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National Affairs

Climate change and the intellectual decline of the right

18 August 2014

No arguments seem to sway right-wing politicians and commentators in the United States and Australia, says John Quiggin. Will we have to wait for demography to do its work?


In Australia, the steady stream of defections includes former Liberal leader John Hewson, pictured here at a “We Say Yes” to a carbon price event in 2011. Samuel Cardwell/AAP Image

In Australia, the steady stream of defections includes former Liberal leader John Hewson, pictured here at a “We Say Yes” to a carbon price event in 2011. Samuel Cardwell/AAP Image

The abolition of the carbon tax has raised, yet again, the question of how to convince those on the political right to accept mainstream climate science and the need for effective mitigation. There’s been a lot of discussion of this over recent years, in Australia and the United States, much of it premised on the idea that the problem is one of presentation. Recommendations include avoiding alarmism, finding non-threatening ways to explain the problem, and focusing on technological solutions as opposed to “hair shirt” environmentalism.

None of these ideas has worked. A cautious presentation of the evidence gives the right a chance to point out supposed contradictions between those estimates and the alarming projections that represent, according to mainstream science, the most likely outcome. Carefully demonstrating that the cost of fixing the problem will use a trivially small share of national income goes nowhere. Any technological innovation that is presented as a solution (wind, solar PV, electric cars) is instantly the subject of vilification and the kind of ludicrous claim about health effects that would be denounced by the right in any other context. (Slight qualification: the idea of going off-grid appeals to some American libertarians to the point where they are willing to make common cause with environmentalists.)

This is a fairly dismal picture. There is, however, a bright side.

It’s well established that claims of all kinds made by right-wing politicians and commentators tend to be based on tribal shibboleths rather than factual evidence. Recent Australian examples include Eric Abetz on the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer, Joe Hockey on the consumption habits of the poor and, of course, Maurice Newman on climate science.

While it’s very hard to convince right-wingers of anything that the Murdoch press and the conservative commentariat opposes, anti-science denialism makes the right-wing package as a whole less appealing to uncommitted voters, and even more to young people settling on their political identity.

The process is more advanced in the United States, where the Republican Party has lost badly among young voters and now relies on a core of older white male voters, the group most associated with anti-science attitudes on climate and other issues. The pattern is similar, though not as firmly entrenched, in Australia.

In the long run, the loss of young voters spells demographic disaster for the right. Put simply, their voting base is beginning to pass away and is not being replaced. (As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli observed in a similar context, “Science proceeds by funerals.”) But there is more than demographic transition at work.

As George Orwell observed, intelligent people are very good at engaging in “doublethink” when their tribal or nationalist affiliations require it. But it’s an uncomfortable exercise, a fact that was evidenced by a steady stream of disillusioned departures from the Communist Party over the second half of the twentieth century. Having attracted many of the best and brightest thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s, the communist parties of the West shrank rapidly to a hard core of hacks and tribal loyalists before collapsing altogether.

We are now observing a similar phenomenon on the political right. Thirty years ago, in the wake of the economic crisis of the 1970s, the intellectual and political right was brimming with self-confidence. Think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heartland Institute in the United States and, in Australia, the Centre for Independent Studies and (at least for a period under the leadership of John Hyde) the Institute of Public Affairs were issuing incisive critiques of the social-democratic welfare state and the environmental movement, and producing reams of discussion of new ideas, such as privatisation and “free-market environmentalism,” the then-radical idea of using market prices to provide incentives to reduce pollution.

During this period, centre-left parties like the US Democrats and the Australian Labor Party did little more than play catch-up, resisting some of the more extreme ideas put forward by the right and adopting softer-edged versions of the others. Bill Clinton’s “third way” politics was assembled primarily from right-wing ideas, most notably “the end of welfare as we know it.” This dominance continued into the early years of the Obama administration: Obamacare, for instance, is based on the idea of the individual mandate, first put forward by the conservative Heritage Institute in 1992.

Today, by contrast, the air of intellectual crisis on the right is palpable. The think tanks have mostly given up the pretence of engaging in serious discussion of ideas. The Heartland Institute has discredited itself with a series of stunts, most notably a billboard campaign in which Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) was presented as a believer in mainstream climate science. The Heritage Foundation has given up serious policy work and is now dominated by its Heritage Action fundraising and political campaigning committee. In Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs, once a reliable critic of handouts and infrastructure boondoggles, has been reduced to touting Gina Rinehart’s demands for tax subsidies and publicly funded dams in Northern Australia.

The lack of ideas on the right has become a staple of political commentary, and has led to the emergence, in the United States, of a group of “reform conservatives,” including Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin. Commentary on this group focuses not so much on the content of their ideas as on the fact that they have ideas at all.

The result has been a steady stream of defections, reversing the tendency of earlier decades in which shifts from left to right were far more common. Typically, each individual shift is the result of a string of disillusioning experiences. Often, some relatively minor disagreement is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The stream of departures has included writer and editor Michael Lind, historian Bruce Bartlett, columnist Andrew Sullivan, and George W. Bush’s one-time speechwriter, David Frum. Australian examples include Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Robert Manne.

Increasingly, objection to climate change denialism is one of the triggering factors. Most obviously, it has led Republican-aligned scientists like Kerry Emanuel to abandon the fold. In fact, scientists are now, along with African-Americans, the group most reliably hostile to the Republican Party, with only around 6 per cent identifying as Republicans and another 12 per cent as “Republican-leaning” independents.

The billboard fiasco led to the departure from Heartland of Eli Lehrer’s insurance policy group, one of the few areas in which Heartland research had any credibility. Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry cannot afford to let tribal affiliation get in the way of a realistic assessment of the risks of climate change. Lehrer has founded a new group, the R Street Institute, which explicitly endorses mainstream science.

The erosion of intellectual credibility is already harming the right in the United States and Australia, and will do so for many years to come. The fact that Barack Obama was easily re-elected in 2012, despite a weak economy and flagging personal popularity, is one indication of this. Obama’s win marked the fifth time in the last six presidential elections that Democrats have won a plurality of the popular vote. And the failure of the Romney campaign was due in part to the kind of delusional thinking typified by climate science denial. Romney’s team was convinced that the opinion polls, which consistently pointed to an Obama win, were “skewed” by the malice or incompetence of pollsters who, they thought, were oversampling Democrats.

Similarly, in Australia, despite an easy election victory over a divided demoralised Labor Party, Tony Abbott has never succeeded in persuading Australians that he has anything to offer beyond slogans that embody delusions rather than a genuine understanding of our problems. Yet the government remains convinced that it has a popular mandate for policies it never announced during the election campaign.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, “there’s a lot of ruin in a political movement.” Even when their intellectual bankruptcy is obvious, political parties can win elections through emotive appeals, gerrymanders, or simply appearing as the lesser of two evils. So, it seems likely that the intellectual decline of the right will continue a fair way before it becomes obviously untenable.

It is unclear how this process will play out. It is possible, though it seems unlikely, that the right can reform itself by becoming more open to new ideas and evidence-based policy. Alternatively, it may find new ways of marketing the tribalist politics exemplified by a hatred of environmentalists.

A third possibility is that the right will continue on its current path and will alienate potential supporters, particularly among the young, to the point where it can no longer sustain a veto on policies such as climate change mitigation. Given the delays that have taken place already, it will be necessary to accelerate the pace of mitigation fairly drastically. The resulting costs will be economically manageable, but much more than if a sensibly bipartisan policy response had been adopted in the two decades since the issue rose to prominence (perhaps 5 to 10 per cent of national income instead of 2 to 4 per cent).

The consolation for those on the left is that, even if climate change mitigation becomes more costly, the intellectual decline of the right offers the opportunity for rapid progress in many other areas, from social policy to a reversal of the massive growth in inequality that has taken place during the decades of right-wing dominance. A reduction of a few percentage points in aggregate national income would be a small price to pay for such an outcome. We just have to hope that it is not already too late to stabilise the global climate. •

Show Comments


K Donoghue

25 August 2014

John Quiggin displays a good deal of tribalism with his sweeping, somewhat derogatory, generalisations about the political right. The intellectual underpinnings of the political left are patchy at best - is the Australia Institute any better than the IPA? TIA get similar amounts of media airtime via the Fairfax press vs. the IPA's natural home in News limited.

As Jenny Goldie notes in her comment, the left has struggled to turn its assumed convictions in respect of climate change into enduring policy instruments. It's easy to blame the Abbott government, but there's a reason they believe they have licence to roll back so many climate-change related policies.

In any case it seems like wishful thinking that the right will just wither away - the demographics are the opposite of what is claimed - the average age of the population in the anglophone countries referenced is increasing. Maybe it is simply a truism that people drift right as they get older, but if not, then that bodes well for the Right in the future.

whether or not this perceived decline in the Right (which may be resolved in a reshaping of the political Right around socially conservative/economically liberal people who accept that some community action is required on climate change - in the last Coalition leadership spill, only one vote gave Abbott the edge over Turnbull) creates a window of opportunity for the Left remains to be seen. But the observation that responding to climate change works best under a bipartisan policy platform holds true. This remains the great challenge, especially in an Australian political culture that appears to reward opposition for its own sake.

R. N. England

21 August 2014

Some of the ideas of the right 20-30 years ago were not as bright Prof. Quiggin seems to imply. Blanket opposition to all kinds of state welfare is one of them. Tragically, that included public investment in poor children that was the state education system. Curtailing that investment produces large numbers of the shameless ne'er-do-wells that are the bourgeoisie's pet hate. Once they are there, if we don't feed them and keep them content, they will rob us out of desperation. If we do look after them, they will breed up till we can't afford to any more, ultimately with an even worse result. The bourgeois knee-jerk reaction is to produce a police state. Then the police start robbing us too, and it's all over.

Another cultural maladaptation is the curtailment of public funding of science, and unsuccessful attempts to fit science into the bourgeois paradigm. Science is about giving important ideas to the world to test and use. It's not about selling or buying.

The survival of our culture depends on us being able to recognise maladaptation, whether it emerges on the right or the left. The problem with right-left polarisation is for both to become fundamentalist. The fundamentalist left's fatal maladaptation was the attempt to stamp out money-making, which can only be done in a police state. The fundamentalist right's main maladaptation is the attempt to reshape every aspect of our culture into a bi-product of money-making. Yet money-making is something great numbers of the most productive servants of our culture are not especially interested in. As soon as science appears to get in the way of money-making, the bourgeois fundamentalists attempt to crush it. The discipline of economics is deeply involved in that fundamentalist maladaptation, which is also fatal.

Mick Horne

21 August 2014

The Right are extremely dogmatic in maintaining their "righteous" argument on Climate Change, with so much of their argument based on "selective" evidence(?).

The increasing "exaggeration" within their argument underscores the desperation which is setting in.

In expressing my thoughts of their approach to Climate Change, I could type a thousand words, but I feel this cartoon sums it up much better . . . . . . .



George Michaelson

25 August 2014

The inability of left wing biological scientists and their related fields of study to cope with Lysenko left its mark for years. I believe J.D. Bernal lost impetus in the wake of the disruption. J.B.S. Haldane left Britain for India on the back of it.

So, there is evidence that tying ideology to science can have very long lasting tail effects.

I believe it would be a mistake to assume that even a one-term Abbott Government would not have a long tail impact on the progress of science and engineering as it relates to AGW. We are probably watching intellectual capital move offshore permanently, unless significant investment motivators are offered, comparable to the 150% tax offsets of yore. Risk issues in deployment of battery systems for home use, and car recharging will cause delay in deployment. While this may mean in the short term Australia "falls behind" there is also the second-to-market effect: We may score lucky and skip a generation of technology for more cost effective systems later on, albiet in a warmer world.

Dick Friend

28 August 2014

Why have faith in GenX or GenY or GenWiFi when we baby boomers have got us into this mess?

For example:

- Despite being conscripted to a disastrous undeclared war on foreign soil, we still allow ourselves to be drawn into fighting other peoples' wars, increasing our debt, damaging our youth and dedicating future generations to pay pensions for broken bodies and minds.

- all this time, Aboriginal disadvantage continues to destroy lives and opportunity without us babu boomers getting out of our comfort zone to anything about it.

- despite campaigns to "Save the Reef" in the '70s & '80s, it continues to die, and few pollies (other than Greens, of course) will stand up to economic bribery to increase the rate of destruction of Australia natural world wonder.

- we baby boomers received free tertiary education, yet we've allowed our kids to amass huge debt burdens, in a great inter-generational "gift" for their education.

- the government is committed to us paying for religion in our schools, whether we want it or not, again denying the science and despite the unforgivable breach of trust by many churches evidenced by the sexual abuse scandals and church cover-ups.

Depressing? Yes.

Let us baby boomers acknowledge our complacency and selfishness, and demand redress on the disastrous directions our government is trying to take us.

Jenny Goldie

24 August 2014

This article has made my day - thank you. The wretched IPA still has too much say, though, whether they have ideas or not. Look at their presence on The Drum and Julie Novak being given SO much space in the Canberra Times to complain about subsidies for renewables, wilfully ignoring the far vaster subsidies for fossil fuel industries.

One troubling aspect - or perhaps paradoxical is a better term - is the American right wing opposition to large-scale immigration, particularly illegal immigration. This puts them at odds with a lot of left-wingers who espouse an open-door policy for not just those in need, but everyone. Yet immigration - both legal and illegal - is driving unsustainable population growth in the US to the detriment of other species, largely because of loss of habitat. Thus the Republicans are theoretically on the side of environmentalists even though they may not want to admit it. And given that large-scale immigration drives down wages, the Republicans are on the same side as unions who want to maintain wages and conditions.

What the left wing - in both countries - need is a coherent environmental policy. Poor Julia Gillard never seemed able to explain the rationale for the carbon tax (saving the planet from dangerous climate change). The left has justifiably defended the rights of ordinary people but it needs to understand that these rights cannot be separated from the health of the biosphere. The priority has got to be stabilising the atmosphere and preventing further loss of biodiversity. It should be the priority of the right of course, but that may be too much to hope for. Nevertheless, the likes of John Hewson give me great hope.

John Quiggin

21 August 2014

Toss Gascoigne

21 August 2014

The climate deniers are steadily growing more outrageous in their arguments, but observably weaker in mainstream on-line forums.

Where have the deniers gone? And where are they going?

Interesting to observe the contemptuous response to the Maurice Newman article (the Prime Minister's hand-picked business adviser!), and the growing confidence of the science community in rejecting his flat-earth views.

As the Republicans have dealt themselves out of winning a presidential election through their policies on black and Hispanic groups, perhaps too they are losing the young vote. Scientists left a long time ago....

This presents an interesting choice for Labor. Should it hope to ease into office through an endless repetition of Abbott-like slogans, and a brick wall of opposition to all proposals from the Government? Not winning the election, but profiting from the Government losing?

Or should it aim to win government through the development and espousing of alternative policies?

(One would hope that alternative policies are being developed, even if they haven't been shown the light of day yet ....)

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