Morals Aside, Practical Approach to Climate Change Required

Morals Aside, Practical Approach to Climate Change Required

The Prime Minister’s dramatic plunge in voter approval, which began when his Government suspended his ETS ambitions, reflects an electorate that doubts Rudd’s credibility as a leader. There is a need to reframe climate debates in more nationally focused terms. Any carbon pricing must be accompanied by co-ordinated policies in infrastructure, skills and training, and employment generation. This from author and philosopher Tim Soutphommasane.

Tim Soutphommasane in The Australian (14 June 2010):

Labor needs a practical, not a moral, approach to climate change

NOW may seem a strange time for progressives to talk about renewing the climate change debate.

With Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s abandonment of ETS legislation, climate change has ceased to be an urgent political concern.

Those who hoped a Rudd government would deliver decisive action may justifiably feel frustration, if not despair. Little wonder there has been a surge of support for the Greens. Rebuilding the case for progressive climate change politics will naturally take time, but it is important to draw the right lessons from the Rudd government’s first term.

The most obvious lesson is that political reform requires courage and conviction. Labor’s current spiral in the polls is vindication of Machiavelli’s maxim that Fortune favours those princes who are audacious rather than cautious. Rudd Labor’s dramatic plunge in voter approval, which began when the PM suspended his ETS ambitions, reflects an electorate that doubts Rudd’s credibility as a leader.

Isn’t climate change meant to be the greatest moral challenge of our time, after all?

At another level, the failure of progressives’ prosecution of the climate change debate demonstrates a philosophical malaise.

There is no doubt that climate change presents some profound ethical challenges and requires an international response.

Yet the temptation has been to conclude that a global problem requires not only a global solution but also a global morality.

Parochial national interests, the argument runs, must be subordinated to those of humanity at large. Global responsibility must trump patriotism. Where we fail to support significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, we are guilty of immorality.

If only it were so simple.

The failure of Copenhagen has underlined, if ever it needed emphasis, that there are grave problems with relying on cosmopolitan ethics. For we may talk about climate change as a moral problem, but how we deal with our inevitably imperfect and ignoble world is another matter.

Any compelling climate change argument must be integrated into a national story and reformist agenda. There is a need to reframe climate debates in more nationally focused terms. Many progressives on the social democratic Left may decry this as a form of nationalistic retreat. But it does little good to build castles in the air and continue appealing to global solidarity. Reform agendas must be based on broad public support and articulated in the prose of national interest, not in the meter of cosmopolitan poetry.

Building a distinctive Australian story on climate change isn’t necessarily straightforward.

Australians have a complex relationship with the environment.

True, we often express our patriotism in terms of a love of the physical aspects of our country; we all love our sunburnt country.

But the national imagination has always regarded the physical environment as something to conquer: the Australian nation was built by felling trees, cultivating land, damming rivers, and laying roads and railways through mountains and across deserts. We have historically made our living from the land. We treat the environment as an economic resource to be exploited rather than an endowment to be protected.

We need only look to the public’s response to the government’s proposed mining resources rent tax to appreciate how powerful such currents run in our psyche. The language of jobs and growth has long ruled our vernacular.

This doesn’t mean that nation-building and climate change action are incompatible. But it does mean that a more integrated approach is needed. Any carbon pricing must be accompanied by co-ordinated policies in infrastructure, skills and training, and employment generation.

This approach would reverse some of the present conventional wisdom, namely, the belief that moving to reduce carbon emissions will lead to “carbon leakage” as investment flows to those countries unencumbered by stringent emissions targets.

At the same time, this approach would involve a more powerful social-justice imperative. The costs of climate change adjustment will be borne disproportionately by low-income households and workers in emissions-intensive industries. Instead of retraining redundant workers down the track to make them fit a new low-carbon economy, the transitional should begin today.

There are compelling reasons for Australian progressives to embrace a more muscular vision of nation-building and social justice as opposed to the grandiosity of cosmopolitan ethics. The moral challenge of climate change – so apparently neat and unambiguous – has for too long been divorced from the political challenge, something so unavoidably messy.

If a moral language can’t motivate us to translate principles into practice, then it does little good for us to parade our virtue.

Emphasising patriotism and nation-building may seem strange to suggest as a response to what is a global problem. Yet, strangely enough, decisive action may require us to be patriotic savages, motivated by working for our national tribe, rather than cultivated cosmopolitan ghosts, moved by a love of humanity.

Tim Soutphommasane gave a keynote lecture on climate change as part of the Alfred Deakin Lectures 2010 on 11 June. He is a political theorist, commentator and author of Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives.

A research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies and a senior project leader at the Per Capita think tank, Tim writes the “Ask the Philosopher” column in The Weekend Australian, which offers a philosophical take on politics, society and public policy. He has written widely for the British and Australian press, among other things as a contributing leader-writer for The Financial Times and The Guardian. His work has also appeared in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Monthly, The Australian Literary Review and The Spectator.

Tim worked on the speechwriting staff of former New South Wales premier Bob Carr and on the staff of then opposition leader Kevin Rudd during the 2007 federal election campaign. He was a junior associate at public affairs firm Hawker Britton and, for two years, was editor in chief of The Oxonian Review of Books, Oxford’s postgraduate literary and political journal.

Of Chinese and Lao extraction, and a first-generation Australian, Tim was raised in the southwest suburbs of Sydney. He recently completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree in political theory at the University of Oxford, from where he also holds a Master of Philosophy degree (with distinction). Tim studied at Oxford as Commonwealth and Jowett Senior Scholar at Balliol College. He is a first-class honours graduate of the University of Sydney.


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