Will the green conservatives please stand up

Traditional conservatism involved anxiety to protect the natural environment and preserve it for future generations. Tony Abbott's 'conservationism' may win votes, but it's quite a different ideology.

At his post-carbon-tax media conference, Prime Minister Abbott celebrated the repeal of the Gillard government’s carbon laws by saying “we are a conservationist government... we’ve only got one planet and we should pass it on to our children and grandchildren in as least as good shape as we found it”.

He added that his government would do the “sensible thing to try to bring emissions down” and stressed that this would be achieved by “never, ever, doing anything that is going to put our country, our businesses, our workers, our families, at an unfair disadvantage to those elsewhere”.

It’s reassuring to hear Abbott mention children and grandchildren. To do so is to situate the current government in a conservative tradition that stretches right back to Edmund Burke – the ‘father’ of British conservatism.

Burke’s conservatism was born at a time of two monumental changes in western civilisation. First, he felt uneasy about what was being lost as the industrial revolution chewed up towns, landscapes, human beings and the cultures and traditions that had produced the civilisation of his era.

Second, Burke saw huge dangers in the French and American revolutions. By tearing down long-standing structures of authority and governance, and by erasing historical memory in the interests of ‘progress’, society was at risk of tearing itself to bits.

Why go back to the late 18th century and the roots of conservatism? Because Abbott’s words at last week’s media conference dripped with the spirit of Burkean conservatism.

As US author Katey Castellano describes it, Burke’s vision contained within it a streak of romanticism – a keen nostalgia for what might be lost to future generations if we didn’t conserve what previous generations loved the most. And part of that was the natural environment.

Castellano, in her book ‘The Ecology of British Romantic Conservatism’, writes that Burke’s political views were “guided by the imagination of intergenerational responsibility... Romantic conservatives view modernity as a threatening break with the past and instead advocate for an imaginative attachment to both past and future generations.”

She adds that wanting future generations to have the best, means that “The conservative intergenerational imagination impels a substantial environmental ethic...”

And so Tony Abbott can claim to be a conservationist who will do the ‘sensible’ thing to ‘pass the planet on to our children’ in pretty much as good a shape.

But is that really what he’s doing? The scrapping of the Gillard carbon laws, and their replacement with ‘Direct Action’ (if it ever passes the Senate), really does not exhibit the ‘intergenerational responsibility’ that lies at the heart of traditional conservativsm.

Specifically, Australians have long enjoyed cheap power, but like the rest of the world have not had to count the cost of its global, socialised negative externality – that is, the threat to climate systems posed by the greenhouse gases emitted by our major power generators.

We know, almost beyond doubt, that the time is coming in which that cost will be counted globally – most likely after the new Copenhagen-style climate conference in Paris next November.

Those that think Paris will be a debacle along the lines of Copenhagen – the conference that was the beginning of the end for Kevin Rudd, as Tristan Edis has explained – are making a mistake.

At that conference, all eyes will be on China and the US, who have been growing increasingly close in their view of cutting emissions.

They will not take action because they’re sandal-wearing tree-huggers, but because they are administrations governing nations that will face increasing geo-political and trade threats if they do not lead action to mitigate the risk of anthropogenic climate change.

Meanwhile, in Australia, a plan to gradually transition to a lower-carbon-emitting economy has just been scrapped.

‘Gradually’ is the operative word. Had Australia started substantial development and rollout of cleaner energy sources back in the 1990s, when climate change was first making world headlines, the cost to taxpayers/consumers would have been impossible to discern.

Under the Gillard package, the effects for most households were larger, but still very modest.

But the costs to future generations of transitioning to renewables suddenly, when the global community is forcing us to do so, will be very painful indeed.

And we have a lot more transitioning to do than most nations. As the chart of World Bank data below shows, Australia has very high emissions per capita compared to our biggest trading partner, China.

Graph for Will the green conservatives please stand up

China has committed to reducing its emissions per unit of GDP by 45 per cent by 2020. Part of that task involves decommisioning its worst coal-fired power stations. However a large part of the task involves developing and building large-scale renewable energy.

It’s the conservative thing to do. The Chinese, it turns out, are keen on their grandchildren having what they had as well.

In Australia, the big problem with the switch from the ‘carbon tax’ to Direct Action, is that the former was specifically designed to help fund the development and rollout of renewable energy to replace de-commissoned high-emitting capacity.

Direct Action is not set up to do this. It will use an auction process to determine where the greatest emissions can be achieved by shutting down outmoded forms of power generation.

But what is going to replace it? Australians should have cheap energy if they want it, just not cheap ‘dirty’ energy. (And we can have that too if we like, though sticking to that path will cost us dearly in diplomatic and trade circles - see Why the US carbon tax will leave us naked, May 30).

Under the carbon package that has just been repealed, half the carbon tax revenue flowed into developing or building clean energy capacity (either through R&D or leveraged with private sector funds to build capacity).

The other half of the revenue was handed back to taxpayers to achieve the goal of changing relative prices without substantially hitting household budgets – Abbott’s ‘$550 per household’ cost was actually about half that for most households in net terms.

If clean energy technologies are not encouraged and rolled out under Direct Action, a decidedly non-conservative outcome will result. Future generations will have to adapt, very suddenly, to a changed global environment.

Given that many economists and scientists have seen this coming for decades, it’s a wonder that a conservative government still resists handing the planet on to future generations with the cheap, plentiful power we’ve enjoyed.

This government may win votes by claiming to be ‘conservationists’. But by neglecting the needs of coming generations, they are failing as conservatives.

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