Thursday, July 4, 2019

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Climate change is not a ‘left versus right’ political issue

The BBC reported “a swing to the left” in the Danish elections of last month, but noted that the resultant governing bloc would be “voting with the right on immigration”.

The two main issues for voters were climate change and immigration. Danes on the whole are concerned about climate change and want something to be done about it. They are also concerned about immigration and want something to be done about that – cleaning up migrant ghettoes and dispersing their inhabitants is a big issue in Denmark right now. 

‘Left’ parties tend to be more inclined to adopt aggressive measures towards climate change while ‘right’ parties tend to be more inclined to adopt aggressive measures towards immigration issues. So they chose a ‘left’-leaning party with ‘right’-leaning views on immigration – there wasn’t a viable ‘right’-leaning party with ‘left’-leaning views on climate change as a contender.

Let’s analyse this ‘left’ and ‘right’ stuff a bit further.

I can understand why being firm on immigration and related issues should be associated with the political ‘right’. The right wing tends to stress national sovereignty and identity while the left wing is more utopian in its global outlook. These positions are extensions of the individualistic versus collectivist world views that lie at the core of the ideological dipole.

Many voters were also motivated by concerns about welfare. Welfarism is not the simple
‘left vs right’ issue that some make it out to be. With the notable exception of Americans, Westerners on the political right overwhelmingly acknowledge the duty of care of the State in relation to providing a social security safety net. The difference between ‘left’ and ‘right’ lies with the way in which this duty of care is implemented. This issue would merit an article in its own right. Suffice it to say that we on the right believe in a minimalist but effective approach that targets the genuinely needy.

I do not see why concern about climate change and the desire to take steps to ameliorate it should be a ‘left’ issue at all. I see no reason why people committed to individual liberty and national identity should necessarily be set against attempts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases with a view to moderating anthropogenic climate change.

I don’t want to turn this article into a defence of the climate change case, but yes, I do personally acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change. It strikes me that the onus of proof has to be on the deniers to convince us that pumping all that CO2 that was removed from the atmosphere over many millions of years back into the air in a couple of hundred years – the bat of an eyelid in geological time –would not be expected to have significant effects on the Earth’s climate. The evidence for climate change is very strong although it may in some instances be misinterpreted by those who are not fully up to scratch with the science. For instance, the harsh winters the Northern Hemisphere has been experiencing actually reinforce the case for climate change as they are caused by Arctic air masses being pushed further south by stronger convection currents of warmer air emanating from the equatorial regions. Hence surface temperatures may decrease as one approaches the mid-latitude regions.

Sure, there are qualified, knowledgeable scientists who are sceptical about climate change, and good on them – scientific progress has always relied on sceptics and even dissenters within the ranks as a check on overgeneralisation and dogmatism. Like the Opposition in a parliament, they keep those running the show honest.

Not only is there nothing intrinsically ‘lefty’ about accepting the anthropogenic climate change case: I regard it as extremely misguided to politicise the issue whatever one’s views on it. Greenhouse emissions as a result of the burning of fossil fuels has no more to do with either Marxism or libertarianism, or any other political ideology, than did the formation of those fossil fuels in the days of the dinosaurs. Let’s keep political ideology out of science, please!

The observation that many on the ‘right’ are ‘anti’ the climate change case is, I believe, to a large extent attributable to their unease about proposals as to what should be done about it. They see the increasing role of Big Government in the form of shutting down conventional energy-related industries such as coal mining and the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on alternative energy glamour projects. Both the election of Donald Trump and the ‘yellow vests’ movement owe a lot to this aspect of the climate change challenge. When people are made jittery by actions directed at a perceived threat, a knee-jerk response is the denial of the existence of the threat. It’s a very common reaction, but that doesn’t make it rational.

Another relevant factor may be the perceived association between climate change advocacy and environmentalism. People of my vintage often tend to associate environmental activism with anti-capitalism and social radicalism. But those days are largely gone.

A fundamental conceptual problem issue is that many people continue to regard ‘leftism’ and ‘rightism’ as package deals entailing economic and social policies that necessarily go together. In reality, people can be ‘liberal’ or even radical in relation to one and ‘conservative’ in relation to the other. Other than hardened ideologues at both extremes of the political spectrum, most of us tend towards ‘leftist’ opinions with regard to some issues and towards ‘rightist’ opinions with regard to others.

But I maintain that the anthropogenic climate change case does not in itself fit anywhere on the left/right political spectrum. At the same time, I will concede that a left/right split will likely emerge in relation to what should be done to meet the challenge. It’s down to the difference between pure science, which is (or should be) apolitical, and the application of science, which brings in value judgements and thereby becomes political.

Far from being a bunch of ideological schizophrenics, the Danes appear to realise that the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ in liberal democracies are not package deals but present combinations of policies that can be dissociated from one another. Which is exactly what most voters did: they went with one set of ostensibly ‘left’ policies in relation to climate change,  and another set of ostensibly ‘right’ policies in relation to immigration. In so doing, they have exhibited a level of political maturity that other electorates will hopefully emulate.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at


John Lekner said...

Thank you Barend! A clear and concise statement of what of our climate and environmental discussions should be. I enjoy all your analytic pieces. Please keep writing.

MMR said...

Thank you for this article. Spot On.

Wayne said...

You need to read the article by Sandra McKechnie in this weeks "breaking views", Barend.
It may help to clear your clouded thinking on this issue.