The Right's Climate Catastrophe

Across the globe, conservatives who have gone green are under fire for their carbon-cutting zeal. Sam Bungey on David Cameron’s comeuppance, Monsieur Taxe’s troubles, and Australia’s denier coup.

12.11.09 10:02 PM ET

While Republicans have focused on finding new ways to demean Mother Nature (in the lead, Sarah Palin: “There’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals—right next to the mashed potatoes”) their conservative counterparts overseas have been engaged in a jolly old game of save the planet. But with real, expensive carbon-cutting policies now on the table at Copenhagen and deniers on the rise in the party rank and file, lately conservatives around the globe are finding support of climate action has stopped being fun. In Australia, the effect has been extreme, ending in a grizzly leadership coup.

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Waxing concerned about the ice caps has been a quick, easy way to modernize the face of a conservative political party, while steering clear of any real policy-making. Trade in the Jaguar for a pushbike, plant some runner beans outside city hall, in one case hug a husky dog and voila, you’re the new poster person for the center right.

Would-be UK Prime Minister David Cameron journeyed across a Norwegian glacier by a husky-powered sleigh to demonstrate his commitment on the climate issue. At a certain point he fell to his knees and threw his arms around one of the hounds, as if embracing the very future of his children. Back in London he often cycles to work, followed by a limo holding his papers and a change of shoes.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, a staunch Tory and ex-climate skeptic, has plans to increase garden rooftops, map London’s drainage network, and personally plant fresh produce on government property, reasoning: “if the climate can change I don’t see why my mind can’t.”

Another fine example is Australia’s former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, whose political life is now a dingo-gnawed slab of wallaby roadkill, since being dispatched last week by his own conservative colleagues in a gruesome display of party autophagia.

Turnbull, an ex-partner at Goldman Sachs, won the party leadership last year while decorating the rooftop of his Sydney harbor-front residence with solar panels, wheeling a shiny Prius into the front drive and attending the opening of any old envelope as long as it was recycled.

Last week, having backed a bill proposed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to lead the world with a cap-and-trade emissions bill in time for Copenhagen, Turnbull’s party turned on him in a political mob war that might have been scripted by Mario Puzo.

A convicted criminal as well a politician, Wilson “Iron Bar” Tuckey, so-named for the weapon he allegedly used to beat an Aboriginal patron of his pub, was a key mover among a dozen or so climate deniers, leading a charge to oust Turnbull ahead of a vote on the bill and install Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, a devout and outspoken Catholic. A few weeks ago, Abbott thoughtfully described climate change science as “absolute crap”, (echoing Minnesota state Sen. Mike Jungbauer’s equally considered position: “This is pure, unadulterated BS.”)

Abbott has since added some nuance to his argument but began the week with a photo op at a vast coalmine site, standing shoulder to shoulder in an orange vest with a beaming mine manager. He has announced a willingness to fight the next election with Rudd on the environment, with a resolute new party message: drill it, grill it, mine it.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Cameron is batting off angry backbenchers, and though he is unlikely to renege on his cap-and-trade commitment before Election Day, in the image stakes he may well be back-peddling directly to the car showroom.

A convicted criminal as well a politician, Wilson “Iron Bar” Tuckey, so-named for the weapon he allegedly used to beat an Aboriginal patron of his pub, was a key mover among a dozen or so climate deniers, leading a charge to oust Turnbull.

Of course, some of those most vocally seeking a resolution on cap-and-trade from this week’s summit—Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy—have conservative stripes. Sarkozy, particularly, appears to be suffering for the cause. In September he introduced plans for a tax on fossil fuel consumption for households and businesses, a wildly unpopular plan—¾ of the country is against it—which earned him the nickname Monsieur Taxe. But then Sarkozy is hardly what the U.S. would call right wing. He governs a socialist democracy in which taxes account for 45% of the gross domestic product and with hefty wealth, income and a variety of social assessments, the public is used to coughing up for the government. So in the spirit of Sarko’s pick-up line for Carli Bruni, (“I have already raised five [children], why not six?”) the French are likely to take an EU cap-and-trade target in stride.

Merkel is more pragmatic. A physicist with a wealth of knowledge on the science of climate change, emission targets is one of the few issues that visibly exercise the droopy-lidded leader. However, she has sought generous emissions allowances for German auto manufacturers within the EU, and German political analysts think her unlikely to pursue a deal at Copenhagen should the U.S. indicate a lack of interest.

But it’s those conservative parties that are not in power for whom maintaining the right climate posture will prove most difficult. Any consensus from Copenhagen could increase divide on whether to go along with centrist measures from the ruling party, or define themselves against their opposition, with a lurch to the right. UK Tory insider Tim Montgomerie recently tweeted: “Climate change has the potential to split conservative parties around the world if not handled carefully.” For now the GOP has at least one new friend in the Mad Monk down under.

Sam Bungey, a staff reporter and online editor at the Vineyard Gazette, grew up in London, went to university in Dublin and co-founded Mongrel, a monthly magazine about Irish youth culture.