Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 18:37 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 18:37 | SYDNEY

Why I lost, by Malcolm Turnbull


Sam Roggeveen


22 December 2009 15:01

An op-ed in Saturday's London Times by former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull makes it unintentionally but painfully clear why he lost the support of his party:

A curious feature of climate change denial is that it seems to be found overwhelmingly in the ranks of the old. I have never known a contentious issue where one side of the debate is so old. While I cannot explain this phenomenon, it does have a political significance. The membership of Australia’s Liberal Party is much older than the population at large.

Clearly Turnbull never persuaded this group about the merits of his preferred approach to the emissions trading scheme, though he did try, with this:

I recognise that many people are sceptical about the science. But as Margaret Thatcher pointed out 20 years ago, this is an exercise in risk management. Given that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic, responsible leaders should give the planet the benefit of the doubt. Few of us imagine our house is going to burn down tonight, but most of us will have taken out insurance.

So the political or indeed moral issue is not whether you are totally convinced by the climate change thesis, but what you propose to do about it. Being sceptical about climate change is not unreasonable; doing nothing about it is reckless.

This makes no sense. From the sceptic's point of view, why is it 'reckless' to do nothing against a non-existent threat? Quite the contrary, the sceptic would say, it is the height of recklessness to take expensive and disruptive policy action on the basis of questionable science.

As we've said on The Interpreter before, Turnbull's 'insurance policy' argument is unpersuasive to denialists. Turnbull himself demonstrates why:

(Nick Minchin) has said that the planet is cooling not warming, that the majority of the Liberal Party does not believe that human beings are causing global warming...

How on earth did Malcolm Turnbull think his 'insurance policy' argument could persuade someone with those views? You might as well tell them they ought to buy insurance against falling pianos.

What Turnbull is really flogging here is a version of the precautionary principle (or, if you like, a one percent doctrine). But as the NY Times' Ross Douthat recently pointed out, the precautionary principle is not a very useful guide to policy. He quotes economist Cass Sunstein:

… the precautionary principle, for all its rhetorical appeal, is deeply incoherent. It is of course true that we should take precautions against some speculative dangers. But there are always risks on both sides of a decision; inaction can bring danger, but so can action. Precautions, in other words, themselves create risks - and hence the principle bans what it simultaneously requires.