Thursday, August 13, 2009

Emissions trading arguments evoke slavery debate

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):

... before the House should proceed to adopt the resolution now proposed, he felt it his duty to call their attention to the situation of Liverpool - a town which, from a miserable fishing hamlet of about 150 huts, had within a century risen to be the second town, in point of commercial wealth and consequence, in the British dominions, entirely by the African trade. He begged to impress on the recollection of the House what the situation of Liverpool was when the right Hon. gent. and his colleagues came into power.
It was eminent for the prosperity of its commerce, its wealth, its loyalty; for the important aid it furnished to the British marine, by affording at all times a numerous supply of seamen, through its African and West Indian trade. It was equally distinguished for its spirit in fitting out private ships of war, and by contributing annually three millions sterling in revenue to the public purse. But what measures of advantage had Liverpool experienced since the present ministers came into power?
Why, the Restriction Bill upon the African Trade, by which the enterprising spirit of its merchants was paralysed, their trade diminished, the value of their shipping considerably reduced, and disputes existed between them and the planters. But if the mercantile interests of the country were to be thus crushed; if that commerce, which yielded so great a portion of the public revenue, was to be impoverished; what must be the natural consequence? But one of two alternatives; either the Minister must resort to the landed interest entirely, for the supplies necessary to carry on the war, or he must be driven to an ignominious peace.
If the Right Hon. gent. seriously meant to proceed with the proposed measure, he could only say, that his constituents would feel themselves justified in coming forward in the most respectful manner, to solicit from parliament that to which they would conceive themselves justly entitled; namely, compensation for the losses they would sustain, in consequence of a measure that would deprive them of a trade which they had followed from the time of Queen Elizabeth, under the sanction of parliamentary protection. The necessary consequence of the measure must be bankruptcies without number; the emigration of useful artisans, with their capitals, to America; and the loss to this country, forever, of many useful artificers.

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.

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