The decline of the environmental lobby’s political influence.
Political influence is obvious, when you see it being exercised. It’s normally exerted by politicians, who’ve been elected by the people, and are simply changing policy in line with the promises they’ve made to their electorate. Depending on their political persuasion, and yours, you’ll either approve or not of the move, but it’s a legitimate exercise of power.
When a politician makes a decision that’s questionable or at odds with their election promises, a political gamble is being taken. They’ve made the judgement call, that whatever they’ve done, will come to be seen by their supporters as a sound move, before they come up for re-election.
When they get that call badly wrong, it’s catastrophic not only for them, but potentially for their party too. Leaders come and go, but the party must always abide. No leader’s political career is bigger than the party. The usual way out, is to replace the leader, reverse the policy, and hope the voters will have forgiven them before the next election. The Conservative Party in the UK, under Margaret Thatcher and in the context of her Poll Tax, went through that loop and managed to win the next election under a new leader. The Australian Labor Party, under Julia Gillard with her deeply unpopular Carbon Tax, is currently considering the same option in an analogous situation.
What always ends the careers of politicians prematurely, is making a series of poor judgement calls. Each one saps support away and eventually diminishes their political influence to the point, where they have virtually none.
Political influence is not only exercised by politicians, but also exercised upon them by what’s commonly called lobby groups. These come in two distinct flavours. The first tends to be representing business interests, who, because they contribute money, services or influence to election campaigns, quite rightly expect to get something back for them. People may not like that, but it’s part of the eternal horse trading associated with politics. The simple calculation made by all business lobbies is the amount of money or services donated, will be exceeded by the amount they can earn as a result of favourable political treatment.
The unspoken rule of that game is, ask for something reasonable, that won’t put the politician into an awkward position with his other interests, and you’ll probably get it. There are times when two business lobby groups desire conflicting things, so the usual form is for them to agree something they can both live with, and then approach the politician. Where they can’t agree a way forward, it’ll be the biggest contributor who’ll get the decision. The higher you get up a power structure, the more brutally simple things get.
The second type of lobby group is political in nature. They represent, and are the organised spokesmen for, a concern held by a significant portion of the electorate. They’re usually one issue groups and the particular issue varies considerably, but dependent on how big a proportion of the active electorate they speak for and how much influence they have over the voting pattern of those they represent, they can wield considerable power. The deal they’ll make with politicians, is to deliver their supporter’s vote, in return for favourable changes in legislation and money, in the form of grants.
While business lobby groups are hardy perennials, the political lobby groups tend to be annuals by nature. They appear, blossom for a while, and disappear. The reason they always disappear, is that they can no longer deliver a significant number of votes. This may come about for a variety of reasons; the desired changes may have been achieved, whatever concerned their supporters no longer worries them, the cause is no longer fashionable or quite simply, their support has melted away to other causes. Professional career lobbyists have perfected the art of hopping off lobbies on the way down and onto the new ones on the way up.
For a decade or more, the environmental lobby was the biggest and most influential political lobby in most democratic administrations around the developed world. Because it could withhold or deliver a substantial number of votes, politicians were naturally obliged to pander to its wishes. It actually didn’t matter how sensible or not the policies it wanted were, they got them put in place in exchange for delivering support.
For reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere, the environmental movement is in decline. The current devastation of green parties around the world in national elections, demonstrates this obvious change in the political landscape. It no longer has the mass following it had and can therefore no longer deliver or withhold, a significant block of votes. In political terms, this means that beyond a few nice words in their direction, politicians can safely ignore them. This is fortunate, since as it happens, politicians are having to roll back the green policies of yesteryear, because a lot of those policies the lobby managed to get into place, have now become real electoral liabilities for the politicians.
An example of this is the artificial skewing of the domestic power supply market, in favour of heavily subsidised renewables, which has resulted in sky rocketing electricity bills for most people. Renewable energy sources, against all their proponent’s optimistic expectations, stubbornly refuse to get cheaper. When the average potential voter is hurting that badly, every politician makes with the feet, to fix it quick. They don’t want to get the blame for it and they’ll kill each other, to get the credit for cutting your bill. They all want to be your new best friend.
A lot of current environmental policies will be not only be reversed, but dropped entirely. The pressure to do this comes from these cash strapped recessionary times and it will be accelerated by the changes of administrations, caused by the forthcoming presidential election in America and next year’s federal election in Australia. New governments can wipe the slate clean and start afresh, and in these instances where they’ve got a big majority, they will. I discussed how such radical changes in policy are accomplished in a previous article, a link to which is below, but in essence its done by utilising two techniques; blaming the previous administration for everything and simply never mentioning any commitments you might have previously made in support of the by now deeply unpopular policies. You just stop talking about it.
The trick of not even mentioning the environment in significant speeches, has been in place for nearly the last two years. Recently, President Obama had to be blackmailed into mentioning it in a major speech by big donors to his re-election campaign, who threatened to withhold money unless he did. He of course did, but that’ll be that. Prime Minister Cameron has successfully managed not to mention it in a single major speech since 2010. Chancellor Merkel only mentions it in connection with changing renewables policy, to alleviate soaring power bills in Germany, amid a record number of household disconnections. Prime Minister Gillard of Australia mentions it a lot, because she’s essentially inept and fighting vainly for her political life. She won’t be succeeding, by the way. Indeed, thanks to her peculiar idea of what constitutes political acumen, her party now faces the political equivalent of what Geologists term an ELE or an Extinction Level Event.
That massive amount of saying nothing about the environment has by now, percolated well down the power structures of government and is manifesting itself in ministerial appointments of people, who’ll have no qualms killing off the old policies. Out go the old ministers, who weren’t acute enough to distance themselves in time from the sinking green ship, and in come the hard-nosed bean counters, with their axes in hand and orders in their pocket to do the requisite chopping back of environmental budgets and subsidies.
It’s not so much a case of going out with a whimper rather than a bang, but the old Chinese thing of suffering the death of a thousand cuts. If you stop to listen, you’ll hear the snips coming from all sides.
There’ll be a lot more appointments of that nature in the future, especially after the elections. It’s not a good time to be working in a heavily subsidised industry like renewable energy or for an environmental regulatory body. Employees of organisations like the EPA take note; now would be a very good time to explore your private sector options, before the jobs market is flooded with your colleagues.
In terms of international agreements on environmental policy, the situation has gone from already bad to hopeless. At the recent conclusion of the Bangkok meetings, meant to prepare some semblance of agreement ahead of the big Doha conference at the end of the year, any prospect of renewing the Kyoto agreement has actually gone backwards. Not only was nothing agreed, but the major players started talking about being more flexible in terms of carbon reduction targets. That’s bureaucratic speak for no binding agreements thank you and we’ll do as much reduction as is compatible with our domestic interests, which is to say, very little.
The message coming out of Bangkok and into Doha is quite simple, any prospect of renewing Kyoto is dead, which means the days of trying to agree carbon emission cuts internationally, is dead. Which will ultimately mean carbon cutting is dead. Period.
The fact that the bluff by the developing nations at the conference, to withhold the carbon credits the developed nations could buy from them via the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), was called, should give you a pretty realistic idea of what the future holds for offsetting emissions by international carbon trading. The CDM itself, is widely thought to be on the verge of collapse anyway, and nobody appears interested in rushing to its aid either.
Carbon trading actually died with the closure of the Chicago Carbon Exchange last year. If they’ve given up on being able to make a buck out of it in the Windy City, then believe me, nobody else can. The EU are soldiering on with their own version of it, but the biggest traders on it appear to be organised crime, which is why the whole system is periodically suspended. Australia is the only country to link its own carbon price to the EU one, but since every Australian and his dog, or should I say dingo, know that arrangement will only last until next year’s federal elections, I wouldn’t expect a lot of financial committment to it, except possibly from their own home-grown variety of organised crime, by which I don’t necessarily exclude a number of their politicians.
Over the decade when the environmental lobby had real political influence, it effectively frittered it away.
They wasted it by making one poor decision after another, and it was always the same generic mistake. Time after time, given the policy choice between one that was moderate and one that was extreme, they went for the extreme one on every occasion. The movement never understood what every politician learns early; there’ll always be a gap between what you ultimately want and what’s achievable and more importantly, sustainable in a changeable world.
The shining example of this blind compulsion was the Kyoto accord. When what came back from the conference for ratification by the US Congress, was unanimously turned down, which uniquely means not one single Congressman across the whole of the political spectrum could be found anywhere who could bring themselves to support it, the environmentalists launched straight into the condemnation game, rather than stopping and seriously thinking about what would have been politically acceptable, and I’ve no doubt some acceptable middle ground existed. The window of opportunity closed for good, the lesson was yet again not learnt, and that was that.
Because every policy they got into place was pushing the envelope, and they did get a lot of them into place, the sum total was not just simply unaffordable but politically untenable, in the face of an economic recession. It was that tendency to always push too hard and too far, which sowed the seeds of its present day woes.
Like those politicians, who’ve made a string of poor decisions, this has led inevitably to a loss of support and therefore the decline of their political influence.
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