In a recent article, British journalist George Monbiot argues that climate change mitigation advocates must join forces with a broader progressive coalition in order to see their ideas implemented. Alongside environmental concerns, this coalition ought to be “against the [public spending] cuts, against the banks, against BP, unemployment, the lack of social housing, the endless war in Afghanistan.” It should have the same kind of dynamism as the American Tea Party movement, and the same sort of enthusiasm for demanding policy changes.
While I certainly recognize the current impotence of the climate change mitigation movement (backsliding from the United States to Australia to UNFCCC negotiations), I don’t think Monbiot is right. Climate change mitigation is something we must undertake because of the physical realities associated with the climate system and the consequences of emitting greenhouse gases. It is not fundamentally a partisan issue, and dealing with it is not fundamentally tied to political views on issues like housing or Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the world cannot afford climate change mitigation to be a policy only of the political left. Inevitably, left-wing and right-wing governments alternate in power, as voters become disgusted by the excesses of each subsequent administration. Dealing with climate change requires a long descent towards zero net global emissions, over a span of decades. It’s not something that can be vigorously taken up for four, five, or eight years and then abandoned in favour of aggressive exploitation campaigns for unconventional fossil fuels and loosened environmental planning regulations.
Climate and the right
Besides, climate change is something that can be integrated into the political traditions of the right in several ways. Conservatives should love carbon taxes, since they are a mechanism to keep one person’s behaviour from impacting unduly on the freedom of others, while also allowing the maximum range of possible means for stopping the harm. Such taxes demonstrate faith in markets, innovation, and the capability of people to respond rationally and effectively to appropriate incentives. Further, there is a long tradition in conservative political philosophy of seeing the current generation of human beings as trustees of the planet, with a duty to pass it along in an improved or at least preserved state.
That being said, climate change is a major challenge to the libertarian view that people are essentially autonomous and should be free to do as they like. Laissez faire policies that ignore ever-rising greenhouse gas concentrations are likely to create the need for a far harsher eventual clampdown, once the harms associated with climate change become entirely undeniable. Also, given the lag time between emissions and their consequences, those concerned for the future state of the world cannot continue to tolerate ethical systems that include an unlimited right to pollute. Political thinkers across the political spectrum need to come to grips with what climate science has taught us, and think deeply about how that affects both the factual inputs to their moral reasoning and the moral precepts that serve as the foundation of their political philosophy.
Broad political consensus on dealing with climate change would also have another important role, as protection against populist opportunists. Once serious carbon prices have become common, making things like travel significantly more expensive, it seems inevitable that political parties will crop us that campaign to eradicate the fetters people have put upon themselves and return to the happy free-wheeling days of unlimited greenhouse gas emissions. In order to head off such short-sighted but potentially popular responses, it is necessary for serious politicians and parties of all stripes to continue to publicly express their appreciation for how cutting global emissions to zero is a practical necessity, and a project that cannot be abandoned because of the impracticalities it imposes on people.
Eventually, climate change denial must become entirely discredited among all serious politically active people, and the political conversation about climate change must shift to being about the mechanisms through which deep cuts can be rapidly achieved, rather than about whether such cuts are necessary, or whether we should condemn future generations to a harsh and unstable world for the sake of short-term economic benefits for us.