Conservative politics, business and COP21

Activists demand 100 per cent renewable energy at the 2015 Madrid Climate March.

Outside the U.S., there is relatively widespread belief in anthropogenic (human caused) climate change, and support for policies to deal with it. In the U.S., however, and to a lesser extent in Canada, investment in that belief, and the level of accompanying support, is associated with political ideology, and which sector of the economy one’s personal forture is tied to. 

Al Gore, well-known climate change activist and businessperson, is fond of quoting Upton Sinclair, who once stated, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

In this vein, within Canada, Albertans (the surprise NDP victory in that province notwithstanding) have been the most resistant to support measures to address climate change.

Alberta, the main home of the oil industry in Canada, was the power base for the former federal Conservative government. Not surprisingly, that government was reluctant to acknowledge climate change, or to adopt carbon pricing at a national level.

In B.C., which was lauded as a climate leader, even hero, at COP21, there has been serious backsliding during the tenure of Christy Clark. While B.C. was the first in North America to have a carbon tax, the original plan called for it to be increased over time. Instead, Premier Clark froze the tax. Worse, B.C. continues to export thermal coal, and the provincial government has focused its economic growth plan on LNG development.

COP21 featured much criticism of the perceived prioritization of regional economic self interest over the needs of the broader international community. A number of countries whose economies rely on oil production issued statements resisting the emerging consensus on important issues such as a 1.5 degree target, or the inclusion of wording such as “decarbonization.” Saudi Arabia, a country that may become largely unfit for human habitation as the earth continues to heat up, received multiple “Fossil of the Day” awards from the Climate Action Network for its poor showing in the climate policy domain.

There are a number of ways to consider how ideology is related to climate change politics. To a certain extent, knowledge about climate change is based on scientific reasoning, and the authority of scientific experts. Political liberals are generally more likely to embrace the authority of scientific experts, whereas many conservatives prefer traditional authority, and view scientific reasoning on certain issues (such as evolution or climate change) with suspicion.

Additionally, many conservatives (and conservative think tanks) prefer a society based on “free markets”, and dislike government intervention and “excessive” taxation. But climate change is a problem that necessitates government intervention. More so, it requires some form of international governance.

Finally, climate change policy actors believe that climate justice must be addressed to successfully address the larger issue of climate change. This requires the transfer of financial and technical resources from the wealthy, who have played a bigger role in producing greenhouse gas emissions, to the poorer, who are less responsible for GHG emissions but are more susceptible to the ravages of climate change. Conservatives tend to be opposed to government-directed economic redistribution.

These three obstacles are major drivers to widespread U.S. opposition to actions against climate change. This is important, because domestic politics (and the ability to get climate change legislation passed through Congress) affects the Obama adminstration’s ability to negotiate issues such as temperature targets. Those limitations in turn constrained the Paris COP21 agreement.

These observations are also relevant, to varying degrees, to initiatives taken within Canada. The B.C. carbon tax could have been used to address climate justice issues, or to increase investment in sustainability research and green technology and jobs. But the B.C. Liberal government decided the only way of making a carbon tax palatable to conservative-leaning supporters was to make the carbon tax revenue neutral.

In the U.S., support for dealing with climate change measures at the state level tends to be associated with party politics, and whether or not coal, gas and oil are important parts of the state economy. 

So what about business leaders, who are often stereotyped as being “small-c” conservatives? It is often assumed that business is generally opposed to taxation and government regulations. But, in reality, business is more concerned about having a level playing field, and having predictable costs and regulations.

Reportedly, the business sector had a significantly higher profile at COP21 than at any previous COP. Many corporations now see runaway climate change as very bad for business, entailing unpredictable costs. Not only that, some see the transition to a green, decarbonized economy as a business opportunity — or even, in some cases, as a part of their social responsibility. Bill Gates was active at COP21, as was Richard Branson, along with representatives from companies such as Facebook, Google, Sony, Walmart, and Michelin, to name a few.

In my own research, I have interviewed a number oil company executives who have admitted (before the recent federal election) that they disagreed with the approach taken by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, believing it would have been better to have carbon pricing that is predictable. Political commentators have said that if Canada had instituted federal-level carbon pricing, President Obama’s decision about Keystone XL may have been different. 

While a number of thinkers, including, Naomi Klein, have argued that the climate crisis presents a perfect opportunity to revisit the capitalist system (a position I will remain agnostic about here), business leaders have professed to being committed to dealing with climate change, if not structural inequality. At COP21, on the environmental front at least, business leaders left conservative U.S. politicians behind. In the wake of COP21, some Canadian politicians risk being left behind, as well.

David Tindall is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at UBC. He is also a UBC University Sustainability Initiative Teaching Fellow.

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