I’m a liberal voter and I’m passionate about action on climate change. Did that sentence seem weird? Under Tony Abbott’s stewardship of the federal Liberal Party, the term ‘Liberal’ has almost become synonymous with climate change denial. It need not be so.
The climate debate has unfortunately descended into an ideological battle of Left versus Right, with parties of the Left taking ownership of the moral necessity for climate action. Yet this is an issue that should never have been framed in ideological terms, since history will be harsh judges on those who refused to accept the scientific consensus that something must be done to preserve the planet.
It’s a confusing time to be a social liberal, free market champion, and an environmentalist. In fact, many people would scoff that such a three peat of convictions is the product of confused ideological preferences rather than a carefully considered set of priorities. Yet the essence of ‘conservation’ should fit neatly with conservatism. The want and need to maintain and sustain the planet as we have known it.
But what of that other faith? What of the free market? Can long term sustainability fit with a continued commitment to free market capitalism?
As part of my summer reading, I settled by the pool to explore Naomi Klein’s latest polemic, This Changes Everything. With sound research and fine prose, Klein contends that capitalism, or more precisely, neoliberalism, is ultimately responsible for the current crisis and for the failure of nations to act. The message being that market forces are incompatible with sustainability.
Herein lies the conundrum for many young liberals. How does one reconcile faith in the free market and a commitment to climate action? While Klein rejects the notion that the free market can usher in a new paradigm of renewable energy, I believe that the role of any thinking Liberal should be to explore how best to use government policy to create business incentive to make the transition.
A party that champions innovation and enterprise as the driving force of mankind should embrace the renewable sector with alacrity. As with anything in history, it will be technology that drives behavioural change, not any punitive scheme from a government. The role of those on the Right should be to remind people that the market is the best mechanism for technological advancement.
If capitalism is purely to blame for the damage wreaked on the environment since the industrial revolution, then how does one explain the ecological vandalism of Soviet Bloc countries during the Twentieth Century? This is a point Klein conveniently overlooks in her book.
The Australian Liberal Party has traditionally embraced economic rationalism and policies grounded in pragmatic logic. It should therefore accept the inevitable economic necessity to shift Australia’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel energy. Yet worryingly, the Abbott government has demonstrated no such desire to embrace this shift.
In fact, rather than support the renewable energy sector, the government has pursued policies contrary to the industries’ needs. Its current attempts at shelving the renewable energy target being a case in point.
Rather, the Prime Minister has openly and enthusiastically embraced the coal industry. In fairness, coal has been and will continue to be a valuable source of energy for a number of years, but the party risks becoming stagnant if it does not appropriately embrace alternate forms of energy, as it will one day inevitably have to do so.
The government’s direct action plan needs to be called on for what it is: a facade to give the impression that it cares about climate change, all the while protecting the views of skeptics in the ranks.
For a young political enthusiast, Australian politics presents a frustrating conundrum. The Australian Greens embrace environmental zeal at the expense of everything else, while the Australian Labor Party presents a confused mix of economic rationalism, protective unionism, and environmental tokenism.
The party for individual enterprise, autonomy, and the free market, presents a rejection of forward thinking energy change and thumbs its nose at liberal social freedoms. It’s a most unfortunate quagmire.
Perhaps the last word should be left to the party’s founder, Robert Menzies. ‘Modern history is, as you all know, full of examples of great movements that disappeared because they ceased to have any genuine reason for existence.’ The Liberal Party should look to its core values, or risk sitting on the wrong side of history.