What is too often missed in the ‘climate debate’ is the peculiar fact that it is already settled. Just after the 2019 federal election, the Australia Talks national survey recorded the country’s views on climate policy. Even among coalition voters, support for government action was simply overwhelming. 75 percent wanted accelerated development of industries powered by renewable energy, 56 percent supported net zero emissions by 2050, while an impatient 47 percent were for net zero emissions by 2030.
Australia, however, is still one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. When the historic Paris agreement was signed in 2016, Australia’s CO2 emissions were greater than that of either the United Kingdom, Italy or France. If current policies continued, Australian emissions would well exceed the treaty’s requirements.
On the issue of climate policy, Australian governments have so far had more reasons to be afraid of established interests than they have had reasons to be afraid of their own constituents. The climate movement can only find success by reversing that relationship.
Australia’s history with action on climate change is inseparable from the power and intervention of special interest groups. The three big climate policies Australian governments have wished to enact – Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), Gillard’s Clean Energy Act (Carbon Tax), and Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee (NEG) – all either won consensus or became enacted, before swiftly being rejected.
Punishment for daring to take action was most severe following the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Act. Inspired by the 22-million-dollar anti-mining tax scheme that brought down Kevin Rudd, in 2011 an industry campaign was launched that would deride the Clean Energy Act as ‘the carbon tax’. The national rhetoric subsequently devolved into sexism and misinformation. On March 23 2011, in a moment that Julia Gillard later said “should have killed Tony Abbott’s career”, posters plastered with offensive slogans including “Ditch the Witch” and “Juliar… Bob…. Brown’s Bitch” were used as a backdrop to a speech Abbott gave at an anti-carbon tax rally.
Radical socialists may be off-putting, but those on the other extreme are already in parliament.
For both the ETS and NEG, bipartisan support was reached before the Liberal party would rearrange itself in favour of factions tilted against taking action. In 2009, after then leader of the opposition Malcolm Turnbull had agreed to the Rudd government’s ETS, a leadership spill was called that saw climate sceptic Tony Abbott take the reins. On his first day as leader of the Liberal party, Abbott had his party vote against the ETS in the senate causing the legislation to fail. When Malcolm Turnbull proposed the NEG in 2018, Coalition MPs who were threatening to cross the floor ignited the leadership spill that brought him down. This was at a time when 54 percent of Australians felt tackling climate change was justified even if it involved “significant costs”, while only nine percent were unsure if it really were a problem. Going into the 2019 election, Labor went so far as to adopt the NEG into its own energy policy.
For the Liberal Party, avoiding action on climate change has caused immense internal instability while alienating most Australians. Despite this, the rewards to the party’s climate sceptic wing have been lucrative. Take the support of think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs. With its $2 million annual budget, it has “supported just about all” of the “serious sceptics in Australia”, according to its executive director John Roskam. Its funding doubled leading into the 2013 election where climate change was a key issue, and the organisation has received at least $4.5 million from Gina Rinehart, a mining magnate with $14.5 billion in assets.
This money translates to reach throughout the media. The IPA’s former chairman (as she prefers to be called) Janet Albrechtsen has a prominent column in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian. Sky News hosts, Murdoch columnists, and senior members of the Liberal party have been closely affiliated. Sky News host Paul Murray has used his show to call for joining the organisation, while fellow Sky News host, writer for the Herald Sun and breacher of the Racial Discrimination Act Andrew Bolt MC’d the organisation’s 70th anniversary. It works to turn cold cash into political influence. Its publications muddy the waters around climate change, providing cover to the hard-line wings of the Liberal party.
As young people, we are faced with a political system that is more scared of the few that stand to benefit than the many that stand to lose. Given the circumstances, we are forced to ask what we can do to try to make a difference.
Firstly, we must realise the need to act has nothing to do with our like or dislike of some political group or philosophy. The need to act comes fully formed from our own self-interest, while the temptation to sit back comes either from a distrust in the scientific method or a disinterest in our own wellbeing. Asserting anything short of anthropogenic climate change causing a painful inconvenience to humanity for centuries to come would require proving a monumental conspiracy between all the world’s major scientific organisations. A conspiracy to stage the moon landings would be easier to pull off by a few orders of magnitude. On this issue, we are all united, whether we like each other or not.
Action will involve coming together to find ways to make us, the constituents and members of this democracy, more frightening a force than the established interests that oppose us.
Protests are critical as they put a physical presence behind the movement, eliciting wider sympathy. The more diverse and united a protest, the more identification and support from the public is obtained. Mass protests provide a means to counter the media advantage of established interests. Furthermore, protests make constituents more threatening by causing an honest inconvenience. Activities such as walking through city centres, blocking major roads and organising further action lays the groundwork for governments to pay more attention to the political views of their constituents.
Alternatively, established interests can be weakened by using our time, talents and platforms to counter narratives targeting action on climate change. For progressives, this may mean aiming for internships at think tanks instead of big four corporations, researching the environmental records of companies that wish to present on campus, or creating concise pamphlets that explain scientific concepts such as the greenhouse effect. For conservatives, this may mean refusing to accept material that proliferates pseudoscience.
The movement is not helped by suggesting inaction would cease if only someone had the bravery to present a ‘pragmatic’ solution. From Rudd’s ETS to Gillard’s Clean Energy Act to Turnbull’s NEG, Australia has had plenty of ‘pragmatic solutions’ to climate action fail, not due to lack of consensus, but often because of explicit involvement by groups tied to industry or purchased media.
It does not help to believe in a supposed powerlessness that justifies inaction. If us university students posed no threat, there would be no need for organisations such as the IPA to run programs targeted at sowing doubt over climate action among young people. Free pamphlets, brochures, media contacts and organisational support through groups such as Generation Liberty would not be available if what happened on campus did not matter. As young people we form the next generation of leaders, and have the power to define what it means to be seen as visionary or future-focused.
There is merit in saying that a coherent message from young people is prevented by a movement seen only as the radical ravings of revolutionary reds. The trope of the excessively bombastic and deficiently self-aware Marxist is nothing new. George Orwell, while advocating for socialism in The Road to Wigan Pier, described a stereotype of bearded, sandal-wearing, fruit juice-drinking, yoga-practicing, vegetarian, middle-class socialists “of the cocksure Marx quoting-type” being a major impediment to the movement gaining wider sympathy. Yet, he felt “for the present one must just set one’s teeth and ignore them” as “they will loom much smaller when the movement has been humanized.”
The existence of fringe groups is not to blame for the lack of action on climate change. If the rest of us faced the alienating air of protests not with resignation, but perseverance, the problems presented by the fringes would disappear by dilution alone. It is not their radicalism, but the excuses of the rest of us that has allowed them to define the movement.
Vincent is a member of the Australian Labor Party. All opinions expressed here are his own.