Are conservatives just naturally anti-environment?
by Stan Hirst
Just one month ago the federal general elections in Canada put the Conservative Party firmly in power. Responses to the election outcome amongst environmental groups and environmentally-concerned individuals across the country ranged from disappointment to dismay to a number of other reactions, most of them negative.
The reason is not hard to discern. Conservatives in Canada are perceived as having an awful environmental track record. For the recent election, the Conservative Party‘s election platform contained not one word about environment. By contrast, the opposition Liberal Party promised to create clean energy jobs, invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, create a cap-and-trade system for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and to protect Canada’s air, oceans, waterways, forests and Arctic resources. The New Democratic Party’s platform proposed a shift away from fossil-fuel dependence, underlined the compatibility of environmental health and economic growth, and promised to develop green energy industries.
The future doesn’t seem to bode much better. The background documents for the June 2011 Conservative National Convention, at which future policy was set, contained just one short statement on an environmental topic, i.e. “we believe that an effective international emissions reduction regime on climate change must be truly global and must include binding targets for all the world’s major emitters, including China and the United States”.
Is this disconnect between conservatism and environmental consciousness in Canada typical of all conservatives or conservative governments? Consider the following statements from south of the 49th parallel.
- I do not intend that our natural resources should be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.
- The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists – they are too damn greedy.
- As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.
- The basic causes of our environmental troubles are complex and deeply embedded. They include: our past tendency to emphasize quantitative growth at the expense of qualitative growth; the failure of our economy to provide full accounting for the social costs of environmental pollution; the failure to take environmental factors into account as a normal and necessary part of our planning and decision making; the inadequacy of our institutions for dealing with problems that cut across traditional political boundaries; our dependence on conveniences, without regard for their impact on the environment; and more fundamentally, our failure to perceive the environment as a totality and to understand and to recognize the fundamental interdependence of all its parts, including man himself.
- We are now facing hard choices in our energy policy. Future generations — my children and grandchildren, along with yours — will have to live with the decisions we make today. And so it is time for us to make some tough and — hopefully — smart choices regarding our energy use and production before it is too late.
All penned and uttered by democrats and green-tinged radicals, right? Wrong. All spoken by hard-core Republican conservatives – Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and John McCain.
Or maybe the disconnect between conservatism and environmental consciousness in Canada now typifies the attitudes of mainstem right-wing parties struggling to deal with 21st century environments? A quick check around the globe suggests that this isn’t true either.
The British Tories, the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher, are today in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative 2011 programme declares that Britain needs to protect the environment for future generations, make the economy more environmentally sustainable, and that much more needs to be done to support the farming industry, protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable food production.
The governing German party, the Christian Democratic Union, declares in its manifesto that its policies are based on the Christian view of Man and his responsibility before God, and then goes on to state that the objective of an ecological and social market economy, as they see it, is to achieve a synthesis of economy, social justice and ecology. Amongst a host of economic and policy actions cited as a basis for this synthesis, the CDU include the need for ecological elements in tax legislation, environmental levies, compensation schemes, certification and liability regulations, and the cutting edge concept, at least by current Canadian standards, of rewarding environmentally sensitive actions by using market incentives and linking costs to environmental damage to establish ecologically realistic prices.
Flipping to the other side of the globe, we find the most conservative party in Australia, the rural-based National Party of Australia, outlining its 2011 environmental platform by supporting targets for greenhouse gas emissions, proposing direct action plans to reduce emissions through soil carbon sequestration and use of bio-char, revegetation of marginal land, clean coal technology, carbon capture and the use of algae, and encouraging public participation in voluntary carbon markets involving individuals, communities, agriculture and business, and strong state support to non-petroleum based fuels. Pretty radical stuff all around.
So why are Canadian conservatives not up there with the rest of the conservative world in addressing urgent environmental issues?
Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values and a strong national defence. Thus, conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems. By contrast, those of more liberal persuasion believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity, equality for all, alleviation of social ills and the protection of civil liberties and individual and human rights. So liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.
Looking at energy through this type of filter, we might see that Canadian conservatives consider fossil fuels to be good sources of energy (which they are of course in Canada) and, since they are abundant, their exploitation should be promoted and increased both on land and at sea. Increased domestic production by large corporations would lead to lower domestic prices plus huge incomes from the two biggest gulpers of energy on the planet – the U.S. to our south and the ever-burgeoning Chinese economy just across the Pacific. Canadian conservatives might feel that wind, solar and biomass will never provide comparable levels of plentiful, affordable and, above all, profitable sources of power. The opposing liberal view points, i.e. that oil is a diminishing resource, that other sources of energy must be explored, that government must produce a national plan for all energy resources, and must subsidize alternative energy research and production don’t play well in Canada because fossil fuels generally are not diminishing resources. They may be getting more difficult and expensive to recover, but that is just part of the ongoing and traditional challenge for private enterprise.
Looking at climate change through the same filter would surely lead a market-conscious conservative to conclude that since global warming is caused primarily by an increased production of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels, which Canada produces, and burns, in prolific quantities, the combating of climate change needs to involve realistic pricing of fossil fuel extraction and use through carbon taxation and firm regulation, through reduction in fossil fuel use by a plethora of measures to increase energy supply from renewable sources, and by a shift in consciousness towards regarding earth as an ecosystem, and not as a supply depot. All of this is missing from the current conservative platform, who sees it all as just raising taxes, increasing prices, losing jobs and impacting on individual freedoms. A prevalent conservative approach to dealing with climate change is to deny that it is happening at all.
Climate change presents a very difficult problem for Canadian conservatives. The root cause of the problem is burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use around the globe. Once upon a time the major contributors of greenhouse gases to the global climate were North America and western Europe. Now they’re increasingly being put out by the Asian industrial powers, and Canada contributes to their impacts by selling them oil and coal. And while the causes of climate change are global, the impacts – storms, droughts, rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, changing weather patterns – will be felt globally as well. The items in the classic conservative toolkit – personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values and empowerment of the individual to solve problems – have not thus far dealt well with the root causes of climate change. Maybe they’ll deal better with the consequences.