ''the most incompetent and untrustworthy … in modern Australian history''… At the very least, Abbott seems to believe his caricature as he draws it. And so confident is Abbott of its veracity or popularity that he will sketch, without pause, his picture for a global audience…
Put simply: Abbott is committed to this caricature of his political rivals, or he at least believes that this portrait will sell as well abroad as it has domestically. Either way, this picture is worrying. It does not suggest practical wisdom: a knack for responding to milieu and ambiguity. It suggests an evangelist or apparatchik, for whom the world is neatly divided into us and them, goodies and baddies, my common sense and their lunacy. Instead, Abbott's slur suggests that word so often reserved as an insult for the left: ideology. 
John Howard on steroids, perhaps?

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