Want to Vote Centre-Right But Care About Climate Change? Here's How You can do Both.

"There is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage. For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets. When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. Millions suffered. Many still do. We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environmentand economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked." - HENRY M. PAULSON Jr.JUNE 21, 2014 (Chairman of the Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago and served as secretary of the Treasury from July 2006 to January 2009) in the New York Times piece The Coming Climate Crash on June 21, 2014.

This post is for people who, for a variety of reasons, don’t want to vote for a left-wing party at this election. Last week at the end of the Climate Voter debate Tim Groser stated that he came along expecting not one person there to be a National voter, and left with his views confirmed.

This is a devastating attitude for our Climate Change Minister to have, and he is not the first National Party MP to declare that the conversation around climate change is polarised. It doesn’t have to be, and what I’d like to do is explain why a centre-right voter can still be a climate voter this election.

Wanting action on climate change is consistent with the principles of the centre-right. Action doesn’t have to be radical, and it can be justified according to mainstream economic theory.

The reason it doesn’t have to be radical is that reducing carbon emissions is all about a transition: we don’t have to stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, but we have to take steps to reduce our level of dependence on them.

The policies to do this don’t have to be severe: they can involve investment in new industries that don’t depend heavily on fossil fuels, or investing in new infrastructure (such as public transport) that makes it easier for people to get around without driving cars.

They can also be based on a simple economic principle: that the polluter should pay.

An emissions trading scheme or carbon tax is a way of acknowledging that there is a cost of emitting greenhouse gases and demands that those who emit them have to pay for doing so. And the price doesn’t have to immediately stop production: it just needs to be enough to create a real incentive to explore low-carbon alternatives.

When those alternatives emerge, you can start increasing the price so that the transition occurs over time. Even if you are sceptical about the prospect of preventing serious climate change from occurring, charging the polluter to help pay for adaptation costs down the line makes a lot of sense.

Finally, many policies on climate change can be revenue-neutral, such as carbon taxes offset by cuts elsewhere, or shifts in spending from roading infrastructure to public transport. This means they don’t have to involve Big Government or significant extra costs on the public.

In other parts of the world, centre-right parties have taken steps to act on climate change.

A notable example is the current Conservative Government in the UK. Before they were in power, David Cameron was one of the first MPs to come out in support of the Climate Change Act, and in power they have approved carbon budgets and introduced policies to promote a low-carbon transition, including the Electricity Market Reform in 2011 and the Green Deal in 2013 (you can find out more about this in our policy report The Big Ask).

Similarly, Denmark’s clean energy strategy was initiated by Venstre, their centre-right party. Centre-right voters might also have some affinity for Barack Obama and the Democratic party in the United States: this year, Obama released his climate change action plan, which involved a number of executive rules to restrict carbon emissions.

We haven’t hidden our disappointment with the current Government’s actions and attitude towards climate change, and at present left-wing political parties (in particular Labour and the Greens) do have more comprehensive plans to address New Zealand’s carbon emissions. But if you are going to vote centre-right at this election, there are a number of ways you can still be a climate voter: 

1. Vote for National but make it clear that you care about climate change 

There is a big difference between hearing about an issue from someone who you identify as opposition and someone you identify as a supporter.

Groser’s comments made it clear that there is an attitude in the National party that no-one who cares about climate change will ever vote for them. Some National Ministers make statements that look at lot like climate denial.

This probably comes from a mindset that people who care about climate change have a political agenda: that it is another reason to be left wing, and another way to attack the National Party, rather than an independent concern which people can hold regardless of political affiliation.

This leads to scepticism about all of the evidence put forward for acting on climate change: it is seen as a way of challenging right wing politics rather than advocating for the issue itself.

The more people who do vote for them but say that they care about climate change, the more likely they are to change their thinking and see that this is a mainstream issue where cross-party consensus is possible.

It would be great if national supporters could make it clear that they would like to see their party take more action on this issue.An example is Student Volunteer Army leader and former Young NZer of the year, Sam Johnson, who has been vocal in stating that while he supports the National Government he wants National to do much more to address climate change.

2. Consider party voting United Future, Maori or New Zealand First 

United Future leader Peter Dunne has openly backed National and says he believes John Key will be the next Prime Minister. United Future is the only party out of the centre-right group with a prominent climate change policy acknowledging that action is needed.

They want the ETS to have a functional price on carbon and state that they would consider a price floor to make it work; they also support renewables initiatives and are broadly in favour of public transport.

If Dunne keeps his electorate seat and they get just over 1% of the vote they can have 2 MPs, which may make a difference in votes on climate. One caution on United Future: they voted in favour of the changes to the ETS in 2012 which substantially weakened it. However, they may take a stronger stance with more MPs and their official policy is to have a functional ETS.

Another option people may look to is the Maori Party. They have been happy to support National across its two terms so far, and for them the most important thing is having a seat at the table with whoever is in Government.

A word of caution on this: from what I have seen, Maori Party spokespeople have not clearly understood the problems climate change poses independently of protecting the environment.

They don’t have a clear position on carbon pricing, suggesting climate change is not a prominent issue for them, although they did oppose the 2012 changes to the ETS. They also have a very positive attitude towards public transport and renewable energy.

Winston Peters has not made a commitment to support either major political party, and in the past has been in coalition with both. He is being touted as a ‘kingmaker’ after the election and as a result may be able to obtain significant policy changes.

New Zealand First aren’t the ideal party for a climate voter, as they want to abolish the ETS with no proposed replacement for pricing carbon. However, they are strongly in favour of public transport development, particularly rail freight and regional transport development, and have indicated support for a UK-style Climate Change Act to create a framework for climate change policy in New Zealand.

It's also not entirely clear what their biggest priorities are and their external rhetoric rarely involves discussion of climate change, so it's a risky bet for a climate voter.

If you switch votes to any of these parties on the basis of climate, make sure you let National know about it! Tell them you support them leading the next Government but didn’t vote for them due to wanting better climate change policies. 

3. Don’t Vote for ACT or the Conservatives 

And don’t accept the idea that their views broadly align with people who support National.

Both of these parties have openly stated doubt about the science of climate change and want to abolish the emissions trading scheme with no alternative action.

If they are significant coalition partners with National in the next Government there is a serious risk our climate change policies will go even further backwards.

Don’t be seduced by some of the arguments Jamie Whyte is making about policies actually increasing carbon emissions by pushing industry overseas: he focuses narrowly on agricultural emissions (many climate policies are directed at transport and industry), and even then his economics is extremely simplistic: research has been done showing how climate policy can avoid carbon leakage.

The message to take away is that National’s coalition partners could make a big difference with regards to climate change action in the next Government.

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  • Damian Richardson
    commented 2014-09-18 21:55:45 +1200
    Except that National if elected back into office in 2014 won’t be moving on climate change on its own accord or by a smaller party. No matter what. It is an inescapable fact. It’s already been set.

    My proposition is that climate voter should of course penetrate the political spectrum to broaden success, but this works better as a longer term strategy than responding to the current reality. A vote for National or their potential partners is a vote against the climate. This is proven by policy, and if not by policy then by track record, and this will not change until their policies change – and they will need to be in opposition first for this to happen.