How Labor lost the climate debate

These two videos go a long way toward explaining why the Australian Labor Party won the 2007 election and lost in 2013. They show how Labor changed the way it framed climate change. In 2007 they correctly identified it as the most important issue of our time:

By 2012 (when Labor were already in an election-losing position), their message had devolved to this:

Labor’s strong campaign on climate change in 2007 is widely considered to be the main reason they won the election (though even then, if you looked closely, there were warning signs Labor’s commitment to climate action wasn’t what it was cracked up to be). How quickly it all went wrong.

The number of Australians who agree with the statement, “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”, fell from 68% in 2006 to 36% in 2012 (though it has since rebounded slightly to 40%). Polls suggest most Australians are now in one or another stage of denial about human-caused global warming. Climate change and the environment has fallen down the list of Australians’ concerns, now topped by the issues of food, health, crime, safety, and public services.

There were lots of factors that led to the turnaround in public opinion. Firstly, the fossil fuel industry and ideological deniers ramped up their campaign against climate action as the Copenhagen conference approached and then fell apart spectacularly. Secondly, despite the global financial crisis having relatively little impact on Australia, industry seized on it as the latest excuse to delay action, and promoted a narrative that mining saved Australia from recession (despite mining having gone into recession). Thirdly, although global warming causes both worse droughts and worse floods, many associated it only with droughts so were confused when drought gave way to flooding in 2010. Fourthly, media coverage of global warming peaked in 2006 and dramatically declined, and by 2011 most climate coverage consisted of business arguments that action would involve enormous costs.

But the factor I want to focus on here is the framing choices made by Labor and the climate activists promoting their policies, compared to the framing used by the Liberal/National Coalition and opponents of climate action.

Labor’s campaign: fighting on enemy turf

During Labor’s first term, their weak policies, defence of the fossil fuel industry, antagonism toward the Greens, and constant backflipping made it increasingly clear they were more interested in greenwash than serious climate action, leading many to suspect climate change wasn’t such an urgent threat after all. By arguing Australia should not lag behind the world, Labor implicitly bought into the Coalition’s frame that Australia should not lead the world, which backfired from Copenhagen onwards. Most spectacularly, after having described delay as an “absolute failure” of leadership and logic, in 2010 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced he would delay his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme until at least 2013.

At the 2010 election, Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard promised Labor’s policy would be determined by a citizens’ assembly and could be a carbon price but not a carbon tax. Labor came close to losing the 2010 election, retaining government only with the support of the Greens. It’s worth noting the Greens vote peaked in 2010, when they opposed the Labor government’s greenwash and ran a populist campaign portraying themselves as different to establishment politicians. Labor and Greens agreed to cancel the citizens’ assembly and instead negotiate a carbon price.

The public debate only got worse in Labor’s second term.

Probably the worst mistake Gillard ever made was to acknowledge the carbon price could be described as a “tax”, for two reasons. Firstly, it was easily portrayed as yet another backflip, this time from the promise that there would be “no carbon tax”. Secondly and more importantly, describing it as a “tax” activated in voters’ minds a strong right-wing frame that taxes are equivalent to government theft (and the sort of thing a government might lie about before an election). In reality, taxes are needed to raise revenue to fund policies to benefit the public, to distribute wealth more fairly, and (in this case) to penalize harmful behaviours – but the word “tax” has become so deeply associated with the right-wing frame that the negative connotation is difficult to shake.

Around the same time, Labor deliberately stopped using a frame long opposed by deniers: describing CO2 emissions as “pollution”. Instead of talking about the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate human-caused global warming – the real reason for urgency – they instead talked about short-term economic benefits of a carbon tax: clean energy, green jobs, and keeping up with the world. These economic arguments carried no particular urgency, and were drowned out by opposing economic arguments from business groups which may have appeared more credible to the public. Even on the occasions when Labor did talk about the science of human-caused global warming, they failed to connect the dots between climate change and increasing extreme weather.

A similar shift occurred in rhetoric from climate activists, whose “Say Yes” campaign seemed more concerned with supporting the Government than campaigning for real climate action. Struggling to adapt to the changing political landscape, the Greens and climate activists increasingly cheered any positive step and failed to expose greenwash. Like Labor, they campaigned on the side-benefits of climate policies and actively discouraged explanation of the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels. The effect was to move the political centre toward the opponents of action, making them look more reasonable, and enabling them to systematically sabotage government policy.

Labor’s main selling point for the carbon price, that households would be compensated for the economic impacts so they wouldn’t be worse off, just made things worse. Eventually, Labor’s message became so diluted that the compensation was the only component. Because it was blandly marketed as a “Household Assistance Package” with no mention of the carbon price, climate, or energy; many may not have realized the money they were receiving was supposed to be compensation.

The effect of all these changes in framing was that Labor’s message shifted from “Our policy will reduce carbon pollution, the greatest moral challenge of our time” in 2007 to “We’ll compensate you for our new tax, so it won’t raise the cost of living” in 2012. What this did was shift the terms of the debate from “how can we avert global environmental catastrophe?” to “what are the short-term economic costs and benefits of this new tax?” Because short-term economic growth is the cause celebre of the neoliberal opponents of climate action, as soon as Labor and climate activists focused on short-term economics, they were fighting on enemy turf and doomed to fail.

As I said at the time:

I cannot overstate the irresponsibility of ignoring climate change. Global warming is not just another issue; it is an urgent threat to human civilization. And a recent overseas study concluded “media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the [US] public perception of the threat associated with climate change”. A government who fails to talk about the scientific basis for action on climate change is implicitly telling the public it is not a serious problem.

The Government is also shooting itself in the foot: how can you sell a policy without mentioning its fundamental reason for being? Voters reasonably suspect compensation will counteract the very purpose of the policy. By not mentioning climate, the Government is allowing the Opposition to frame the issue. The Liberal Party, whose headline policy is to repeal the carbon tax, will continue talking about it whatever the Government says. They have already described the ads as a “con” for advertising compensation without saying what it’s for.

In 2013, a reinstated Rudd briefly resurrected the message that we need to address climate change, but undermined this attempt by simultaneously promising to “terminate the carbon tax”. This promise not only weakened the policy yet again, but also further reinforced the Coalition’s narrative that the carbon price was a bad thing.

Throughout all this time, Labor was convinced that their communication strategy was the right one, and that to adopt a greener message would be political suicide (a perception constantly reinforced by the Murdoch newspapers and the Financial Review). They were convinced that voters would suddenly start supporting the carbon price when their compensation arrived. They were convinced their record-low polls would suddenly reverse and they would pull off a surprise election victory. Yet Labor lost the 2013 election hands down.

The Coalition’s campaign: reframing the debate

Meanwhile, under Tony Abbott’s leadership, the Liberal/National Coalition systematically reframed the climate issue on their terms, shifting the political centre in their direction. Their campaign was coordinated with right-wing media, right-wing think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, and of course business lobby groups.

The Coalition ran a values-based campaign focused on a handful of core messages communicated in three-word slogans, which I don’t even need to repeat here because we all know what they were. It didn’t seem to matter that their arguments often made little logical sense when you looked at them in any detail, as long as they stated their central messages clearly and repetitiously. They successfully changed the focus of the debate from climate science to the alleged costs of climate policies and the real or perceived dishonesty of Julia Gillard and Labor. They never hesitated to draw a connection, however tenuous, between the carbon price and economic events such as job losses or price rises, despite the fact that no single economic event can be definitively attributed to the carbon price. (It should also be noted the Coalition still promises to act on climate change, so many of their voters presumably want them to.)

The Coalition uses a handful of simplistic words and phrases to frame almost any issue no matter how complex. This works because most people have a conceptual schema of, for example, a “tax”, which includes negative connotations constantly reinforced by neoliberals. After the Coalition called up this negative schema in voters’ minds by labelling the carbon price a “tax”, the very worst thing Labor could have done was reinforce it by legitimizing the “tax” description and discussing its short-term economic costs and benefits. And that is exactly what Labor did. Moreover, whenever Abbott complained about one of Labor’s frames, for example their description of polluting companies as “big polluters”, Labor did exactly what he wanted: got cold feet and backed away from that frame.

In government Abbott has continued his tactic of tapping into existing schemas. A good example is his description of the Global Climate Fund as a “Bob Brown bank”. This statement is nonsensical from a logical point of view, but from a conceptual point of view it taps into an existing schema in voters’ minds.

Another reason why the opponents of climate action have succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of people is that they identify their enemy. They have created a fantasy narrative pitting righteous heroes (Galileo-like contrarian scientists and right-wing libertarians) against corrupt elites (dissent-stifling climate scientists seeking research grants) and evil ideologues (environmentalists, socialists, green bureaucracies and businesses). They attack climate change activists as tree-hugging extremists whose irrational obsessions are destroying jobs and raising the cost of living for ordinary Australians.


People hold multiple contradictory values in their minds, which can be activated by different rhetorical frames. Conservatives understand that in a political campaign you have to tap into an appropriate schema to show voters why they should care about your aims. Whereas the word “tax” activates right-wing schemas in the minds of citizens, other words like “pollution” may tap into values more helpful for talking about climate action, values about holding corporations accountable to the voting public through government regulation.

So how should we advocates of climate action communicate? In order to convince people to care about an issue, we must use language which activates their emotions. We must tap into the values and identities of Australians; these are better vote-winners than handing out cash.

People will not support climate action on the basis that it mightn’t be bad for the economy: if you’re not aware of a problem, you’re not likely to get enthusiastic about a solution. Instead we must make the ethical, science-based argument for action. To bring the majority onside, we must contrast the nightmare of a destabilized climate with the dream of a safe climate and a renewable energy economy, with the outcome dependent on the choices we must make now.

As blogger David Spratt argued in the wake of the NSW bushfires:

The debate which has erupted over extreme climate events has important lessons for all those urging more, not less, action on climate change. The story should be about people in Australia and not distant places, about now and not just the distant future, about connecting the dots between extreme events and global warming. It is a story about record heat and bush fires, about how family and friends will live in a hotter and more extreme world, about how a retreating coastline will affect where we live and work, a story about health and well-being, about increasing food and water insecurity, and the more difficult life that children and grandchildren will face. This makes climate action a values issue, the choice between increasing climate harm and climate safety.

It’s worth pointing out that climate change may well worsen all of the issues Australians rank as most important (food, health, crime, safety, and public services). If we don’t address climate change, then no matter what issue you care about, it’s not likely to get any better.

There is a misconception that dire warnings about climate turn off listeners, but this is based on one small study which has been misinterpreted (in fact, the message which didn’t work was that global warming is dire and unsolvable, and the message which did work was that global warming is dire but solvable). A related myth is that the public has been turned off by constant alarmist messages about climate change. In reality, scientists have systematically underestimated the dangers, politicians and campaigners systematically downplay them so as not to upset the fossil fuel industry, and public acceptance of the reality of climate change was highest when media coverage was highest and most alarming.

We must recognize that whenever the opponents of climate action object strongly to a particular frame, it might be an indication they know it is an effective frame and therefore we should use it. Examples include acknowledgement of the scientific consensus, accusations of “denialism”, discussion of extreme weather in relation to climate change, emphasis on possible catastrophic future impacts, use of the word “pollution” to refer to greenhouse gas emissions, description of high-emitting companies as “big polluters”, explanation of the need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground, and any criticism of Australian coal exports.

What should be our core message? Most importantly, we climate activists need to identify our enemy. The science tells us that to have any hope of preserving a safe and stable climate, we need to leave most of the Earth’s fossil fuels in the ground. In a few words, “leave most fossil fuels in the ground” identifies both what would qualify as success and who is our enemy – the fossil fuel industry and its allies. As climate activist Simon Copland says, the advantage of this narrative is that it

targets the cause and impact of the problem and outlines solutions. Instead of making climate change a scientific problem, we shift it into a problem of values, by connecting people to those of their own values that are conducive to climate action (care for others, for example) and downplaying other values that are holding back action (consumerism).

So the story is relatively simple – climate change is here, it is caused by the fossil fuel industry, it is affecting individuals directly, and here are the solutions. Once you show what can be done – whether it’s getting involved in movements to oppose fossil fuel projects, for example, or getting organisations to divest money from the fossil fuel industry – you have provided direct links between the story, the individual and our community.

We must expose the falsity of our opponents’ claim to represent the interests of the majority, by showing they actually represent a small corporate elite that is destabilizing the global climate.

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