Rightwing tribalism seems to be the topic du jour, or maybe I’m noticing it more having just done a long-planned post on the topic. Here are some recent examples
- Jamelle Bouie in Slate, headed “Conservative Tribalism” with the write-off
Mass transit. Common Core. Light bulbs. Conservatives hate these things for no better reason than that liberals like them.* Tim Donovan in Salon, on The Right’s Paranoid Tribalism
- Digby in Slate on Southern white males as a voting bloc unremittingly hostile to the Dems on tribal grounds (my thoughts on this here)
Over the fold, I’ve reprised the piece (from a 2007 review of Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher) when I first realized the central role of tribalism, as opposed to ideology or economic self-interest, in contemporary rightwing politics. Rereading it, I’m happy with most of the analysis, though obviously, with my characteristic over-optimism and shortening of time-frames, I did not anticipate the full tenacity of rightwing resistance on this issue.
What can be done about rightwing tribalism? There’s no point in traditional strategies of compromise and bargaining. The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. So, as Bouie observes, the moment Obama adopts a policy favored by the right, they turn against it.
The strategy of trying to frame issues in rightwing terms, pushed by Lakoff and others, is similarly hopeless: it’s not the issues, but the people that are the problem. There’s one big exception to this: if they issue can be framed as Big Government vs the little guy, as in the cases of NSA surveillance and, more interestingly, of attempts by utilities to suppress rooftop solar power using ALEC-backed legislation, it’s possible to make common cause with at least some on the right, who hate “the guvment” even more than liberals and environmentalists. But that’s only true of a minority of the right, and a handful of issues.
Most of the time, none of these strategies will work. The only thing that will work is persuading rightwing tribalists to abandon their tribal identity, and persuading non-tribalists of conservative inclinations that they should not ally with this group. And of course, waiting for time and demography to take their course, as has already happened to a substantial extent.
In 1997, the Howard government came away from the Kyoto negotiations on climate change with a double triumph. First, despite opposition from many green groups and European governments, the resulting Kyoto Protocol relied primarily on the market-based policy of ‘cap-and-trade’ under which rights to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would be limited in total quantity, and tradeable between users and countries. This idea, pioneered in the United States, contrasted sharply with the policy of direct ‘command-and-control’ over individuals sources of emissions seen by many in the green movement as the only acceptable way of controlling pollution.
The case for emissions trading, pushed strongly by the Australian and US delegations rests on a simple economic argument. With a trading system, there is an incentive to find the lowest-cost way of reducing or offsetting emissions. The SO2 scheme in the US is estimated to have reduced compliance costs by 75 per cent. This is an impressive demonstration of the power of market mechanisms.
The second triumph came at the bargaining table, when targets for emissions reductions were being negotiated. By pursuing hardline bargaining tactics Australia secured the most generous emissions target of any developed country, allowing an increase of 8 per cent over 1990 levels when most other countries committed to reductions of 6 to 8 per cent. Even more strikingly, the agreement allowed Australia to meet its target entirely by restrictions on land clearing which were on the way in any case.
Ten years later, though, the government is floundering on the issue. Although the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005, Australia has yet to ratify it. And on the core issue of emissions trading the government has literally turned 360 degrees, rejecting the idea for years before scrambling to regain its original position under pressure from the Labor opposition, the states and much of the business sector.
The report of the Task Force on Emissions Trading provides the government with a last chance to deal itself back into the game. But the fact remains that, having started as one of the early advocates of emissions trading, the government now finds itself in the position of a last-minute, and rather dubious, convert.
How did all this come to pass? In large measure, it can be explained by the presence, within the Australian policy elite of an influential group of politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, think tanks and commentators determined to stop any significant action that would reduce CO2 emissions. In his new book, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change Clive Hamilton calls this group the ‘greenhouse mafia’ (a name he says they use themselves) and gives a critical description of its members and activities.
The first official reference to global warming turned up by Hamilton’s research is a 1981 memo from the Office of National Assessments (interestingly, addressed to a Mr J. Howard). Concern over the issue developed gradually during the 1980s, culminating in the 1992 Earth Summit, which led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a body established to assess the huge, and rapidly growing, body of research on the science of climate change, the likely impacts on societies, economies and ecosystems, and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation. At this stage, the Hawke government had announced a commitment to the ‘Toronto targets’ calling for a 20 per cent reduction in emissions, but had taken no action to achieve this goal beyond the provision of research funding and some voluntary initiatives.
As the Howard government came into office, the pressure was mounting to match words with actions. The government’s main concern was with the Kyoto negotiations. As Hamilton shows, the government’s negotiating team, led by Meg McDonald of DFAT, treated Kyoto as a typical trade agreement, where the objective was to get as much, and give as little, as possible, an objective that was pursued with remarkable success.
It is after 1997 that the story becomes interesting. With the Kyoto agreement signed, a substantial section of the business community wanted to take advantage of Australia’s favourable position to participate in global emissions trading markets, take a lead in energy conservation and develop renewable sources of energy such as wind power. This group included much of the financial sector, the gas industry (energy from natural gas is less carbon-intensive than from coal) and even substantial elements of the energy sector, including BP, which had broken from the main international anti-Kyoto organisation, the Global Climate Coalition (after losing more members, the Coalition shut up shop around 2000).
A smaller, but more determined group, centred on the coal-mining and aluminium industries, emerged in opposition. Despite having congratulated the government on its success at Kyoto, this group rapidly emerged as vociferous opponents of the deal. Although they were motivated by concerns about the political and economic consequences of Kyoto, their chosen battleground was the science of climate change, which, they argued, was at best uncertain but more commonly the product of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive the public.
The most prominent public face of the greenhouse mafia has been the Lavoisier Group, which described Kyoto as ‘the greatest threat to our sovereignty since the Japanese Fleet entered the Coral Sea in 1942’ Hamilton notes, the Lavoisier Group was one of a string or similar organisations, the first being the HR Nicholls society, set up by then CEO of Western Mining Corporation, Hugh Morgan, and his executive officer Ray Evans.
The public activity of the Lavoisier Group was matched by effective behind-the-scenes organization by bureaucrats, lobby groups and individual politicians. Hamilton notes that many of the most effective lobbyists, such as Dick Wells of the Minerals Council, are former senior bureaucrats.
All of this activity was cheered on by a substantial section of the commentariat, and particularly The Australian newspaper. In much of the Australian media, there was a striking inconsistency between news coverage, which generally reported the findings of mainstream science, and the opinion pages which accepting the framing of the issue as a political dispute in which balance required equal time for both sides. The only real exception to this was The Australian, where both the news and opinion pages were dominated by views hostile to mainstream science.
Responding to this the Howard government adopted a set of positions that seemed to work well for some time, despite their inherent contradictions. The government officially accepted the science of climate change, but gave key portfolios to vocal skeptics. While refusing to ratify Kyoto, it promised to meet the Kyoto targets for emissions reduction. And having been among the leading proponents of market-based policies it set up the AP6 group, based on the claim that purely technological solutions were needed.
Hamilton’s final two chapters deal with the collapse of the government’s position over the last few years. In this period, the public debate was reshaped by the success of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Research, the release of the Stern Review of the economics of climate change, and in 2007, the progressive release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Over the same period, the occurrence of record temperatures, catastrophic bushfires and one of the worst droughts in history convinced ordinary Australians that the time for delay was past.
In retrospect this seems inevitable. By the time of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, released in 2001, the science was already fairly clear-cut. The fact that the earth was warming was well-established, and remaining concerns such as the discrepancy between surface and satellite measurements were approaching resolution (both data sets now show similar rates of warming). The evidence that human activity was responsible for the observed warming was not yet conclusive, but it was strong and getting steadily stronger as alternative hypotheses fell by the wayside. The Third Report concluded that the probability of human-caused global warming was between 66 and 90 per cent. The recently-released Fourth Report gave a probability of at least 90 per cent.
Of course, 90 per cent isn’t perfect certainty, but it is comparable to the scientific evidence we have to go on, for example, when we decide whether to allow the introduction of new drugs or genetically modified crops. In these circumstances, as many critics of extreme environmentalism have pointed out, insistence on absolute certainty is a recipe for paralysis.
Moreover, the remaining uncertainty surrounding global warming does not help a case for inaction. The core projections put forward by the IPCC exclude the small probability that warming will turn out to be the product of a natural cycle, but they also exclude various low-probability catastrophic scenarios, involving runaway feedbacks, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and so on.
The most likely outcome of improvements in scientific knowledge is an increase in the confidence with which the mainstream IPCC model is held. But even if that does not happen, the news is just as likely to be bad as good.
So it seems that the critics of Kyoto, by focusing their attacks on the science of climate change, were backing an almost-certain loser in the long run. The obvious question is, Why?
For most of the book, Hamilton presents the methods, motives and successes of the greenhouse mafia as an example of effective delaying tactics, undertaken by well-organised interest groups particularly in the coal and aluminium industries. He sees the government’s stance as one of protecting short-term economic interests at the expense of our long-term national interest, not to mention those of the world as a whole.
This is certainly part of the story, But this analysis seems unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Energy companies in Europe and elsewhere have had few problems in adapting to the new environment. Indeed, as Hamilton notes the intransigence of the Australian branches of Alcoa and Rio Tinto contrasts sharply with the positions of their corporate parents. And even Western Mining seems to have decided in the end that the campaigning fervour of Morgan and Evans was a distraction from their core business rather than a political asset.
But the most striking problem with the interest group explanation is its failure to account for the extraordinary ferocity of the climate change debate. As Hamilton notes at a couple of points in the argument, the rancour of the greenhouse mafia reflects a deep-seated hostility to environmentalism that goes beyond any calculation of corporate interests, or even the interests of the market system.
In fact, the dispute is not so much ideological as tribal. For the mining executives who lead the group, the retired engineers who typify the rank-and-file, and the culture warriors who push its case in the Murdoch press, greens or “enviros” are natural enemies. If they wear suits, turn up at business meetings and use the rhetoric of the market, that only makes them more subtle and dangerous threats.
And those who speak with the authority of science are disliked and distrusted even more. The most prominent recent statement from the greenhouse mafia, Ray Evans’ Nine Lies About Global Warming asserts that ‘If the IPCC were a commercial corporation operating in Australia, its directors would now be facing criminal charges and the prospect of going to jail’. Even normally sober commentators like Alan Wood, economics editor of The Australian, make free use of use of terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘fraud’ to discuss the main body of climate science supporting global warming theory.
Green activists and scientists alike are presented, in the rhetoric of the greenhouse mafia, as irreconcilable enemies of markets and freedom. Yet, Kyoto did not mark a triumph of anti-capitalist greens. Rather it signified the acceptance by the mainstream environmental movement that capitalism is here to stay, and that catastrophic climate change can only be prevented through the use of market mechanisms. Faced with a choice between pursuing fundamental social change and saving the planet, environmentalists have opted for the latter.
Serious advocates of capitalism have long recognised this. At meetings like the annual Davos conference and its Australian offshoot, the need to act on global warming is taken as given. The central issue is not the political fight over Kyoto and alternative proposals, but the opportunities for individual businesses and the business sector as a whole to take a leading role in the process.
Overall, the story told by Scorcher is one of a series of tactical victories for the greenhouse mafia leading to what appears certain to be a massive strategic defeat. The end of the Bush Administration will almost certainly signal the abandonment of the policies of denial and delay for which the ‘skeptics’ have fought so hard. The adoption of some form of emissions trading is inevitable, and the resulting political dynamic will ensure the adoption of long-term targets requiring large reductions in emissions. The only outcome of a decade of delaying tactics will be to increase the costs of the inevitable adjustment.
With its early advocacy of market-based policy, the Howard government, and the political right in Australia, could now be challenging the lock on environmental issues held by the left. Instead, having painted themselves into a corner by denying the plain evidence of science, they now find themselves scrambling to regain credibility and relevance.
Clive Hamilton, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne 2007, 266+vi pp.