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Climate change and the culture wars

December 14th, 2015

As I’ve argued in a previous post, it seems likely [^1] that the global agreement on reached at COP21 will mark the turning point in efforts to stabilize the global climate. If so, it will mark the defeat of the right in one of the most bitterly contested arenas of their long-running culture war, and also one of the hardest to explain. There’s no obvious reason, apart from tribal hostility to “enviros” why this should have been a culture war battleground at all.[1]

There was, by 1990 or so, a well developed literature on “free market environmentalism” which pushed the idea that environmental problems were the result of inadequate property rights, and that the solution was to create such rights: in this case, tradeable emissions permits. Environmentalists were generally hostile to the idea, preferring direct regulation. Eventually most environmental groups came around to the view that a carbon price was essential to solving the problem. Instead of claiming victory, the right opposed the idea ferociously and effectively, with the result that the policy outcome has included much more intrusive regulation, and much less reliance on markets, than would have been optimal. The oddity of a supposedly market-oriented government in Australia preferring “Direct Action” over price-based policies is by no means unusual.

Has the climate change culture war helped or harmed the right? The harm is obvious enough. The scientific and economic evidence on climate change is so clear cut that mounting a case against it requires a huge amount of willing gullibility (the fact that is labelled “scepticism” is one of the smaller ironies of the story). The result has been a big contribution to the lowering of intellectual standards that allows someone like Donald Trump to become a plausible candidate for the Republican nomination in the US.

The intellectual damage has been particularly severe for libertarians, who have traditionally thought of themselves as the smart, logical types, deriving their policy positions from rigorous deduction. As the case of climate change has shown, you can get any answer you want if you make up your own facts. So, we have the sorry spectacle of self-described libertarians making the kinds of spurious claims, in relation to wind farms, that were once the province of the least credible environmentalists, and demanding the appointment of highly paid government regulators. At the turn of the century, libertarianism had a plausible case to be the way of the future. Now, as far as I can see, it has disappeared from view in the US and survives in Australia only because of the vagaries of the Senate electoral system.

Against that, the struggle to save the planet from dangerous climate change has chewed up a huge amount of energy and effort on the left. Arguably, that has distracted attention from economic issues, and allowed the steady rise of the 1 per cent to go unchallenged. That analysis fits with the widely held view that the culture wars are just a device to keep the rightwing base agitated enough to turn out, losing time after time, but still providing the votes needed to keep pro-rich politicians in office.

[^1]: A Republican win in 2016 would certainly be a major problem. But the momentum is such that it would probably not make much difference. Even if a Republican Administration weakened environmental standards, no one is going to build a new coal-fired power station in the US, knowing that it might have to shut down after the next election.

[^2]: There was, initially, some significant support from fossil fuel interests (notably Exxon) through bodies like the Global Climate Coalition. But that dropped off quite early as most big corporations worked out that they were better off changing their business models to incorporate renewables than fighting to save the old ways of doing things. For at least the last decade, the economic issues have been secondary – it’s all culture war all the time.

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  1. m0nty
    December 14th, 2015 at 18:20 | #1

    I guess you have to take into account what the Right is for, Prof Q. If it’s for defending the interests of rich old white men, then making CC a culture war issue makes perfect sense, because a lot of rich old white men run and/or own stocks in fossil fuel companies. Free markets are all very well as an idea, but if they threaten Establishment business interests, a lot of the Right are quite happy to ignore small-l liberal economic theory in favour of tribal calls to action.

    The obvious reason you’re looking for is identity-based self interest, ginned up by culture warriors who are paid directly by those rich old white men to spruik for their cause. Economic ideology is trumped by cultural ideology.

  2. Donald Oats
    December 14th, 2015 at 19:14 | #2

    The stupidity is that the wasted decades of delay and denial and disbelief and devious self-interest were entirely unnecessary, because if you don’t make money in coal, you can make money in renewable energy instead. Of course, one is easy—blow it up and dig it up, but two is a bit more complex and involves true competitive markets, as the technologies under-pinning much of renewable energy are rapidly evolving. Ironic, that.

    Even so, I don’t want to discount the further damage that the culture warriors can continue to inflict. Every time they derail passage of legislation which would have smoothed the process of transition away from fossil fuels, they get a bit more money for being lucky with the ground their great-great-grandaddies’ bought after the goldrush…

  3. Zvyozdochka (@Zvyozdochka)
    December 14th, 2015 at 19:25 | #3

    Years ago I argued that we couldn’t rely on the political class to makes the necessary changes. It had to be taken to the courts and those decision makers/obstructionists held accountable.

    There is perhaps still time for that. Exxon might be an example in years to come, given what they themselves knew.

    The threat of having their fortunes taken, to pay for future repair of the planet, might make these culture ‘warriors’ more co-operative.

  4. December 14th, 2015 at 19:38 | #4

    The problem with a carbon tax for libertarians is that it has the word “tax” in it. (Well, that’s what it basically seems to come down to. ‘Cos taxes help government do things, and we don’t want government doing things now, do we?)

  5. Ikonoclast
    December 14th, 2015 at 20:14 | #5

    J.Q., I think you are misreading the environmental culture wars. Established capital (especially fossil fuel capital and attendant industries) ran a highly successful delaying cultural and political war. This has allowed them an extra 25 years and counting to extract profits from what essentially should have been stranded assets. And they held down nascent, entrepreneurial competitor capital as long as they could. This has all been a huge success for them. They don’t care what happens next, even to their bought and suborned right wing parties.

    This is the obvious reason the battle was fought. It was fought for immediate private profits for established capital regardless of the public and environmental costs. It was also regardless of the costs to the reputations of politicians and parties. They were expendable too.

  6. December 14th, 2015 at 20:37 | #6

    Meanwhile, in the real world, not that many people are so obsessed with climate. Jill Public considers jobs, housing, health, education, security, clean water, good transport, good government, … to be higher priorities. The left’s obsession with promoting degrowth by climate change proxy, and hiking up energy prices as a ‘solution to climate change’ has done more practical harm than anything the right could think up.

  7. John Goss
    December 14th, 2015 at 21:09 | #7

    I agree with Ikonoclast’s comments. From a profit maximising perspective the climate change culture war was perfectly rational. And is there any instance where big business has been supportive of tighter environmental regulation?

  8. December 14th, 2015 at 22:45 | #8

    I’ve said before here that the denialism isn’t just about culture war (though I think John has very good points here about the role of denialism in the culture war) but also about refusing to grant the environmental movement a big victory. When the mainstream capitalist right accept that global warming is happening, concede its full seriousness, and begin to get serious about solutions, they will essentially be caving in to the environmental movement – complete capitulation of their world view. They will go to the grave before they admit that the hippies were right, and more pertinently – they will destroy their movement before they admit the hippies were right.

    Paris is a huge defeat for the libertarians and the authoritarian right alike. They’ve fought for 25 years tooth and nail to deny the hippies their point, but they still lost. Idiots!

  9. Magma
    December 15th, 2015 at 01:27 | #9

    A solid opinion piece from JQ, but I also agree with Ikonclast. A subset of fossil fuel interests started (and have continued) disinformation campaigns in an effort to stall change and extract a few more years of business as usual. For a number of reasons the most fertile ideological ground this program took root in was on the right and the extreme right.

    From the standpoint of the FF companies involved this was probably wildly successful. For the rest of us, from the effects on present politics and future climate, not so much.

    I would very much like to see the rationale(s) behind such consistently AGW-denying media organizations as the newspapers and broadcasters of the Murdoch chain. Is their stance purely ideological, or are there underlying financial motives such as advertising or FF investments by media owners?

  10. James Wimberley
    December 15th, 2015 at 05:44 | #10

    Aren’t we beginning to see the construction of a Galtian myth, the energy transition brought about by rugged entrepreneurs Luke Elon Musk, with the government policies exemplified by the Paris Agreement playing no significant role? Quite ahistorical of course, but if it helps conservatives to come to terms with the revolution, we should allow them their illusions.

  11. James Wimberley
    December 15th, 2015 at 05:45 | #11

    .. like Elon Musk ..
    Comment editing please!!

  12. John Goss
    December 15th, 2015 at 06:20 | #12

    Your typo revealed the truth James. Elon Musk is Luke Skywalker in disguise!
    The Force is with him. And the Emperor is Murdoch. I’m not sure who Darth Vader is?

  13. Robert (not from UK)
    December 15th, 2015 at 06:54 | #13

    I think that there might be a typo in Prof Quiggin’s original post. Shouldn’t “the right opposed the idea ferociously and effective” be “the right opposed the idea ferociously and effectively“?

  14. Ikonoclast
    December 15th, 2015 at 07:15 | #14

    Meanwhile on Planet Reality:

    TTIP, TTP and ISDS line up to destroy the toothless COPOUT21.

    http://truepublica.org.uk/global/didnt-know-link-ttip-cop21-secret-courts/

    “Current trade and investment rules provide legal grounds for foreign corporations to fight virtually any attempt by governments to restrict the exploitation of fossil fuels.” Naomi Klein, journalist and author.

    The rights of corporations are backed up by laws, trade agreements and secret extralegal courts. The protection of the environment is backed up in COP21 by… NOTHING. No standards, no monitoring, no laws, no compliance requirements… NOTHING.

  15. Ikonoclast
    December 15th, 2015 at 07:53 | #15

    As a footnote to my above comment, which might seem too pessimistic. There are real changes afoot as J.Q. has pointed out in other posts. Solar power and wind power are viable and can replace all thermal coal use and eventually a lot of oil use. The intermittency and energy storage issues can be and are being solved. Huge energy savings on wasteful energy use can be made. The technical means of progress in this sense are indeed at hand and should eventually triumph for both technical and real economy reasons if the climate window does not close on us.

    The problem is corporate, capitalist ideology and its attendant ownership, management and financial systems. These embody enormous reactionary and anti-progress forces which are seriously holding us back. COP21 is representative of this problem. It is pure spin and pretence which masks the complete opposition of the current ideological system to real change.

    So what we have is the productive base slowly being changed by material, ecological and technological forces. At the same time, the dominant ideology is resisting these changes to the last. The material reality will eventually triumph over the ideological superstructure but the current problem is with our too-slow rate of change. The climate window is closing on us. Real political action is needed to speed up this change. Accepting status quo politics is not a viable option. COP21 is blatantly still status quo politics with an intent to deceive and delay. The powers that be have been running this delaying strategy for 25 years. When are we going to wake up?

  16. Ivor
    December 15th, 2015 at 07:54 | #16

    It is unlikely that COP21 represents a turning point.

    The reason is that no attention was given to the period before 2020 when action must be taken.

    Even the model from AR5 is outdated as capitalists are now seeking to mine methane hydrates (high CO2e) and the fluxes to and from the atmosphere accounted for by IPCC do not include any emissions from permafrost although they note there is ~1700 gigatonnes stored there.

    AR5 flux diagram is here: IPCC AR5 fig 6.1

    COP21 did not even cite the fact that each year another 4 Gigatonnes are added to the earth’s atmosphere and that this needs radical and speedy action (CO2, CH4 etc).

    Each 2 Gigatonnes increases atmospheric CO2 by over 1 part per million.

    The only solution is a completely different mode of production and lifestyle for the developed economies.

  17. Ivor
    December 15th, 2015 at 08:21 | #17

    IPCC AR5 does note methane from permafrosts in figure 1.2

    Example Here

    Methane is carbon and cannot be discounted due to supposed short lifetime?

  18. Ivor
    December 15th, 2015 at 08:39 | #18

    So, a question for all our Panglossian COP21 pudits….

    How does COP21 deal with the next 5 0r 10 years of this:

    Methane trends

    given the fact that companies are looking to this reservoir as a future source of energy.

  19. Newtownian
    December 15th, 2015 at 08:58 | #19

    Ikonoclast :
    J.Q., I think you are misreading the environmental culture wars. Established capital (especially fossil fuel capital and attendant industries) ran a highly successful delaying cultural and political war. This has allowed them an extra 25 years and counting to extract profits from what essentially should have been stranded assets. And they held down nascent, entrepreneurial competitor capital as long as they could. This has all been a huge success for them. They don’t care what happens next, even to their bought and suborned right wing parties.
    This is the obvious reason the battle was fought. It was fought for immediate private profits for established capital regardless of the public and environmental costs. It was also regardless of the costs to the reputations of politicians and parties. They were expendable too.

    Agreed and there is more.

    25 years ago neoliberalism and economic rationalism were far from entrenched as the dominant paradigms outside of management schools and right wing think tanks, even though the old social democratic parties were busy starting to sell out jumping on the “everyone can be rich” rationale/nonsense (remember Keatings pigs – an environmental and animal welfare abomination if ever there was one?). The twenty five years since have seen high capitalism thinking becoming evermore widespread, or in our society near universally accepted, as the only alternative. Of course it isnt any more than western imperialism was immutable in 1914. But for that to change only partly required two military holocausts, and many might argue this inequitable system was only wounded, only to return today.

    Also 25 years ago there had been several other severe environmental shocks like Chernobyl which helped push environmental concerns higher up on the list of issue ripe for generating spin. Hence we got Rio92 and the high minded rhetoric which has since been blown away for the most part (compare priorities in Rio20+) except perhaps for climate change where we have just had another round of high minded rhetoric and presumably will see more.

    JQ seems have forgotten in suggesting the culture wars have ended when similar acceptance of the science seemed to be universally accepted and George Bush sr even took a lead in proclaiming this new world order.

  20. Newtownian
    December 15th, 2015 at 09:54 | #20

    Ikonoclast :
    As a footnote to my above comment, which might seem too pessimistic. There are real changes afoot as J.Q. has pointed out in other posts. Solar power and wind power are viable and can replace all thermal coal use and eventually a lot of oil use. The intermittency and energy storage issues can be and are being solved.
    The powers that be have been running this delaying strategy for 25 years. When are we going to wake up?

    Actually its more like 40+ years. I have a delightful book from the late 1970s describing all the possible efficiency and solar utilization technologies and options available then. PV and mass windpower were only footnotes with the emphasis being on heat conservation/insulation and simple solar thermal technologies which seem to get forgotten in the high tech gee whizzery of PV.

    Beyond that the houses of old were designed to be much longer lasting and sufficient for purpose. Look at the size of older cars, the tolerance of the summer heat and simple approaches to them and flood e.g. the Queenslander. Remember the small quantity of garbage put out weekly equivalent to a tidy bin. Remember the small cars. Furniture was valued, not junked with the latest fashion.

    In dropping these nostalgic musings I dont suggest atavism as the solution but rather that when you combine the material and energy needs of a humane society with the last 40 years of technology/efficiency advances, a high tech relatively unexploitive world is clearly possible.

    What stands in the way has long been not the technology but our social arrangements, currently the free market growth paradigm and its handmaidens, the poltical, economic and business community/academy.

    Solving this wont be easy. Not least we need to rechannel out inventiveness and creativity into low impact directions – not make a cathedral of Bunnings. A part of the emerging problem for affluent societies embedded in the I=PAT equation is even if we reduce CO2 emissions we will be left with a vast affluent population possessing increasingly extraordinarily cheap and potent technologies. A metaphor here is the PV/battery powered chainsaw ….. its emissions are trivial but it is still perfectly effective at chopping down trees and forests.

    Recognition of this efficiency+affluence ‘blowback’ problem is emerging but there is still little awareness yet on the part of economists and politicians much less solutions. The only option I can see is for emerging generations to increasing disappear into the endless worlds of virtual reality..the Matrix option if you like…which maybe they are doing???!!.

    A start might be for the economics community to “get out of the road if you cant lend a hand” by accepting their social model is toxic and promote a new generation who start with an understanding that the natural world is our origin/home and not just some resource for thoughtless exploitation.

  21. I am and will always be Not Trampis
    December 15th, 2015 at 10:41 | #21

    As I said at Steve’s place a lot of the right behave just like the 1950s communists. Ideology trumps evidence all the time.

  22. Ikonoclast
    December 15th, 2015 at 11:10 | #22

    @Newtownian

    I had to laugh at some of your images. I have a Bunnings Cathedral within 15 minutes drive of where I live. They’ve since built another Cathedral within 10 minutes drive and this is in the same direction! As if this is not enough, a Masters Home Improvement Cathedral is being opened up about 10 minutes drive in roughly the same direction as well. This oversupply (and overcapitalisation) is going to end in tears.

  23. John Quiggin
    December 15th, 2015 at 11:24 | #23

    @Robert (not from UK)

    Fixed now thanks

  24. GrueBleen
    December 15th, 2015 at 15:39 | #24

    @John Quiggin
    Oh ProfQ, if only it really was fixed.

    I have read – carefully, if only once so far – all the comments in this thread, and all I can think is that humanity has regressed to its ancient common ancestor with the ants and it’s formicating all over the place.

    Was COP21 any value or not ? Is it all a case of mindless ‘culture wars’ ? Is the human race doomed (well yes, of course it is, not being immortal and not being able to leave its one and only planet, much less “colonize” anywhere else, but is that sooner or later ?).

    Fortunately, I don’t expect to be round long enough to see the denouement of all this most obviously anti-sapient carryon. So go for it Homo Saps, go for it.

  25. James Wimberley
    December 15th, 2015 at 21:26 | #25

    @John Goss
    Roger Ailes, without Darth Vader’s redeeming features.

  26. Graeme Bird
    December 28th, 2015 at 14:43 | #26

    Why do we need to go in for global agreements? Globalism and dynastic organised crime go hand in hand. We can do this on our own and all we need to do is 1. Reorganise our royalties system. We simplify it, get rid of all other taxes but pump royalties through the roof. That way they don’t race down there to exploit resources. They walk down there and bring stuff to the surface with the utmost of patience and cost-effectiveness ….. 2. Rework our tax system to be favourable to permaculture and mob-stocking (tiny paddocks where you move cattle often.

    We can put more carbon into the ground that way then any other country. And we would never need to dirty our hands with these globalists. Plus I would like a tiny hobby farm in my dotage.

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