TCS Daily

When Right Is Wrong

By Jan Arlid Snoen - June 10, 2002 12:00 AM

OSLO -- Although environmentalism has been associated with the political left the past several decades, this has not always been the case. In the first half of the 20th century, environmentalism was mostly pragmatic and focused on nature conservation. It included people and organisations across the political spectrum, not least conservatives. The socialist and labour movements had other pressing needs to attend to, and were strong supporters of industrialisation. In the name of "scientific" socialism, environmental concerns were often put aside, most dramatically in the Soviet Union.

Between the world wars, environmentalism also became associated with parts of the national socialist movements. The Nazis were deeply split between their modernising, industrialising sentiments and their yearning for a simple life based on racial homogeneity and a close bond to nature and the soil - "Blut und Boden", as the Germans put it.

From around 1970, supposed environmental degradation has played a useful role for the left as proof of the many wrongs of capitalism. Marx's theory of exploitation of the workers has since long been disproved by increasing affluence among the working class. Lenin tried to substitute imperialism as an explanation, but as most colonies gained independence and many showed robust growth, this didn't do the trick. In the 1970's hope rose that environmental disaster eventually would lead to the destruction of capitalism. Hope dies hard, which explains the persistent refusal to accept that most environmental indicators are improving.

Rather than seeing environmental policy in traditional left-right terms, it is more fruitful to transcend this dichotomy. For example, the centre-right is regaining power in many European countries. This doesn't necessarily signify a more sober, balanced and scientifically based approach to environmental concerns. The European right is presently not very ideological, and like the centre-left focused on short term vote maximisation. As voters regularly tell them that environmental policy is important, and that they want stricter standards and reduced emissions, centre-right parties are tempted to comply. They may even be willing to sacrifice their traditionally good relations to industry in order to brandish their green credentials.

Norway has been in the forefront in pressing for stricter international regulations and binding agreements ever since the former Labour prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland headed the World Commission on Environment and Development in the mid 1980's. Since September 2001 the new activist Conservative Minister of Environment, Børge Brende, has done his best to outshine the former Labour governments. Most green organisations and the Socialist Left opposition think he has succeeded. Brende recently called the otherwise discredited Worldwatch Institute flagship publication State of the World "the second most important book in the world". He has also annoyed the British and American governments respectively with strongly worded and morally charged criticism of their nuclear and climate policy.

Brende and the centre-right government recently proposed to introduce a national greenhouse gas trading system from 2005. This will impose a heavy burden on Norwegian heavy industry, as it has to cut emissions by 20% from the 1990 baseline. Few, if any, of their competitors will be burdened with anything similar. (The EU is contemplating a different emission trading system, but this will not significantly reduce the disadvantages placed on Norwegian industry). The Labour party has sided with industry, the unions and the populist Progress party in opposing the proposal, leaving the minority government no other option than to negotiate with the Socialist Left to secure a majority in parliament. This is not the only example of the government seeking support from the Socialist Left in environmental policy.

Brende is building his political career on his green appeal, and is one of the contenders for future Conservative party chairmanship. His political calculations might however be based on a misunderstanding of the true sentiments of the voters. In opinion polls a large majority of Norwegian, as well as Europeans and even Americans support ever stricter environmental standards. This is the politically correct answer to give, and bears no costs. Talk is cheap. To sacrifice their own well-being for small or uncertain environmental benefits is quite a different matter. Most European governments, including the Norwegian, therefore cut gasoline taxes last year after widespread popular protests against high gasoline prices. Most economists will insist that high gasoline prices are part of the parcel if the EU is serious about complying with the Kyoto treaty.

A triumph for the European right will probably not stop the drift towards ever more draconian environmental regulations founded on weak science. Only a shift in public perceptions and priorities can reverse this trend. Given balanced information and realising they have to bear the burden of environmental policies themselves, the public are probably more likely to be leading such a reversal than tottering politicians, left or right.



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