ABC Online Opinion, Thu Aug 13, 2009
It may seem like a long bow to draw, but the arguments against the emissions trading scheme draw parallels with the 1806 debate in the British parliament to abolish slavery, writes St James Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff.
While I know many of the critics of the Government's proposed emissions trading scheme to be entirely sincere, I wonder if they have inadvertently adopted a stance in which economic considerations have taken primacy over all others. It is easy enough to do - as invoking economics seems to avoid the underlying ethical issues that must be addressed.
Given the dire predictions of otherwise disinterested and sober scientists, I want to suggest that global warming poses an ethical challenge of an order equal to that faced by Members of the British House of Commons when debating Wilberforce's bill to abolish the slave trade in 1806. My suggestion will be labelled, by some, as a fanciful comparison. However, the similarities in the debates of then and now are just too remarkable to be ignored.
The earlier debate took place during a period when the British were engaged in a war with France that was considered to be an existential threat to the nation. The debate about global warming has been recast in response to the threat posed by the global financial crisis - prompting the call that we should hold off until we can better afford the expected costs. Lest there be any doubt about the similarities, consider this quotation from the record of debate in the House of Commons in 1806. Here General Tarleton argues against abolition of the 'African Trade' (slavery):
The arguments are eerily familiar: the prediction of economic ruin, the loss of commercial advantage, the relocation of business to easier jurisdictions (America), the need for compensation, the demand that the measure be delayed until a better time.
So, does the debate about the ETS possess the ethical gravity of an earlier issue like slavery? If the standard scientific predictions prove to be correct, then there are millions of people whose lives will be diminished (or lost) simply because we were indifferent to their interests when compared to our own. In essence we will be preferring our comfortable affluence to their survival. As the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, Emanuel Mori, recently observed, "We will all be drowning in our own backyards if leaders of developed nations do not take swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
It is the scale of the disaster that might befall us that raises the issue of global warming to the same level as the abolition of slavery. As such, it is a matter that transcends questions of narrow economic self-interest. This is not to say that we should be indifferent to the economic well being of our fellow citizens. It is just that, as human beings faced by the potential for global calamity, we cannot give such concerns absolute priority. Rather, we should seek to avoid and mitigate the harm to our own - but not at the expense of others made vulnerable by our indulgence.
We, Australians, should demonstrate the kind of conscientious leadership that has distinguished the better parts of our history. I do not know if the ETS Bill before the Federal Parliament is the best that could be drafted. No doubt it is the product of compromise. However, given the challenges before us, it is essential that we not let 'the perfect become the enemy of the good'. As such, I hope that our Members of Parliament will ultimately transcend the limits of party politics and enact the best possible legislation in a timely manner.
Indeed, I would strongly urge that the issues, now before the Parliament, warrant the extension of a free, conscience vote to all within the House.
Dr Simon Longstaff is executive director of St James Ethics Centre.