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The moral relativism of pro-coal conservatives



I have a confession. I love coal. Especially brown coal. I love how when you crack a piece open you could find a perfectly preserved fossil leaf of a distant relative of an Antarctic beech as if it had been perfectly pressed between sheets of paper a few months earlier.

Chris Johnston cartoonI love that when you look at brown coal under a microscope you can see a melange of pollen grains and interpret exactly the sort of waterlogged rainforest that once covered the La Trobe valley and imagine a time where you couldn't walk down the street of Morwell lest you be attacked by a 100 kilogram marsupial lion.

But I don't love burning coal. I have this quaint notion that burning coal is evil. I fear that continuing to burn coal now consigns each successive generation for hundreds and hundreds of years to escalating and irreversible levels of danger and suffering. And as a person who likes to think suffering of others is not a good thing and should generally be avoided if at all possible, I have a view that we should stop burning coal now. I see it in pretty black and white terms. But I know others like to argue differently.

For much of the last 20 years or so in Australia conservatives in Australia have pinned the notion of societal decline on the notion of 'moral relativism'. Moral relativism is a charge often laid by conservatives against progressives that progressives are mushy-headed and try to make everything about shades of grey when everything really should be black and white.

For instance when a progressive looks at conflict in the Middle East or the rise of groups like ISIS, they point out the role of US foreign policy in creating the situation and that this should moderate any Western involvement. Whereas a conservative will just see bad guys who need to be stopped regardless of how the situation developed.

The charge of moral relativism has been laid against progressives in debates about marriage, and about multiculturalism. John Howard, when commenting on the decay of society, once said, 'We sort of sanitise the language and we no longer talk in terms, of black and white terms, terms of right and wrong. The idea that you can just have total moral relativism in any society is ridiculous'.

However when it comes to climate change and coal, it is the so-called conservatives that suffer from this mushy-headed moral relativism. Rather than seeing the issue as an existential one, they choose to muddy the debate by pointing out that coal can be good depending on the context in which it is used.


"Conservatives can't cry moral relativism on issues they care about and then seek to obfuscate on issues where their vested interests are threatened."


We used to hear that coal is necessary because it is the only source of cheap power, but now that renewables are cheaper, we are hearing less and less of that. So the debate then shifted to being that coal power is the only reliable source of power and its continued use is required to keep the light on. We hear that Queensland coal is good for the planet because it is cleaner than others coals.

We then hear that we must keep burning the dirtiest coal on the planet, that fossil-laden brown coal from the La Trobe Valley, because otherwise those communities will have no jobs. (The same people argued against the continued support of the Australian car industry, despite greater levels of jobs to be lost.)

And on coal exports, we hear that Australia has a moral obligation to supply the poor of the world with our lovely cheap, reliable coal to lift them out of poverty, while discounting the reality that it is easier to deliver localised solar power to shanty towns and slums than roll out any old-fashioned electricity grid.

These arguments seek to muddy the waters of an inherently and increasingly black and white issue: that climate change is dangerous and burning coal will only lock in the damage now so that it will impact generations for millennia. These arguments are based in no deeper morality or set of principles other than the defence of vested interests.

In this regard they mirror the last ditch defences put up against the abolition of slavery. In 19th century England, slavery wasn't solely seen as a right and wrong issue. Elites questioned whether the slaves were really that badly treated anyway, worried about the impact of abolition on the English economy, and wondered aloud whether freeing the slaves was worth the damage to local communities around the slave-trading ports. History showed that this was all garbage, and likewise history will show that these arguments for burning coal are the same.

Conservatives can't have it both ways. They can't cry moral relativism on issues they care about and then seek to obfuscate on issues where their vested interests are threatened. Climate change is an issue that affects us all, and if there is any single issue where a black and white view is necessary, it is this one. 



Tim BesharaTim Beshara is nature conservation professional currently working in politics as a media adviser for a Greens Senator. You can find him on twitter as @tim_beshara

Topic tags: Tim Beshara, Tony Abbott, climate change, coal, John Howard



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Existing comments

Very well argued based on truth and good sense, both of which abandoned the arch conservatives years ago.

john frawley | 20 November 2017  

Unlike the inconsistent greens, free-market conservatives oppose subsidies for any industry for any reason, including the preservation of jobs, yet are perfectly happy to see "sustainable" energy systems triumph over fossil fuels in the market place if consumers judge them to be superior products. They’re also open to carbon-free energy systems such as nuclear power – alternatives that so-called “greens” viscerally oppose. They tend to oppose U.S. interventions abroad, because, without more, it’s just the overblown state bumbling away on a macro level – again, unlike greens, who for example never object to e.g., U.S.-funded programs in third world countries which promote abortion and contraception. On the so-called “black and white” issue of climate change, they simply call the greens’ bluff: even prominent warmists such as Michael Mann have recently admitted there’s been a pause in warming despite historically massive injections of atmospheric CO2 over the last decade or two. The falsifiability of the “dangerous anthropogenic global warming” thesis is increasingly in question. N.B.: that’s not a compliment. The greens badge themselves on their for the environment. But eagles being chopped up by turbines never makes it to their front page. Fossil fuels under capitalism saving the whale from extinction doesn’t even rate a footnote.

HH | 20 November 2017  

I once read that Australia is the Saudi Arabia of coal, and I think we are now the QATAR of gas, our economy is somewhat diversified but it's unlikely coal and gas will be left in the ground here any time soon. That Mr Beshara uncovers the contradicitions in Conservative views is good reading but it is not a phenomenon confined to the Right. The Greens predecessors the Australian Democrats were instrumental in foisting the unfair, regressive, GST on the Australian people. And The Greens were a big part in stymying Rudd in his attempts to resolve our response to Climate Change because they were too all or nothing....all what they wanted or nothing that is.

HarryWho | 22 November 2017  

The Slavery debate example is a good one. Just a few minutes googling of Hansard produced this corker from the banning of the slave trade debate of 1807: https://goo.gl/zdCf5f Contains every Climate Change cliche you can imagine. it's not that bad actually, doing anything won't make any difference, no other country is doing anything why should we be first etc. etc.

Matthew Saxon | 22 November 2017  

Thank you Tim for an excellent argument about moral relativism and the conservatives. If an example was needed that well illustrated your case it was supplied clearly by HH.

Tom K | 22 November 2017  

I don`t think it is moral relativism to say that our community should have affordable and reliable energy, while still reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. Australia is doing very well generally, although it has lurched into wind/solar too much and too quickly and at too great a price (the energy companies love it because they have made a financial killing). The current government and the new tweaking of policies under Frydenberg and his energy guarantee formula are both sensible and sophisticated. Australia needs to continue its transition from coal to gas (in the lamentable absence of nuclear), and the states should stop obstructing that (which is just another cynical sop to the inner city greenies, which ironically will actually increase emissions because coal will be needed for longer! ). Brown coal is being phased out, but coal can and should continue to be used where needed but using our cleanest coal from Hunter/Qld and the available technology to make it as clean as possible. The international picture is also getting more positive, even as thousands of poor people every week in the 3rd world get the miracle of electricity for the first time, which improves their lives immeasurably.

Eugene | 23 November 2017  

Thank you Tim for a very well argued article. The extreme conservative politicians in this country have certainly attempted to muddy the waters on the matter of climate change and the rapidly increasing levels of pollution that are endangering public health. One example is the attempt to give legitimacy to the concept of " clean coal" which is a total nonsense. Malcolm Turnbull has shown that his earlier statements on the environment mean nothing compared to his desire to stay on as PM. He is captive to those in the extreme right of the LNP Coalition and is pursuing their agenda. The Australian Greens are far from perfect politically (eg support for the NATO trashing of Libya), but it is the major political party that is attempting to address climate change and massive pollution. I think the Greens were correct in not supporting the Rudd Government's target emission levels as they would have done little to address the problem of climate change. Also, it is important to point out that the Greens did not come out of the Australian Democrats (ADs). The Greens were already a political party before Meg Lees destroyed the ADs by supporting John Howard's GST. If we really care about the viability of future generations, we need to support those political movements around the world that are actively working to combat climate change and massive environmental pollution.

Andrew (Andy) alcock | 23 November 2017  

An informative article Tim. A point that needs to be made about mining in Australia is that it is a transient industry. Throughout white settlement, towns have grown around mines of various types, the best known being gold. When the resource is exhausted and the mines close or become uneconomic for the owners, unless the town has found another reason to exist, then it is deserted and becomes a 'ghost town'. This is a fact of life which some people so used to having a job in the local mine, often over several generations, fail to appreciate. There is nothing to be gained by paying tax payers money to a dying industry nor should subsidies be used to keep a company, a mine or a town afloat. In these days of 'fly in , fly out' workers, it is a myth to think that Adani or other new mine will boast local employment - they will not! Indeed the consequences for any existing town would be quite adverse, as has been the case in the Pilbara towns of Western Australia. A lot of people had their fingers badly burnt by that development. It seems we never learn from history!

Gavin | 27 November 2017  

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  • 24 November 2017

I can't see the issues around the coal industry in black and white terms, even though I'd vote for any ethical replacement plan in a heartbeat. As much as people build places, places substantially build our identities, and people literally lived and died by coal mines where I grew up.