Comment: Some Conservatives failed over Mandela – others are failing now over climate change

I am a Conservative and an environmentalist – a position, it seems, that is increasingly irreconcilable. Australia’s centre-right administration is busy dismantling a carbon tax. Canada’s Conservative Government has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol. And, in the United States, the Tea Party is purging Republicans who agree with the 97 per cent of climate scientists who say that human activity is causing global warming.

As a politician (and former president) of the Maldives – one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations – this places me in a quandary. A believer in free markets, small government and globalisation, I feel a natural kinship with the school of thought that brought us Thatcherism and Reaganomics. But the Maldives lies just 1.5 meters above the rising seas. To deny the dangers of climate change is to ignore my country’s greatest national security threat.

I suspect I am not alone in this predicament. As climate change bites, more and more world leaders are forced to grapple with its consequences: fiercer droughts, wildfires, storms and floods. A denialist, Conservative movement has no solutions to offer these countries and therefore risks irrelevancy.

It also leaves Conservatives on the wrong side of history. Over the past few weeks, as the world commemorates Nelson Mandela, an uncomfortable spotlight has been shone on Conservatives who branded the ANC as terrorists in the 1980s. How will today’s crop of Conservative climate refuseniks explain themselves to future generations, in a world made hotter, nasty and poor by global warming?

Strong action today to curb emissions should prevent catastrophic climate change. But if we ignore the issue for another decade, we face a world of soaring temperatures, ferocious storms and a climate out of control. Future generations will hold Conservatives responsible for wrecking the planet.

My party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), owes much to the Conservative movement. They have provided us with ideological inspiration and practical know-how. Britain’s Conservative Party taught the MDP how to campaign – invaluable support in a young democracy like the Maldives. We are also grateful to conservative-run governments, such as Canada’s, who pressured the Maldives to hold recent elections when the country looked like it might slip back into dictatorship. The actions of politicians such as David Cameron, William Hague and John Baird, in support of democracy in a far off land, demonstrate the very best in enlightened leadership. When our movement is capable of exemplary governance, why do so many Conservatives let us down on climate change?

It was not always like this. Teddy Roosevelt founded America’s national park system. Richard Nixon introduced the Clean Air Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to limit CFCs. And George H Bush introduced a cap-and-trade system to curb acid rain. But contemporary politicians fail to uphold one of the founding principles of Conservatism: the duty to conserve. There is nothing Conservative about advocating for the destruction of the climate, and thus all we hold dear. This is not a credible Conservative standpoint: it is reckless and extreme.

Our movement’s pro-fossil fuel advocacy also flies in the face of the free market economics we espouse. The oil, gas and coal industries have benefited from a century of subsidies and tax breaks. So why are we continuing to subsidise highly profitable and polluting fossil fuel firms, while choking off support for clean energy?  We are not supposed to be the fossil fuel industry’s trade union.

Capitalism, free trade and globalisation have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and helped countries, such as my own, graduate from developing to middle income status. We owe a lot to neoclassical economics. But as any economist will tell you, markets sometime fail. The modern economy allows companies to dump dangerous greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at no cost. The responsible, Conservative approach to this problem is to price and/or regulate these emissions.

Fortunately, this position is starting to find acceptance, even in the unlikeliest quarters. ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, BP and Shell are already planning their future growth on the expectation that governments will impose a price on carbon emissions. If oil companies can accept the inevitability of climate action, why can’t Conservative politicians?

Enough of this antediluvian denialism – it is time for climate conscious Conservatives to speak out. We should ask ourselves what Churchill, Thatcher or Reagan would do. Even in the face of vested interests or powerful opponents, they would not shirk their responsibilities. They would lead the fight to conserve our climate.

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