Anti-politics 5: Courting conservatives

This is the fifth part of a series about the Australian “anti-politics” attitude and how the green left should respond to it. Part 1 lays out evidence for the attitude and speculates on its causes. Part 2 argues the green left needs to distance itself from political elites. Part 3 discusses how we should communicate about climate change and what policies we should demand. Part 4 discusses debunking the neoliberal ideology of the political elites. This part considers how to communicate climate change to conservatives.

It might sound paradoxical to suggest that a party as radical as the Greens can appeal to conservatives, but I believe significant areas of common ground can be found. The starting point is dissatisfaction with the political establishment (although a fundamentally unconservative impulse, it seems to be spreading across Australian society). We need to find a way to channel this into dissatisfaction with the neoliberal ideology of the political elites.

Conservatives can change

Changing minds is difficult, but possible and necessary so we must try. Conservatism is an insular authoritarian mindset, so those who hold it strongly may be highly close-minded. However, conservatism is arguably more of a political orientation than a defined set of beliefs. The beliefs of conservatives can and have changed over time, albeit usually gradually (originally, conservatives reluctantly embraced gradual reform as a means to prevent a liberal or socialist revolution). As shown by their enthusiasm for wars, when conservatives perceive a serious threat they will support a strong, society-wide, pragmatic response. And because the status quo is the default position for the apathetic, the views of some conservatives may be softer and more malleable.

Neoliberalism is presently allied with conservatism because it justifies and tends to protect the existing hierarchy. However, this has not always been the case: historically conservatism upheld the rule of the European aristocracy and saw the rise of entrepreneurs as a disruption of the natural social hierarchy. There remains a tension between the two ideologies because neoliberalism advocates an inherently radical transformation of the economy and society (and as a side effect, the environment). After three decades in power, neoliberals have already dragged us a long way from the post-war economically centrist consensus of paternalist conservatives, social liberals, and social democrats.

Hardcore neoliberals are powerful, and essentially immovable on climate unless they abandon or moderate their free market ideology, but they are a minority. If we can split conservative voters from their neoliberal allies, then neoliberal parties will lose electoral support.

Preserving a stable environment

We must recast conserving a safe, stable climate as a conservative position: although climate activists are radical from a societal perspective, the fossil fuel companies are the radicals from an environmental perspective. We need to convince them that the stability of our environment is more important than stability of our society and economy – because it is that stable environment that sustains society and economy and has done so for thousands of generations.

One aspect of conservative thought that I find admirable is an ethical sense of social responsibility. An example is the civic duty I mentioned in Part 2. In contrast to neoliberalism, which sees self-interest as the highest good and believes any government encroaches on individual freedom, conservatives recognize regulation by a democratically elected government is necessary to ensure freedoms are exercised responsibly. (However, in practice my beliefs diverge sharply because conservatives tend to interpret responsibility to mean obeying often arbitrary traditional rules, whereas I interpret it to mean not causing harm.)

A British NGO, the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN), recently published an insightful report discussing how to engage conservatives on climate action. It is unusually well-thought-out compared to other similar discussions in that it recognizes the goal is to achieve an outcome, not merely market a message. The report argues:

the challenge for engaging the centre-right [is] to identify the aspects of British conservatism that are potentially congruent with the values and principles that “underpin a deep commitment to sustainable development”, and to distinguish them from the values of the neoliberal ‘new right’, which centre more on economic liberalism.

COIN warn the present focus on the economic side-benefits of climate action may unwittingly be counterproductive because it causes people to think about the issue in terms of self-interest instead of altruism. They suggest a focus on the following narratives would appeal to conservatives:

  • We have a duty to act locally to conserve local landscapes for future generations.
  • Renewable energy will enhance energy supply resilience and local manufacturing. (However, the report notes there are risks in using this message, especially in a narrow national security context, because energy security can also be used to justify unconventional fossil fuels.)
  • The growing “green economy” (renewable technologies etc) is a new industrial revolution which will replace business-as-usual with responsible capitalism. This involves accepting some short-term economic costs to avoid the devastating long-term costs of climate change impacts. (However, the report again cautions that economic arguments may not be the most effective, because systemic action depends on public support for the underlying issue, climate action.)
  • Climate change, extreme weather, and air pollution from fossil fuels kill people and harm public health, damaging our quality of life.

A personal comment on the third point: Although there is a role for technology and markets, it mustn’t be overstated. We must be careful not to foster the comfortable delusion that we can sit back and expect markets to solve everything without government intervention, or wait for new technologies to be invented, or rely on light-touch market mechanisms like emissions trading or voluntary incentives. Market-centric approaches ignore the urgent need for rapid large-scale action, which can really only come from government.

Revealing climate change as an immediate threat

Similarly to COIN, Climate Code Red blogger David Spratt has long criticized the focus on side-benefits as “bright-siding”. Spratt says bright-siding is based on a misperception that dire warnings about climate turn off listeners (in reality, research shows that although the message that global warming is dire and unsolvable doesn’t work, the message that global warming is dire but solvable is effective). Moreover, scientists and campaigners have internalized the denialists’ unfounded accusation that they have interpreted and communicated climate science in an alarmist way. In reality the reverse is true, as shown yet again recently by the lowest-common-denominator conclusions of the IPCC AR5 and the dismissive and in some cases conspiracist way it was reported. As climate competes with short-term issues such as financial crises, those (such as Julia Gillard and the Say Yes cheer squad in 2011) who fail to talk about the scientific basis for drastic action on climate change are implicitly telling the public it is not a serious problem.

It is vital that we explain the urgency of the climate crisis so the public understands what is truly necessary. The people will not support a solution if they are not aware of the problem. Nobody will support action on the basis that it might not be bad for the economy; they must understand the real reason. Trumpeting the benefits of a green economy carries no particular urgency, and short-termist economic arguments can easily be made for business as usual. The ethical, science-based argument for action is far stronger.

Instead of artificially avoiding “negativity”, we must recognize negative emotions are a rational response to the situation in which we find ourselves, and serve an important function. Most people, but particularly conservatives, tend to be more galvanized by negative thoughts than inspired by positive ones: consider the campaign against coal seam gas. Fear in particular is a powerful political motivator. Currently fear – irrational fear about electricity prices and so on – is leading us to stay on the fossil-fuelled Titanic. Only fear – rationally justified fear of losing the security of our stable, hospitable climate – will compel us into the lifeboats. To bring the majority onside, we must tell it as it is, contrasting the nightmare of a destabilized climate with the dream of a renewable energy economy, with the outcome dependent on the choices we must make now.

Spratt rightly calls for climate change to be framed as an here-and-now urgent emergency. Two obvious ways to communicate this neatly correspond to two of the narratives outlined by COIN: protecting public safety from climate change, and fighting local battles against mining companies (see Part 3 for discussion of the latter).

We need to honestly explain the urgency and scale of action required and the consequences of not acting. We need to clearly articulate that climate change is a catastrophe not just for the Earth but for humans. We need to explain how climate change is immediately relevant to Australians’ lives, by connecting climate change with present extreme weather in Australia, and outlining the potential future impacts. We must explain that if we are to maintain our stable and hospitable climate, we cannot burn the majority of fossil fuels, and we urgently need to phase out fossil fuels and get to near-zero emissions (with secondary goals of removing carbon from the atmosphere and considering geoengineering to cool the planet). We must say loud and clear that government policy is a very, very, very long way from what science says is necessary. We must expose all the greenwash: remember we are up against an enemy who seek to mislead and confuse at every turn, and to defeat them it is vital to debunk their misinformation.

Replacing social resentment with economic resentment

Many voters who have been disadvantaged and disenfranchised by the political establishment currently blame the authoritarian-right-wing scapegoats of environmentalism, minorities, and the libertarian left. We need to offer these voters an alternative explanation: the main cause of their woes is polluting industries and the economic right. For example, the loss of Australian manufacturing and farming jobs has more to do with free trade and the mining boom than greens/refugees/immigrants/Aboriginals/women/gays/Muslims/atheists/whoever. Again, Milne’s increased focus on the Greens’ left-wing economic policies has been a step in the correct direction.

A potential danger

In seeking alliances with conservatives, there is a danger I cannot in good conscience neglect to mention.

Critics of environmentalism accuse greens of being authoritarian “eco-fascists” whose good intentions pave the road to hell. They make a compelling argument for at least a potential link by highlighting greenish agrarian ideology in Nazi Germany (although it was based in romantic nostalgia for a mythical pre-industrial golden age, unlike the scientific evidence of global environmental crisis which inspires most modern environmentalists such as myself). However, the modern green movement has no connection with Nazism (remember modern greens are in the left-libertarian quadrant). Allying ourselves with social conservatives brings the dangers that 1) it might give credibility to the neoliberal accusation of authoritarian tendencies, and 2) we might actually move toward a fascist society. Obviously, this is no small matter. As we have seen in previous times of political crisis such as the 1930s, multiple ideologies vie for dominance and it is not necessarily the wisest ones which prevail.

The Greens may face competition from new single-issue environmentalist parties with no position on social issues, such as Save the Planet and Stop CSG (and a volunteer for the latter was reportedly willing to accept help from a pseudo-fascist troll). In this light, the Greens’ strong social ideology has both advantages and disadvantages.

On the one hand, I personally want the Greens to continue to advocate greater social equality because I don’t want to live in an authoritarian society. If we can convince conservative voters of the gravity of the climate crisis, they may let it determine their vote instead of the social bugbears with which they are currently preoccupied, and maybe we can even sway some away from their social conservatism. And although this post focuses on conservatives, we shouldn’t forget there are many voters (particularly young voters) who are socially progressive, so the Greens would risk losing a lot of support if they weaken their social ideology.

On the other hand, social libertarian campaigns distract from the most urgent issue of global warming. We must not lose sight of the harsh reality that if climate change is not addressed, it is likely to overwhelm all other attempts to make a better world. Many Australians appear to be strongly socially conservative, and in the absence of any magical way to neutralize antipathy to social liberalism, perhaps its goals simply need to be downgraded in priority while we deal with the climate crisis.

In Part 6, I will discuss how the Greens can run a strong campaign by undermining the legitimacy of the Abbott government, creating memorable slogans, and mobilizing the community.

1 comment

    • David Hamilton on 19 July 2014 at 20:21
    • Reply

    Good analysis, James. I agree with it, and suggest an extension to your ideas, particularly in rural areas experiencing difficult economic times. In such situations, conservative people may appreciate the benefits of local ownership of local businesses which aim to be sustainable – ones that are likely to still be producing local economic benefits for many decades. In hard times – say after a multinational has shut down a local major employer – the benefits of a locally owned business that makes a sustainable contribution to the district are easily appreciated, and the Transition message of encouraging local resilience becomes a formula for local economic revival.

    One of the economic tools that some communities have used is an economic leakage analysis, which looks at money that goes out of a community not to return. Very commonly, energy, particularly fossil fuels, are near the top of the list of “holes”. (For example, Tasmania spends about $1 billion per year on petroleum products, money which leaves the island.) Energy efficiency and locally owned renewable energy is a sensible economic response to this situation, and so encouraging energy efficiency and community renewable energy may receive a good hearing. An example is the town of Gussing in Austria, a town which has turned its economic fortunes around as a result of an emphasis on energy efficiency and local renewable energy.

    The Post Carbon Institute has published some books on these themes, such as “Local Dollars, Local Sense” by Michael Shuman, which is part of the Institute’s Community Resilience Guide series.

    Thus most of the actions that are needed to be taken in rural communities as a response to climate change have a good economic justification. It’s the withdrawal from liquid fuels that does not follow naturally from this analysis, and here I wonder if the peak oil story might help concentrate thinking in those communities. After all, the evidence of a looming oil supply crunch just keeps getting stronger and stronger.

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