(Un)sustainable politics

For nearly two years the government has tried to make “sustainability” a core issue and a distinguishing point in the coming election. It hoped climate change would be the vehicle.

But as a slogan “sustainability” is passive and abstract, inviting acquiescence rather than action. Worse, few can agree what it means. And, compounding that, climate change is confusing.

For most people “sustainability” is about the natural environment, a matter of green, not core, politics. Most rate the environment and related issues “yes, unless” matters: yes, keep the environment in good nick — unless we have to pay higher taxes or prices or take lower wages.

For those people climate change is not a core voting issue, especially now that food, fuel, rent and interest prices are hacking into the household budget and way of life.

There are earnest or guilty people who do bother about the environment and climate change, who look past the kitchen sink and barbecue to the horizon and worry whether there will be enough for their grandchildren. They see climate change as an ethical matter.

But they pay only at the margin: lag hot water cylinders, double-glaze windows, carry green hemp bags to supermarkets (in their SUVs), occasionally walk instead of drive. Unlike true greens, they do not substantially alter their lifestyles. The price is too high.

Some might vote Green if dissatisfied with their usually preferred major party. But they will not vote in droves on climate change or “sustainability” over the top of concerns about household finances, education, health services and the like.

The problem for “sustainability” campaigners is that climate change is so complex that few outside a charmed circle of physicists and economists can “know” what is involved. For the great majority, taking a position on climate change comes down to taking or leaving the advice of preferred “experts” or responding to their own fears, excitements or prejudices.

It doesn’t help that the “experts” disagree on fundamental facts, both past measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations and the likely climatic changes from any given level of concentration.

An impressive majority of scientists says concentrations have risen sharply since the industrial revolution and disruptive consequences will follow if emissions are not cut and concentrations contained. Policymakers logically predicate policy on that majority view.

But science has never been decided by majority.

Moreover, economists have published widely varying assessments of costs and opportunities of various types of action to curb emissions, depending on assumptions about the science, cost to emitters and discount rates, among many variables.

Any business facing higher costs it can’t pass on to consumers sensibly plays up the costs and/or threatens to shut up shop. As in any economic argument — free trade is a classic example — at the pubs-and-clubs level, the noise about downsides of climate change action drowns out advocacy of upsides.

Another complicating uncertainty is over what the world has been doing and will do about climate change. There is some action by rich countries, notably in Europe, on their Kyoto Protocol obligations but there is also rather a lot of sleight of hand.

Rich countries say developing economies must be part of any new international agreement to follow Kyoto from 2012 and there are some inventive mechanisms to gently wind them in. But developing economies say it is unfair to dump on them since rich countries’ development was free of climate change constrictions. So concerted international government action that actually cuts global emissions dramatically by 2020 is unlikely.

In any case, faced with a choice between climate change and food and industrial production as water becomes scarcer, notably in India and China, developing economies will opt for production. In richer countries supermarket chains might carbon-profile products but that will not generate the serious price differentials needed to really change consumer, and so producer, behaviour.

And there is the counterpoint: the do-nothing option. If oil prices stay high, that will drive the development of more climate-friendly alternative fuels. Even developing economies at some point act on pollution, which will also help — China is already trying. So why worry?

Few voters have the time, knowledge, skill and motivation to pick their way through this thicket, to reach a conclusion on “sustainability” as a lodestar for their votes — especially since both major parties back emissions trading and have been arguing only over implementation. Far simpler to stick to prices, taxes, the “nanny state”, hospital operations and all the things that usually decide their votes.

That’s sustainability.