Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change. Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.
Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change. This strategy has had some success. Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”
In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction. By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing. The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints. These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views. The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.
Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.
Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.
However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated. Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations. Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.
Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests. But international relations is different. In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak. The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible. Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.
For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is: first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change. It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit. It is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change. Defection means cheating. Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.
Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies. Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.
Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions. No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price. To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.
To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence. Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change. Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.