Carbon parochialism

One of the most effective arguments against pricing carbon in Australia is that horrible rhetorical question: how much effect will it have in isolation? Carbon price opponents think they’re onto a winner here, and their success (I think) has largely been in framing it as a national rather than a global issue.

In reality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a challenge confronting the whole world, collectively. We always knew it was going to be a hard sell, not least because each nation’s contribution cannot really do anything by itself. There does need to be some sort of international agreement. Absent international agreement, and absent action from other countries, it’s very easy to make the argument that a carbon price will not achieve anything. It won’t.

But at this point in the discussion we’ve already come off the rails, thinking like helpless pessimists, rather than constructive realists. We cannot so easily entertain hypothetical international climate inaction, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads inevitably to the worst possible outcome. This is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If a nation acts in isolation, it may disadvantage itself economically, but if all nations fail to act for this reason, they will suffer far worst than if they had co-operated. We must focus on international co-operation, not on how to “win” the ensuing chaos if co-operation fails.

It’s not beyond us to figure this out. We must think beyond the immediate costs and benefits to our nation. Surely we are human beings before we are Australians. Thus, we must think of ourselves as global citizens, participating in a global debate on climate action and assessing the global costs and benefits thereof. Each investment in renewable energy or reduction in energy use benefits the whole world, not just the country in which it happens. The actual climatic effects of Australia’s carbon price will be dispersed over all seven continents and five oceans, while Australians ourselves will experience only a small part of it. Indeed, every country will experience only a small portion of the benefits of their own actions.

This is antithetical to the selfish, nationalist perspective, which would question why others should benefit from our efforts. But that’s the only way it can be – climate reality crushing the illusion of absolute national sovereignty. We cannot engineer a climate policy that is only in the national interest. We cannot employ a version of Maxwell’s Demon to stand at the border and stop the flow of greenhouse gas molecules back and forth. Climate policy can only serve the global interest, or none at all.

There are many possible analogies. Consider income tax – if each taxpayer were to measure the effect of their own tax contribution on healthcare, education, law enforcement, etc., it would be infinitesimal. Why then should anyone pay tax? Your own tax contribution in isolation hardly benefits society at all. However, there are many people to share the tax burden, and together their contribution is very noticeable. The benefits to everyone of government spending – the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy and educated society – far outweigh whatever personal benefits those few thousand tax dollars were going to have1.

If we convince ourselves that we matter more than society, or that Australia matters more that the rest of the world, we risk becoming obsessed not simply with helping ourselves, but with actively not helping others. It’s not our responsibility, we tell ourselves, forgetting in our stubbornness that we have a stake in it. Selfishness turns into angry defensiveness, which turns into isolationism, and ultimately self-betrayal. Far from being a burden, the greater good is actually in our own personal and national interest. Climate policy is not about altruistically helping others (though that is certainly no bad thing). It is about helping ourselves by helping everyone.

  1. Libertarians would insist otherwise, but I don’t think they have a great deal of evidence on their side. []

2 thoughts on “Carbon parochialism

  1. forgetting in our stubbornness that we have a stake in it.

    It doesn’t happen in isolation though. Enough denial of humanity’s contribution to climate change will turn “mitigating a bad situation” into a perceived gamble. Once you undermine the reality of the situation, people will mistake parochialism for sensible risk analysis.

    • Very true. The anti-mitigation argument does create the illusion of sensible risk analysis, because it glosses over the magnitude of the problem the world faces. It conveys the impression that this is just an option that we can either choose or ignore before moving on.

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