The Climate Change Policy Spectrum: Worldviews, Ideologies and the New (Economic) Merchants of Doubt

By Mark Edwards
Assistant Professor, School of Business, University of Western Australia
Posted on 13 December 2012
Filed under Culture, Politics

In a study of the responses of farmers to changing weather patterns Rogers, Curtis and Mazur found that, “Personal values and worldviews were found to be the most frequent factors linked to adaptive behaviour.” (Rogers, Curtis & Mazur 2012, p. 258)

This is the first post in a three-part series that examine the policy spectrum that emerges from the landscape of values and worldviews.

Policy responses to human induced climate change (HICC) cover a spectrum of views ranging from the radical denier’s dismissal of any need for policy to the radical interventionist call for policies that require immediate and wide-ranging transformation of the economic system (see Figure 1).   Because they fear the effects of devastating climate change over the coming decades, radical interventionists call for policies that will require a mandatory shift away from a carbon-based economy.  Radical interventionists generally hold the view that immediate and harsh, perhaps even authoritarian, government action is required to avoid the catastrophic environmental, social and economic disruption that will unfold if climate change continues unabated.  At the other end of the spectrum, the radical deniers claim that no policy response is needed as they deny the scientific evidence for HICC.  These two opposing views also represent vastly different worldviews regarding the role of government and business in society.  Where interventionists want direct government regulatory control, denialists want small government, the unhindered functioning of free markets and freedom for the businesses that operate in those markets. In between these two positions lie a variety of policy options with their own associated worldviews.

Figure 1 shows the spectrum of policy responses defined by the opposing positions of acceptance of HICC and radical government intervention as the most appropriate government response and radical denial of HICC and the ideological defence of free markets against regulation and government interference.  Between these positions there are battle lines that shift as a function of changing public and private attitudes, the ongoing reality of climate change impacts and debate over the role of government and business.

Although their influence has worked in very different ways, both the radical interventionist view and the radical denialist view inhibit the development and implementation of well-considered, timely climate policies.  In particular, denialist activities have been successful in weakening the social and political will to address global warming in a concerted and pro-active manner. But as the science accumulates, dramatic weather events occur and observable environmental impacts become more evident, the power of the denialist position to influence business and political leaders and public opinion will diminish.  

Even if the radical denialist position continues to influence public opinion, it will gradually hold less sway over policy makers and corporate leaders. It will not be so much the mounting scientific evidence that will convince many to take HICC seriously as it will the economic impacts of global warming through such realities as rising insurance premiums, emergency service costs, special assistance payments for drought and flood affected regions and the relocation costs of coastal housing and infrastructure.   The emergence of politically sensitive topics such as responding to the issue of climate refugees will also impact greatly on public opinion.  The increasing acceptance of HICC will not, however, automatically mean that governments and business will take the proactive steps necessarily to address climate change impacts. Greater recognition of the scientific reality of global warming will not necessarily shift worldviews that are suspicious of government regulation or unilateral action by a few progressive businesses.  Opposition to government action may even be galvanised by increasing acknowledgement of HICC. 

As the realities of HICC impacts hit home, the real battle ground will become less over whether HICC is a fact or not, and more over what the policy response should be. The battle will move from one defined by scientific versus anti-intellectual worldviews to one of interventionist worldviews versus free market worldviews. As the urgency of the climate crisis escalates, the debate over government regulation versus market-based solutions will take centre stage. Of course, this is already happening to some degree with the contrasting policy positions of the Commonwealth Government (moderate interventionist position via the carbon tax and other legislated measures) and the Opposition (free market position via its Direct Action Plan).  However, the debate over whether interventionist or free market policies offer the best pathway to responding to HICC will continue to grow.  Doubt about the efficacy of government intervention to address HICC may even become as much a barrier to action as the denialist strategy of manufacturing doubt about the scientific basis of HICC.  To unpack this topic further I need to describe a few more features of the policy response spectrum.

The next two posts will unpack those features.

Reference

Rogers, M, Curtis, A & Mazur, N 2012, 'The influence of cognitive processes on rural landholder responses to climate change', Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 111, pp. 258-266.

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