This is what the climate movement, the Greens and sections of the Left have staked their futures on:
[I]n Australia, the push for carbon pricing originated from the Treasury as a pro-market economy-wide reform whose great advocates were Ken Henry, Martin Parkinson and Ross Garnaut with their ideas holding sway with John Howard, Rudd and Gillard as successive PMs. Indeed, among insiders the power of carbon pricing as the next stage in Australia’s pro-market reform process has been fundamental to its traction.
— Paul Kelly, from today’s Australian
Please recall how the last great ALP-led market reform process went in the 1980s and 90s: Real wage cuts, a massive shift of national income from labour to capital, a sharp rise in economic inequality, the collapse of trade union membership and the hollowing out of Labor’s historic electoral base. Big wins, indeed.
A most curious thing happened that continues to shape mainstream political debate in this country. In the lead-up to the 2007 election Kevin Rudd campaigned strongly on winning a mandate for taking real action on climate change, skewering the inaction of the Howard Government as proof that it had failed on the “greatest moral challenge” of our age. Yet the incoming government also settled on an emissions trading scheme (ETS) as its central and primary initiative to achieve this action.
I’m sorry, what was that again? Yes, in order to deal with the catastrophic failure of global markets to account for and adequately address the questions of environmental pollution and climate change the ALP would introduce another market.
Now also cross-posted to ABC’s The Drum website.
The last fortnight saw the release of two significant contributions to the post federal election debate on the state of official politics, and more specifically its intimate connection with the fortunes of the Australian Labor Party. The first, the new Quarterly Essay by George Megalogenis of The Australian, is a detailed attempt by a senior journalist to go beyond the usual trivia proffered by the major parties and media hacks. The second, by former NSW Labor Treasurer Michael Costa, is a withering attack on ALP traditions, structures and policies.
What is fascinating is not the extent of contrast between the two accounts, one leaning Left and the other firmly pursuing a right-wing agenda. Rather, it is the shared set of assumptions that animates both.
In March 2009 I was the lead NSW delegate to the Australian Greens’ National Council in Perth when I experienced a curious fact of climate politics. Our state party put a proposal that the Senators pull back from having emissions trading as the key plank of climate policy, a position Christine Milne had enshrined in Re-Energising Australia. We wanted to stress direct government intervention with a planned “just transition” of jobs. We were met by hostility from the Senators, and incomprehension from many delegates. In essence, three arguments were put in favour of an ETS: a pragmatic view that it was “the only game in town”, a general commitment to markets, and a focus on cap & trade being able to deliver emission abatement targets based on scientific consensus.
It is the third of these I want to focus on because it illuminates a key difficulty in climate politics, the attempt to use science as a political argument for how climate action should proceed.
That new paradigm thingy didn’t last long, now, did it?
At least not the world of “kinder, gentler” politics that Tony Abbott was promising. Nor the ability of rural Independent MPs to rise above the fray of deal-making and remain untainted by “old-style” party politics. Nor, of course, the dream of politicians finding more “consensus” rather than squabbling along partisan lines.
Yet there is a paradigm — one of growing social and political polarisation — that is playing itself out in a new way because of the election result, now unable to be hidden behind a mask of apparent governmental stability.
If we are indeed going to witness the return of the state, and enhanced need for security and resources that only a government can provide, then we should be paying greater attention to the things that states can do.
—Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land, 2010, p198
Australia must tackle climate change and that reducing carbon
pollution by 2020 will require a price on carbon.
—From text of ALP-Greens agreement, 1 September 2010
Yesterday Lord Nicholas Stern, the UK’s guru of climate economics, was speaking at the National Press Club, and the line he was pushing was hard to discern from that of the just-formalised Labor-Greens agreement. Brimming with enthusiasm for action despite the setback at Copenhagen, he focused on the need to maintain the fight for carbon pricing and spoke of governments needing to involve private capital more deeply in what he termed “the Industrial Revolution of our century”.
Among progressive environmental thinkers it has become de rigueur to attack economic growth as the main problem leading to ecological destruction and runaway climate change. The argument is put with certain variations, but the central theme is always the same: economic growth is infinite while the planet is finite, and so we cannot afford to keep going in this direction.
The “growth fetish” has also been attacked in a particular critique of neoliberal ideology, which tends to equate GDP growth and increasing consumption with human wellbeing. Contra the thesis of homo economicus, there are masses of data indicating that in rich nations “prosperity” (more broadly understood) cannot be read off headline growth figures. In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrate that in rich countries raw GDP figures have little association with a wide range of health and social indicators, and that the latter are much more closely related to economic equality. Whereas neoliberal thought would have us believe rising inequality is a small price to pay for economic growth “lifting all boats”, in fact even well-off people in more unequal societies suffer from greater problems than their peers in more equal ones. This association even holds true for countries’ action on climate change, which (it is argued) is impeded by more individualistic, consumerism-oriented social organisation.