Why conservatives should want to act on climate change
12 Nov 2019|

Extinction Rebellion protests calling for climate-change action can be annoying when they stop you in traffic or make idealistic but impracticable demands for policies that will keep the global temperature rise to under 1.5°C. And the movement’s call for governments to ‘create, and be led by, a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice’ is likely to make conservatives and others see red, even without the ravishing Red Rebels’ robes and white kabuki faces.

But conservatives might want to take the wind out of the marchers’ banners by taking climate action themselves, drawing on the rich tradition of conservative thought.

National security is a central task of government for conservatives and a good reason to act, despite the security impacts of climate change sometimes being oversold; likely long-term impacts on security are often cited as nearer term than they probably are. And non-military security policy levers, such as international cooperation to stop illegal migration, have sometimes been downplayed in favour of costly military responses.

But impacts have been emerging sooner than scientists forecast only a few years ago and so are playing a greater role in the mix of causes of intra- and inter-state competition. There are, for example, many reasons why Rohingyas are persecuted and try to flee Myanmar, but one of them is that military officers covet their rice- and shrimp-growing land in a world where states worry more about food security and food prices.

Climate change will therefore bring further demand for involvement of the Australian Defence Force in humanitarian operations at home and abroad, potentially reducing readiness for other operations. Former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably declared that US soldiers are not babysitters; the ADF can’t only provide food, water and shelter to communities affected by longer, stronger natural disasters, despite the gratitude it wins at home and in regional countries.

Conservatives should also want to act on climate change because they might be better at it. If you don’t believe in the perfectibility of humankind, you’re less likely to waste time with individual actions that distract from systemic responses (your hemp shopping bag versus industry-wide overpackaging). And most conservatives are against subsidies, including hidden ones such as governments bearing the cost of climate impacts that greenhouse-gas-producing industries avoid.

So conservatives would tend to tolerate only the most effective state involvement in the economy to reduce market failures like greenhouse-gas production. Market mechanisms and efficiency are more likely to achieve that than a citizens’ assembly. The concept of individual responsibility would rule out compensation for those who take on clearly doomed investments in dirty industries.

In her 1989 speech to the United Nations about the urgent need to act on climate change, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was clear that greater wealth through growth would be required so that we could afford to protect the environment. Conservatives shouldn’t be prepared to see homes and businesses Australians have worked hard for being lost to more or more intense droughts, bushfires or floods. The jobs and innovation that new technologies bring would interest them, too.

Valuing growth and industry gives conservatives a natural advantage in working with developing countries like India and Indonesia that want to power their own growth. If science, economics and technology can square Australia selling coal to fire that growth, conservatism would be for it—but the role of reason in the conservative tradition would surely be against it if the trade-offs don’t work.

Instead, conservatism would acknowledge the role of industry and pursue growth for both Australia and poorer countries by licensing our climate-change technology and encouraging private investment and freer trade. These sorts of actions would also help Australia ensure international climate rules don’t disadvantage traded industries that are subject to climate-change-mitigation measures and don’t get unilaterally imposed on us.

Some conservatives might want to take effective action on climate change to conserve the richness God created. Thatcher ended her speech noting that ‘[W]e are not lords of all we survey … [W]e are the Lord’s creatures, trustees of this planet.’ For conservatives less influenced by religion, a school of thought born in a largely agrarian England would instinctively encompass the truism that there is no chance of a prosperous economy and stable society without a liveable environment.

It is only an artefact of annoyingly self-righteous activists, populism and special interests—no friends of the conservative tradition, or any other—that some conservatives think they should take little effective action on climate change. But those who care about farmers, the economy and society’s strivers shouldn’t leave the field just to idealists, anti-capitalists and protesters in bright robes.