I have not read every book on global warming, weird weather, climate change and the rest, but I have bought about a dozen over the past few years, got one to review, and were given a couple by the authors. But there is one I have ordered and will read once it is published at the end of the month: Rupert Darwall’s The Age of Global Warming. A History. The history of this global scare has fascinated me from the beginning, and indeed I once had in mind writing such a book myself. All being well, Mr Darwall will have done the job for me.
I was led to his book through a reference to a review on Spiked, the British website, and you can read that here. What grabbed me was the last long paragraph, about the way in which global warming had infiltrated the political parties supposedly looking after the interest of the working classes around the world. I have written about aspects of this change for quite a while, but never so crisply. In the 1960s, when I was working on ‘class and party’, the evidence I was getting from my survey research was that Australians were not much affected by notions of class conflict, even those who were in the supposed ‘working class’.
In the fifty years that followed, ‘class’ concerns have further diminished, for a number of reasons. One is the shift in wealth, which has meant not only that the rich have become richer, but that the poor have become richer, too. On average, Australians are about three times wealthier than their counterparts in the 1960s, and that has altered the traditional basis of Australian politics.
A second change has been in the nature of work. Back in the 1960s most of those who were not employers or self-employed belonged to trade unions, and unions dictated a lot of passed for the Australian way of life: shops, for example, were not open in the weekend after 12.30 pm on Saturday. Unions now embrace just 18 per cent of workers, and their power over the rest of society is much less.
A third has been in the decline of the feeling that ‘politics’ is really important. We know now, or think we do, that it is ‘the economy’ that is really at the heart of things. Karl Marx was right after all. The ABC news tells us every night the state of the All Ordinaries, and of the value of the Australian dollar relative to other currencies important to us.
And into this change has crept ‘environmentalism’, which Darwall calls an ‘elitist’ concept. It could only occupy the place it now does in our society because of the decline of class politics, made even smaller because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not simply that the far left has moved into environmentalism, though that is true. Environmentalism appeals to the conscience of the comfortably off, that part of us that was once catered to by organised religion, which has declined greatly, like the trade unions, in the past fifty years. ‘Saving the planet’ has replaced ‘social justice’.
But in the developing world there are still poor people, millions and millions of them, and while we have nothing like that poverty in Australia, we certainly do have a lot of people for whom the marginal utility of the dollar is very important. As I understand it, Darwall seems to be saying that social democratic parties have lost sight of the needs of the less well-off in pursuit of chimeras like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘combatting climate change’. Mark Latham pointed out some time ago that in Blacktown Labor voters thought that ‘climate change’ was a lot of nonsense (that was before he realised that such voters were misguided, in his recent Quarterly Essay).
The relatively better off can assuage their consciences about the state of the world by agreeing to carbon taxes, and buying PV cells with which to adorn their roofs, at the expense of the rest of us who don’t. But the people who are walking the thin line between eating and buying school clothes not only don’t want carbon taxes, they see them as yet another load to bear. Winter is about to start, and the heating bills are going to rise. By the time September 14th comes those bills will be staring at us all. Yes, the Labor Government has tried to compensate poor families by increasing their benefits. But as we all know, those benefits go on other things, not on the bills that they were intended to meet.
It is cheap energy that sustains developed, sophisticated, complex societies like ours, and governments raise the price of energy at their peril. That outcome can happen externally, as when the OPEC countries unilaterally raised the price of oil in the mid 1970s. Western governments everywhere were caught short, and many went to electoral defeat. Our Labor Party, like many other social democratic parties in the developed world, got hooked on environmentalism when it was in Opposition. It seems likely to me that it is about to enter another period of Opposition, where it could profitably think about the real needs of the poor.