Green is not red, but blue: environmentalism and the mystery of right wing opposition

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of environmentalists.   By 1992,  with Reagan, Thatcher and the end of the Cold War, socialism and left wing thinking appeared to be dead.  Conservatism was triumphant and left of centre parties all around the world shifted heavily to the right to compensate, occupying positions that would have looked centrist or moderately right wing 10 years previously.  This left true socialists and left wingers out in the cold, looking for a reason to exist. Conveniently, the  emerging ozone hole crisis of the mid / late 1980s gave them an outlet for their energies: environmentalism.

To many socialists, environmentalism appeared to need solutions that socialists had developed previously: big problems requiring big governmental responses; paternalism, where government intervention was needed to stop business from engaging in activities that hurt citizens; and wealth redistribution where big ozone, and then CO2, emitting countries provided aid and credits to smaller countries.  Like Athena born fully armed from Zeus’ forehead, environmentalism was born armed with the all the tools necessary to thrive out of the intellectual forehead of socialism.

Up until the early 2000s, conservative thinking was so dominant and successful that it not only absorbed left wing political parties, such as Labour under Blair and the Democrats under Clinton, that the socialist attributes of environmentalism could be ignored.  The use of conservative “market based mechanisms” such as cap and trade for ozone management, emissions trading schemes for carbon dioxide reduction and renewable obligation certificates for clean energy production made the big government interventions and wealth redistribution of environmentalism palatable.

Over the last six years, however, conservatism has been on the defensive.  It no longer appears to be providing the solutions that we need and many of its policies have been actively destructive.  The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven horrifically expensive in terms of money and resources; the credit bubble of the 2000s burst resulting in a great recession and hundred billion dollar bail outs of the great bastions of conservatism – financial institutions; waves of outsourcing in the early 2000s has resulted in the sudden rise of developing nations, such as nominally socialist China, that are proving better at free trade than the West.

In this increasingly negative atmosphere, environmentalism seems to be a luxury that we can no longer afford.  And worse, in the absence of a general feeling of conservative success, the socialist roots of environmentalism are more exposed.  This makes the sector an attractive diversionary target for conservatives seeking to shift public attention away from costly wars, financial bail outs and unemployment.

So where does this leave us for the future?

First, the socialist capture of environmentalism, red becoming green, was a historical accident.  There are many aspects of environmentalism that are are conservative.  Under a different historical set of circumstances blue conservatism could have become green.

Second, conservatives need to reclaim environmentalism, which the UK Conservative party initially tried to do prior to the most recent general election in May 2010 where they vowed to be the greenest government ever.  But failed to deliver.

Environmentalism has the following conservative traits:

  1. National security. Renewable energy is generated domestically and does not require us to be linked to external sources for oil and natural gas.  In the European Union an increasing amount of its natural gas supplies comes from Russia, which has proven itself to be unreliable and willing to shut off gas supplies for political reasons, and North Africa and the Middle East, regions that are increasingly unstable.  A country that is dominated by renewables would have very little reason to intervene militarily in other parts of the world.
  2. Energy price stability. Businesses like to fix as many parts of their expendiure as they can in long term agreements.  This reduces the volatility of their expenditures, allowing them to compete on product innovation rather than worry about external events over which they have no control.  Wind and solar power farms are very capital intensive – essentially you are paying for 20-25 years of power up front.  The advantage is that it is possible for a company to lock itself into a stable 20 year power purchase agreement as the sun and wind are free and are not subject to supply and demand price changes.
  3. Employment. Wind farms and solar parks may not require fuel, but they do require maintenance, once built.  They employ more people per MW of production than conventional coal, nuclear and gas power stations and typically do so in rural areas, providing steady employment for rural dwellers, who are typically conservatively inclined,  for decades.
  4. Business innovation.  We are at the start of a major shift in energy production. Coal gave way to oil, oil to gas.  Each time a shift occurs there is an opportunity for companies to be created and dominate the next phase of energy.  The West kick started this shift to renewables, but recent poor policy choices by Western governments is putting this lead under threat with a big shift towards wind and solar manufacturing jobs being created in China.   However, even if most solar panels and wind turbine are built in China, the equipment needs to be installed locally, providing scope for employment and innovation.
  5. Food and water . The downside of global warming will drive innovation in the use of specialist irrigation, water recovery and urban food production as farmland  is stressed by increased temperatures, droughts and floods.
  6. Pension,  insurance  and financial services innovation. The stable, long term, nature of renewable energy products provide great scope for financial service innovation. This is particularly important for providing stable cash flows for insurance and financial services companies.

Finally, conservatism should be about conserving the environment.  Climate change is going to change the environment in unpredictable ways.  Some places will benefit.  It is likely that most will not, with increased floods, droughts and attempts at mass migration causing political, economic and social chaos.

Conservatives need to seize the cloak of environmentalism away from socialists and show that green is not red, but blue.


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