Stop saying yes: “Political reality”

11 June 2012

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

Global warming is not just another issue; it is an urgent threat to human civilization. To avoid passing tipping points for dangerous climate change, humanity must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to cut emissions to zero or near-zero as soon as possible. Starting now, we must cut global fossil fuel emissions by 6%/year, and the longer we delay, the steeper the required rate will become.

Despite this inescapable reality, pragmatists argue we must keep our demands within “political reality”. The necessary actions are considered not “realistic”. But when “political reality” clashes with objective reality, only the former can give. Objective reality is a world of facts and physical laws, which cannot be changed. “Political reality” is a world of political power and human laws, which can be changed.

I believe the “political realists” misjudge our opponents, misunderstand how politics works, and overlook the nature of the climate crisis.

The opponents to whom I refer are, primarily, the fossil fuel industry, and by extension, whichever political forces do their bidding. The former is inherently unmovable on climate action. It is no use appeasing the fossil fuel industry, because they will never agree to their own demise; no amount of negotiation will change that. For the same reason, the practicality of compromise with other political groups is inversely proportional to their degree of association with the fossil fuel industry. (There are grey areas in applying this latter principle, however. In an Australian context, it is fairly straightforward to place the Liberal Party in the category of “unmovable ally of the fossil fuel industry”, but is Labor in the same category or was it worthwhile for the Greens to negotiate with them?)

Wishing for unanimous agreement on climate action is naïve, because it will never happen. We are, after all, dealing with the biggest issue confronted by humanity; there’s inevitably going to be some political conflict.

When you’re dealing with an opponent who will criticize you no matter what you do, moving towards their position is not only pointless but counterproductive. “Political reality” is nothing more or less than the net result of all advocacy. It’s like a tug-of-war: taking a stronger position pulls the “political reality” toward you, while giving in to the current “reality” pushes it further away from you. Moving toward your opponent shifts the centre of the range of opinions toward them, and makes them look more reasonable. If you let your opponents frame the debate, you’re fighting on enemy turf and they have the advantage. Who is going to change “political reality” if we don’t?

So far, the only vocal criticisms of the Gillard Government’s policy have been from the opponents of climate action. I cannot imagine the Government feels much pressure from the climate movement or even the Greens; the major threat they would perceive is from the fossil fuel industry and the Liberal Party. They will continue to be the only voices that are heard, if we fail to criticize the Government.

If the Government’s current policy had been its first offer back in 2008, many climate activists would never have accepted it. Yet here we all are, uncritically supporting a terrible policy because it’s not as bad as the previous version. As the voices of climate activists have grown lighter and softer, the voices of polluting industries have grown louder and shriller. While the environment movement becomes more pragmatic over time, industry lobbyists make their demands increasingly ridiculous. While they argue for much more than they would probably be happy with, we argue for far less than what we know is necessary. And they are winning. Clearly the pragmatic strategy of environmentalists is not working.

As industry lobbyists fill climate policies with as many holes as Swiss cheese, too often we look the other way, telling ourselves these flaws will be corrected later. But will they really? Despite the mechanisms for improving the carbon price, there will be tremendous resistance to such corrections. Once holes have crept into legislation, businesses will argue they have a “right” to those bad laws. Water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin have been overallocated for decades, and now irrigators react angrily to attempts to rectify the situation. I am afraid the same thing could happen with the overallocation of free emissions permits – or, if the caps set in 2014 are too weak, the overallocation of emissions permits, period. These are dangerous games to play: in the former case, Australia’s food production capacity is at stake; in the latter case, the habitability of the entire world.

The most fundamental problem with incrementalism is time: we are fast running out of it. Global warming won’t stop and wait for us to negotiate. Everyone in the Australian climate movement, including myself, hailed the Clean Energy Future policy as a “first step”; GetUp! even made a self-congratulatory video portraying it as the culmination of decades of campaigning for climate action. But we’ve already delayed for decades; we don’t have decades to take the rest of the steps, unless the final step is to invent a time machine that will bring us back to the 2010s when we should have phased out fossil fuels.

We must not forget the climate operates according to the laws of physics, and we cannot compromise with the laws of physics. If we try, we will all inevitably lose.

There are essentially two ways to try to advance a political issue. The ostensibly “realistic” approach, which in fact I have just demonstrated to be unrealistic in the case of climate action, is to compromise in the hope of winning over your opponents. The alternate approach is to take a strong stand so the public have a reason to support you and not your opponents. Given that whatever the climate movement says will be opposed by the fossil fuel lobby and thus appear controversial, we have nothing to lose by saying what really needs to be said.

The opponents of climate action make two arguments against any climate policy that is proposed: that it will hurt the economy (no matter how weak the policy), and that it will make no significant difference to climate change. When the policy is ultra-weak, the argument that it makes no significant difference to climate change is correct. That argument is obviously convincing people: 33% of Australians say they oppose Australia’s climate policies because “the measures are not strict enough to result in substantial emissions reductions”. But if instead we advocate a strong policy which clearly makes a demonstrable difference to the climate, the argument that it makes no difference would fall apart, and we would win over the aforementioned 33%. Public support for climate action would get much stronger, whereas the opposition from industry cannot get much stronger than it already is.

Changing the politics of climate change may seem impossible, but we cannot succeed if we don’t even try. I don’t know how to do it, but the future has not yet been written.

In Part 6, I ask: have the Greens done a good job?

What do you think?

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