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Blue can be as green as red

By Ross Chapman - posted Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Policies towards climate change represent one of the greatest difference between parties on the left and right of the Australian political spectrum.  In the red corner, the governing Labor party is convinced of the role of carbon dioxide (CO2) in climate change and have introduced the carbon tax as a mechanism to reduce CO2 emissions.  However, over in the blue corner the Liberals and Nationals both remain in doubt over the risk posed by carbon emissions.  In fact Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, has described man-made climate change as “absolute crap”.   

An antagonistic attitude towards environmental issues is not limited to Australian conservative politicians.   In the United States, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has condemned concerns over climate change as “a liberal conspiracy” to gain political power.  Likewise, Republican Senator James Inhofe has described the science underlying climate change observations as “a hoax and a conspiracy”.  The president of the Czech Republic has gone further, claiming that environmentalism is “identical to communism”.   However, this distinction between the left and right over environmental policy doesn't always apply.

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 until 1990.  She had been a scientist prior to entering politics, with a degree in chemistry from Oxford University.  Thatcher's government pursued a radical pro-business agenda based upon a strong fiscally conservative philosophy.  However, due in part to her scientific training, Margaret Thatcher was aware that a healthy environment was essential for a robust economy.  In a speech made to London's Royal Society in 1988, Thatcher remarked that “Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded”.  She went further during a speech to the UN in 1989, commenting that economic growth must not “plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow”. 


Margaret Thatcher also clearly understood the risk posed by CO2 and climate change.  In her speech to the Royal Society she stated that greenhouse gasses are “creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability”.  The following year she added that greenhouse gases “are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways”.

The UK Conservatives backed their words with actions.  Chris Patten, Thatcher's environment minister, proposed the introduction of a carbon tax to reduce CO2 emissions in 1989.  Although that tax was not implemented, the Conservatives did introduce the Fuel Duty Escalator (FDE) which progressively increased tax on vehicle fuels.  The FDE remained until it was repealed by the subsequent Labour Party in 2000.  This program prevented the emission of an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of carbon over its lifetime.

The re-election of the Conservatives in 2010 saw an extension of the same environmental policies.  Soon after gaining power, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that he would lead Britain's “greenest government ever”.  The new conservative government plans to move Britain into a low carbon economy, reducing carbon emissions relative to 1990 levels by 34% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050.

It is not only in Britain that conservative politicians have engaged with environmental concerns.  Angela Merkel was elected the first female Chancellor of Germany in 2005.  Like, Thatcher, she is a fiscal conservative that leads a very pro-business government.  Also, like Thatcher, she was a scientist before entering politics.  Again, like Thatcher, she has been convinced of the need to reduce CO2 emissions.  In 2011, Merkel declared that she would lead Germany through a revolution that will see a massive shift in energy usage with 50% of the nations power coming from renewable sources by 2030. 

The benefits of Germany's energy revolution will not be solely environmental.  Norbert Röttgen, Merkel's former environment minister stated "when more people consume oil and coal, the price will go up, but when more people consume renewable energy, the price of it will go down".  Röttgen added that Germany's dependency on imported energy costs the nation billions of Euros every year, while a domestic renewable energy market will retain this money.

So, concern for environmental issues need not be the preserve of the left. Conservative politics can embrace both environmental and economic sustainability.  A government can be both pro-business and pro-environment.  Blue can be as green as red.

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About the Author

Dr Ross Chapman is a research scientist based in Melbourne and specialises in molecular biology and ecology.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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