The big climate change story is not insane factional fighting in the Federal Opposition or the future of the Emission Trading Scheme. Copenhagen, too is already passé. It’s about the shaping of climate change policy. Will that be the work of climate science or of neo-liberal economics? Almost everyone is aware that some kind of break has occurred between policy and science. Few are aware that the jumped-up academic discipline of liberal economics bears much of the blame. This is an epic struggle, and we know not yet whether ‘tis truth or power, scientific or magical thinking, that will prevail. While climate science is subjected to minute scrutiny, liberal economics enjoys unlimited license to deflect, derail and distort.
Disconnection and inversion
Anyone vaguely acquainted with climate policy has heard the call for science-based targets. This typically underestimates the complexity and significance of the fraud taking place when science loses its foothold and authority.
That fraud begins with the inversion of objectives. Most of us believe that climate policy aims to protect an endangered planet from a badly-ordered human economy. Now listen to just about any politician or industry spokesperson and you soon hear something different: the point, all of a sudden, is not to protect the planet but to protect the human economy from the planet. If you have an uneasy sense of arguments traveling at cross purposes here it is this almost surreal opposition you are sensing. The real politics of conservative climate change comes from this point of derailment.
Not carbon, but the price of carbon becomes the menacing presence: “That price will destroy jobs, erode competitive advantage.” Or, up a notch: “It’s not in the national interest.” Of course, this inversion is not official but the punches are thrown from this stance with enough bruising regularity to tell who is on who’s side. I will not drag the reader through a thousand dreary and disoriented citations. Just start listening.
It is the tiniest step from here to official targets and carbon prices that fall below levels advised by science. The disconnection of policy and science is a half-covert assault on the science and this is no sleight of hand. Indeed it may signal a cultural re-alignment that is tectonic in scale as capital accumulation negotiates its last crisis. It wants to force an already compromised state to choose between the truth of science and the power of capital growth that liberal economics celebrates. And, of course, the power and wealth of those who benefit most from it.
The world is, on current commitments, headed for a CO2 concentration of around 650ppm, a figure that suits capital but not the planet very well. The scientific advice, on the other hand, is converging on 300-350ppm as prudent goals, as goals that are planet friendly. We are not talking marginal adjustments. In fact, we are talking about a last wild punt that capital is going to lose - to science and reform maybe but, if not that, to Gaian revenge certainly. Then we all lose.
Science is losing
The most important climate policy arguments today, then, are not about figures; they do not turn on competing scientific assessments. The big arguments are, in fact, power struggles and they turn on competing claims to shape the strategic architecture of policy: is it to be climate science pointing in the direction of a vulnerable planet and its protection. Or is to be liberal economics going to the aid of threatened human economy and artifice? Climate science is seriously losing and the logic of this loss warrants closer scrutiny.
But doesn’t the absence of science leave a vacuum? Who endorses the government’s arithmetic and targets if not science? But I forget, it’s the national economy we are now saving. Climate scientists know nothing about that. Nor is this just a happy accident. It is a change that accompanies the redefinition of purpose.
In fact, the writing was on the wall for scientists long ago. Their job description, it seems, was rewritten while they were off guard. Once the policy objective started to shift, a more streetwise bunch would have seen the end coming: policy geared to save the national economy needed economists, not climate scientists. And that’s just what it got. And this was a takeover, not the beginning of fruitful interdisciplinary work.
Garnaut did that, more than anyone else, setting climate policy off on its new trajectory. He made it the property of his discipline and subjected it to new imperatives. Closer to the coal face, so to speak, he quarantined huge swathes of national GDP as no-go zones for climate change taxes or levies.
He effectively argued that climate change costs could only be levied against growth income. To the casual reader of a 600-page volume, this sounded reasonable enough - if it was noticed at all - but it severely restricted the actions that humans might take to save the planet.
It implicitly placed expenditure on climate change a long way down the list of established expenditure priorities. As we shall see, pretty much everything came before it. When Garnaut wrings his hands and declares this a tough, even a “diabolical” policy … well … that difficulty is one he has made himself.
See "Small steps forward for these guys …" a giant step backwards for humankind at www.postkyoto.org for further discussion of this theme.