Climate Change and the Ethical Position of Australian Political Parties

Last Friday the lead article in the Financial Review referred to tensions between the Gillard government and the Greens fuelled by the government’s energy blue print (to be released later this year), which will back the dominance of LNG and coal seam gas (CSG). In essence the government sees development of natural gas LNG and CSG as part of an overall strategy to reduce carbon emissions of coal burning by favouring less carbon intensive energy source. The Greens have routinely opposed new LNG and CSG projects on the basis of a two pronged argument that the direct impacts of the development on the surrounding environment are unacceptable and any LNG or CSG is inconsistent with their stated policy of zero net emissions by 2020.

I have worked in both these subject areas; coal seam gas and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and would like to breakout from the details of the arguments to consider the policy position of the two political parties from an ethics perspective. I use reflective equilibrium, and Rawls conception of justice as the basis of the comparison.

The basic idea of reflective equilibrium (RE), was originally put forward by Rawls in his “The Independence of Moral Theory” (a concise introduction to Rawls can be found at the IVR Encyclopaedia of Jurisprudence, Legal Theory and Philosophy of Law). The main argument of Rawls is that we should bring together a broad variety of moral and non-moral beliefs and, through a process of critical scrutiny and mutual adjustment, combines these into one coherent ethics system. RE is a method which attempts to produce coherence in an ordered triple of sets of beliefs held by a particular person, namely

(a) a set of considered moral judgments,

(b) a set of moral principles. Rawls uses three principles; the order determines the priorities of the principles if they conflict in practice:

  1. Every individual has an equal right to basic liberties
  2. Fair equality of opportunity and
  3. The difference principle (i.e. inequalities should only be permitted if they work to the advantaged of the worst off)

(c) a set of relevant (scientific and philosophical) background theories.

Using RE, the policy maker would begin the process of developing an ethical position by collecting moral judgments, such as “pollution should be avoided”, that are intuitively plausible. They then should consider alternative sets of moral principles, such as “development of resources is necessary for supply of basic liberties’ (for example homes and jobs) that have varying degree of fit with the moral judgments. Finally, they should seek support for those moral judgments and moral principles from background theories, such as “a 20% reduction in global emissions is necessary to stabilise global concentrations of greenhouse gases” that are, in their view, acceptable. We can imagine the policy maker(s) working back and forth, making adjustments to considered moral judgments, moral principles and background theories until finally, they arrive at an equilibrium point that consists of the ordered triple (a), (b) and (c).

If we assume (perhaps generously) that both political parties have used a structured process to arrive at their policy position then disagreement about the final policy leads to an inevitable question “what were the ethical considerations used”; and then by what metric is the choice made?

The ALP have no public statement on the ethical considerations taken (that could be easily found at any rate), however we can deduce the process from their National Platform 2009  which states, inter alia, Labor will help provide the knowledge and resources needed to make the transition to a more sustainable society and a more resilient environment. We will support jobs in the low pollution industries of the future and use regulation effectively and efficiently. As the people of the world demand action to protect the environment, becoming more environmentally sustainable will become an economic necessity and a job-creating opportunity for Australia. It is an opportunity we must not miss [emphasis added].

The Greens have a public policy document on Climate Change and Energy, but on a first reading it appears to have conflicts in stated principles and, if we use the priority ordering put forward by Rawls, their opposition to LNG and CSG do not make sense. Therefore neither do the consequential tensions with the ALP Energy Blueprint.


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