Australian Elections – a Test of Climate Politics?

by | Sep 6, 2013

Over at the new-format Spiked, Rob Lyons has a short piece on the Australian elections.

One of the biggest issues in Saturday’s Australian election will be the ‘carbon tax’. Coalition leader Tony Abbott said this week: ‘If the Coalition wins the election on Saturday, the carbon tax will go. No ifs, no buts, it is gone… We will do whatever is necessary to abolish the carbon tax.’ He has declared the election to be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’, which Labor has pledged to retain if it hangs on to power.

Lyons confidently predicts that Labor are going to be ‘getting a kicking over carbon’.

Climate policies suffer from a democratic deficit. If the Australian elections are, as Abbott has called it, a referendum on the Carbon Tax, this is perhaps the first attempt to measure the public’s appetite for climate policies in the Anglosphere. Canada, of course, fell out with the UNFCCC process last year, though not after a test of the public mood. In response to the withdrawal, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said,

“Whether or not Canada is a Party to the Kyoto Protocol, it has a legal obligation under the Convention to reduce its emissions, and a moral obligation to itself and future generations to lead in the global effort,” she said. “Industrialized countries, whose emissions have risen significantly since 1990, as is the case for Canada, remain in a weaker position to call on developing countries to limit their emissions.”

But who is Figueres to tell Canadians what their priorities should be? After all, nobody voted for her. And nobody voted for the UNFCCC process. Climate politics were all about establishing political power above democracy.

This has led to the situation in which Labor are going to be ‘getting a kicking’. But let’s not be hasty…

There has been an obvious attempt to turn the climate debate into an issue of Left vs Right (in terms of party politics). In the UK, Australia and USA, it is the putative Left that has sought to champion the climate agenda. But the Right has been, at best, supine. In fact, in the UK, the Conservative Party argued for stronger climate targets than the then Labour-led government. When Julia Gillard back-tracked on her promise that there would be no climate tax, UK Conservative Party Leader and PM, David Cameron praised the move, saying,

I was delighted to hear of the ambitious package of climate change policy measures you announced on 10 July and wanted to congratulate you on taking this bold step.

Yep, lying to the public is certainly a ‘bold step’, alright. At opposite ends of the planet, unpopular leaders of weak political parties — parties not strong enough to form governments by themselves — slapped each other on the back, from across the political spectrum. What better demonstration of the contempt for the public and for democracy could there be?

In the USA, the Republican Party didn’t create as robust a response to climate politics as many wanted, or as the US Left claimed — a fact discussed in Marc Morano’s interview with Topher Field for the the 50-to-1 project. It has taken a long time for the problems caused by environmental policies to develop into an issue that really can divide politics on party lines.

But only just. And there might not be much else to celebrate about Left/Right party politics in the Anglosphere — which is probably why the climate issue somehow came to dominate, and cross-party consensuses formed, albeit by default.

It would be a good thing if the Australian result sent a message to other climate champions throughout the world that, if they want to be green, they must really seek the public’s consent before they press ahead with far-reaching and expensive policies. But an indication of what is more likely to happen is given in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald… (H/t Paul S.)

How human psychology is holding back climate change action
Behavioral scientists have emphasized that in their private lives, people sometimes display a form of myopia. They may neglect the future, seeing it as a kind of foreign country, one they may not ever visit.

For this reason, they might fail to save for retirement, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior (such as smoking or unhealthy eating) that will harm their future selves.

In a political context, citizens might demand protection against a risk that threatens them today, tomorrow or next month.

But if they perceive climate change as mostly a threat to future generations – if significant sea-level rises seem to be decades away – they are unlikely to have a sense of urgency.

Climate change lacks other characteristics that spur public concern about risks. It is gradual rather than sudden. The idea of warmer climates doesn’t produce anger, revulsion or disgust.

Psychologists, much more than climate scientists, are going to be the experts that politicians consult to establish a basis for their policies and power.


  1. Mooloo

    For this reason, they might fail to save for retirement, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior (such as smoking or unhealthy eating) that will harm their future selves.

    This was all the rage intellectually for a while. Why do people discount the future? But recently I have noticed a bit of a fight back, at least among economists. People are probably behaving much more rationally than the wowsers give them credit.

    Smoking is immensely pleasurable for some people. They know it is bad for them, but they would rather enjoy the present. Is it actually worth denying yourself a major pleasure for 50 years to perhaps extend your life? I know almost no-one who doesn’t have at least one vice like that. One wonders how many of these psychologists have no vices. Do they eat perfectly all the time? Exercise regularly?

    The “saving for retirement” thing is more obviously bogus. Few people who are wealthy don’t save for their retirement. It’s a problem for the poor because, doh, they are poor.

    I am financially a very long term thinker, who has no problem saving for targets 10 years distant. When I was 35, however, I did not save for my retirement because I had kids to look after. I was thinking long term and discounting my future for theirs — exactly what the Greens say that we are incapable of.

    I note that almost every modern industrial country has a pension scheme. That is where people have agreed to pool together their resources to help themselves, and other people, in the long term. Exactly what we are apparently incapable of.

    People are not particularly rational, but it is a rare adult who does not act with a keen eye on the future. People who over-eat or under-eat sufficiently to risk their medium term health are even pathologised, with terms like anorexia, and regarded with distaste or even revulsion.

    I am left with the suspicion that the Greens’ real issue is that they just don’t like people very much.

  2. Alex Cull

    The author of the Sydney Morning Herald article is Cass R. Sunstein, famously co-author of “Nudge” (a Cameron favourite), and also author of recent book “Simpler: The Future of Government”. There’s a review of “Simpler” in the WSJ by Donald J. Boudreaux, of which there is a copy here (scroll down to “Life in the Sunstein State”):

    In his new book, “Simpler: The Future of Government,” Cass Sunstein says that the act of choosing is a muscle that gets fatigued. The more choices people have to make, the more likely they are to make bad ones. The author boasts, for example, that “to save consumers money, we required refrigerators, small motors, and clothes washers to be more energy-efficient.” Apparently producers are too benighted to compete for customers by offering such money-saving products. And consumers are too distracted by their own weaknesses to choose such offerings. Similarly, Mr. Sunstein believes that huge numbers of people really want to be organ donors but are prevented from agreeing to donate their organs simply by inertia.

    In this worldview, people’s weak wills and eccentricities make them prey both to shameless hucksters and to their own strange psychological traits. Ironically, however, Mr. Sunstein fails to explain why the irrational and impulsively childlike people who are apparently the nation’s citizens will elect a government that is itself not irrational and impulsive -or why government officials won’t exploit, for their own corrupt ends, the people’s cognitive weaknesses. True, individuals often make poor decisions, and hucksters are never in short supply. Surely, though, the environment most favorable to poor decision-making and hucksterism isn’t competitive markets but, rather, politics. Milton Friedman didn’t need behavioral economics to know that each of us typically spends our own money on ourselves more wisely than a stranger spends other people’s money on us.

    The author assumes, without much reflection, that government’s role in protecting us from ourselves has few limits, either ethical or legal…

    In other words, much like Tim (“Food Miles”) Lang, Sunstein is a fan of “choice editing”, i.e. an unelected somebody who knows best, stepping in to save ourselves from ourselves before we even know it:

    @ Mooloo, I’m not so sure that it’s simply a case of the Greens not liking the rest of us. I think that they are able to view non-Greens with affection, sometimes; we’re a bit like a partner’s much-loved but incontinent pet, which might not need to be put down just yet, but should have its freedom strictly curtailed and not be allowed to mess up the place.

  3. Lewis Deane

    Actually, Mooloo, it’s much more simpler as regards pensions or any savings and completely rational – ‘saving for retirement’ in the present political economy means losing for retirement, what with negative interest rates etc – if the putative psychologist is right he would have to tell us why people did save for retirement when interest rates were rational and reflected the real market and not completely distorted by central banks. He can’t.

  4. Lewis Deane

    I do hope, Ben, you are right about Abbott, but so many of us have been burned it is often difficult to credit until we see the actuality.
    Further to my previous comment re pensions – in fact, they are saving for retirement – they are investing in property were they have a much greater likelihood of a real return!

  5. Lewis Deane

    Re: pensions. If people want to know about political economy (the more precise term for ‘economics’ for economics is political, ie essentially political, as the Greeks knew when they re coined the word from the domestic to the polis and, of course, for the Greeks, and for us, everything is political, in essence) they should read, first, Ricardo’s’ The Principals of Political Economy and Taxation and, for more depth, Marx’s Capital (essentially a respectful critique of the former and a progression from it), paying especial attention to the third volume, and, along with Theories of Surplus Value, the foundation of all ‘crises’ theory (Schumpeter, Keynes etc). Of course, Marx’s ‘Utopianism’ can be set aside, as regards the future, but it takes what used to be called by painters a frogs perspective to really understand and critique Capitalism, as it is. The essential insight, which is the sine que non of modernity (more and more forgotten, today), is that the economy is essentially unstable and the first axiom of all science is dis-equilibria. Then, for a concise, instructive summation, Ernest Mandel’s Marxist Economic Theory and, for a modern update, Late Capitalism. All this is preferable to so called Academic Economics, which has precisely the opposite foundational premiss, the study of equilibria, a fiction (the cold war had a hand in this – you see, political), and, therefore, is wrong by first principals. This is not a matter of supposed ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ but of the best, most powerful explanatory set of theories. Just saying.

  6. TDK

    re: Pensions. It’s worth bearing in mind that in the nineteenth century and before people did plan for their old age including putting money aside. In the Victorian era the emergence of friendly societies and penny assurance is proof. No one would deny there were gaps but most poor did not end up in the workhouse.

    In other words most poor did do the ‘rational thing’.

  7. Lewis Deane

    Mother of all the Romans: moreover, everyone’s joy,
    pleasurable Venus: everything under the stars
    —the sea that carries ships as well as the earth that bears crops —
    is full of you: every living thing is conceived
    by your being and so comes into the daylight.
    The wind eludes you and the sky is apt to be cloudless
    when your time comes, and under your feet the earth
    sends up her lovely flowers, and the sea’s surface
    glitters placidly as the light gleams from the sky.
    As soon as the face of spring puts in an appearance
    and the fertilizing wind blows in from the west,
    the birds of the air are the first to notice your coming
    and your holy desire strikes at their very hearts;
    The wild cattle jump about in their pastures,
    they plunge and swim over the rivers, delight has taken them.
    Then throughout the seas, on the mountains, in hungry rivers,
    in the bird’s leafy recesses, on the verdant plains,
    deep inside every creature appetite stirs
    as you stair them to love and delight.
    Since you alone guide the workings of nature,
    without you nothing can come to these shores of light
    and nothing is glad or amiable without you,
    I seek your assistance as I write these verses
    in which I shall try to explain nature to Memmius,
    my friend whom you, Goddess, have always distinguished
    with the best gifts which can be found for anyone.

    And more, Goddess, endow my words with beauty.
    Bring it about meanwhile that the wish for violent death
    on land and sea everywhere falls fast asleep.
    It is only you who can bring men peace and quiet,
    for Mars is the one who manages these affairs
    and he often throws himself on your belly,
    conquered in turn because desire has wounded him.
    He lies there with his handsome neck thrown back,
    gaping at you and feeding on your looks,
    his breath hangs on your lips as he falls back.
    As he lies there on top of your holy body
    allow your lips to speak gently to him, Goddess.

  8. Hamish McCallum

    “I’m not so sure that it’s simply a case of the Greens not liking the rest of us. I think that they are able to view non-Greens with affection, sometimes” Alex Cull September 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I’m more with Mooloo on this, I’m afraid. They may show mild affection sometimes, but it’s always and everywhere trumped by duty: that urgent need for Lebensraum must be appeased.

    Sorry for the analogy (which in most cases I dislike), but in this case it’s apt.

  9. Jacob Edmondson

    and MP Dr Dennis Jensen, an AGW skeptic, looks likely to become our new science minister

  10. Jacob Edmondson

    well, perhaps not.
    the government decided to rather do away with a seperate science ministry (placing it in the industry portfolio) than walk that minefield

  11. Lewis Deane

    Ben, sorry for the poem – a late night excursion – please delete. Except, it’s Lucretius and the dedication verse for De Rerum Natura – a beautiful poem of Epicurean philosophy and honest Roman atheism. And, absurdity aside, a hyperbolic intro to Abbot? All waste, sad time disappointments after.

  12. Lewis Deane

    What does hope mean? It came from the Gods
    But in a rather evil way: it was Pandora that began it:
    She opened the Box and let all the evils fly:
    Out came Greed and Gluttony, Pride and Stupidity,
    Jealousy and the green sorrows of jealously and
    Hatred and Envy and, last, but could she not close the box?
    Hope, a wistful dream, curse of mankind,
    The most fateful Evil. For to be born is worse and the best
    Is to die as soon as possible.



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