environment

The new left-right divide on climate

With emissions still rising, climate geo-engineering is a topic we need to debate. But political researchers fear people are falling into the same left/right tribalism that has long plagued climate politics.

If there’s one thing Al Gore must know by now, it’s that all the verifiable evidence in the world doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you too much to listen.

Gore's role as a champion of climate action was a mixed blessing for the planet – he raised awareness, but he also turned off people who were vehemently, politically opposed to the US Democrat.

Now a US Republican movement for climate action has emerged, led by ex-congressman Bob Inglis, although the concept apparently remains so outlandish that its website reassures visitors: ‘No, we’re not kidding.' 

Although worsening fires, droughts, diseases and floods will affect people of all political persuasions, studies have repeatedly shown that a sizeable chunk of the population uses their politics as a proxy when deciding whether to trust the scientific evidence on climate.

As well as worsening climate damage, the resulting delays almost certainly cost money: last year, a report released by Westpac found that, in New Zealand alone, moving to a low carbon economy sooner rather than later would reap up to $30 billion in economic benefits.

Now researchers fear that a new split is emerging, this time on climate geo-engineering - a catch-all term that is used to describe various ways of cooling the planet. 

This time, the left-right roles are reversed: left-aligned people are more likely to be cautious about relying on techno-fixes to cool the climate, while right-aligned people are more likely to support taking action.

“Climate change is one of these issues that has become bigger than the scientific fact," says Rebecca Colvin, who researches conflict and the environment at Australian National University in Canberra. "It’s wrapped up in political affiliations and identities. Strong climate action is bundled up with left-wing political identities, while resisting climate action has been traditionally aligned with the right. The United States is most extreme in this regard, but Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, show a similar pattern,” she says.

With geo-engineering becoming a controversial topic, a left-right split is again emerging, though not as strongly as last time, says Colvin. “There are signs that it may fall along the political spectrum in the opposite way, with left-aligned political identities opposing it because it can be viewed as a reason to delay strong action on emissions reductions, and right-aligned political identities supporting geo-engineering because it can be seen as justifying the status quo."

“There are some sensible reasons why the mindsets that underpin left- and right-aligned political identities would fall on the spectrum of supporting and opposing geo-engineering in this way," says Colvin. "But the problem is, once an issue becomes a polarised political object, discourse about the issue becomes less about the substance of the issue itself, and more about the different groups attempting to ‘win’ a debate."

Rebecca Colvin researches conflict and the environment at Australian National University in Canberra. Photo: Supplied

Having a debate about geo-engineering is urgent, because the longer nations delay making steep emissions cuts, the more dependent the world becomes on technologies that suck carbon away and/or geo-engineering.

Colvin, along with other ANU researchers (including Mark Howden, Australia's top scientist on the IPCC) recently wrote a paper suggesting how to avoid the pitfalls of climate politics. 

While it might pain Gore and Inglis to hear it, they concluded that having a cogent discussion may mean keeping political champions out of it. 

“I think part of it is about who the messenger is,” says Colvin. “Al Gore speaking out about climate change is very persuasive if you’re the kind of person who is inclined to trust Al Gore. If you are not, you may be thinking ‘well, if Al Gore thinks that, I want no part of it.”

“Folks who are not the usual suspects and who cannot be – fairly or otherwise – pigeon-holed into a pre-defined ideological position are likely to be the most productive messengers, if we want to grapple with geo-engineering and negative emissions," she says. 

Aside from keeping left-right politics aside, Colvin says the second key to having a good conversation is understanding how much the technologies vary. The possibilities range from traditional, nature-based solutions, such as mass tree-planting, to sci-fi-esque and, as-yet, little-studied interventions, such as shooting aerosols into the air to simulate the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions. In between are options such as grinding up basalt and spreading it on fields, to absorb carbon. Each one has its own risks, drawbacks and benefits. Some are vastly better-studied than others. Yet people tend to lump them together, she says. 

“One of the key distinctions is to think about the difference between approaches that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, so they contribute to repairing the damage we have done to the climate, and technologies that change the amount of incoming heat, so they are trying to protect us from the worst impacts of climate change," says Colvin. "The approaches that limit incoming heat don’t really absorb the problem, they just put a band aid over the impacts. But they often go hand-in-hand [in discussions]."

"A lot of people respond almost with repulsion to the idea that we can protect ourselves from the consequences of the problem without actually solving the problem itself,” she says. "Grouping them all under these high-level categories of ‘geo-engineering’ or ‘negative emissions’ runs the risk of driving a blunt public discourse that is unable to engage with the nuances.”

Karen Scott, a law professor at the University of Canterbury, agrees. She says the debate needs better research behind it. “The risks are remarkably varied between technologies, both in respect of their ability to affect or ameliorate climate change and other consequential risks to the environment," says Scott. "I agree that an evidenced-based conversation is sensible, but the only way of doing that is to conduct research into these various technologies. At the moment, this research is largely unregulated."

There is a risk to having the conversation, too. Scott says studying and discussing cooling can make people complacent about cutting emissions. "There is a ‘moral hazard’ in researching these technologies, that [people assume] we are able to develop a technological solution to climate change, and we do not need to take hard decisions. The more time we prevaricate and explore technical options without also reducing emissions, the harder it will be to effectively tackle climate change in the long run," says Scott. "If we're going to explore geo-engineering, we have to agree that these technologies ... will not replace emissions reductions.”

The exploring is already happening, however. Sun-dimming technology is already being trialled in the United States, along with other new solutions. 

The public conversation will need to play catch-up. 

Researchers like Colvin and Scott hope that, this time, people will decide by the evidence.

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