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Feb 21 2014

We need to politicize climate change

We’ve all heard the laments: the public has gone cold on climate action because the issue has become so “politicized”. Someone has to say it: we need to politicize climate change.

What does it mean to “politicize” something? It means to put it on the political agenda, propel it into the headlines, make it a hot topic that people are talking about.

In one sense, global warming is already political regardless of whether or not we talk about it, because its causes are political: the power of the fossil fuel industry driving the warming; the neoliberal ideology that justifies corporate power; the avoidance of responsibility for emissions; the focus on national interests over real people’s lives; the prioritization of economic growth over protecting our future. The Abbott government wants us to ignore these political causes and not talk about climate, lulling the public into apathy while it dismantles Australia’s (already weak) climate and environment policies.

In recent years a deafening silence on climate change has spread across Australia. But (as Don McLean might say) that’s not how it used to be. In late 2006, climate suddenly became the major political issue due to a “perfect storm” of events including drought, bushfires, the Stern report, and An Inconvenient Truth. This was when global warming was politicized in Australia, and it led to the demise of the Howard government. It proved that to make climate a vote-changing issue, we need to show people why they should care.

Climate subsequently fell off the agenda not because it was politicized – it was already a political issue in 2006-2007. The real problem was that from late 2009, the Liberals under Tony Abbott’s leadership reframed it as an economic issue – in other words, they politicized the supposed economic impacts of climate policies. This shifted 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?”

The Liberals shifted the debate by communicating their own values through a handful of core slogans, which I don’t even need to repeat here because we all remember them. They painted a fantasy narrative pitting themselves against tree-hugging extremists whose irrational obsessions are costing ordinary Australians. Abbott 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.

Gillard (and by association, the Greens and climate activists supporting her government) bought into the Liberals’ frame by diluting Labor’s message 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. Labor was fighting on enemy turf and doomed to fail.

public opinion-1

Rough diagram showing the spectrum of Australian public opinion on climate change. (Source)

 

David Spratt has shown how the “middle” of the Australian public (who tend to vote conservative) is currently stuck in a form of climate denial:

In the middle (centre of chart within red dashed box) are 40% who believe climate change is real (but have mixed views about human causation), and view extreme events as becoming more frequent (with mixed views about causation). They believe climate change will become a serious threat to their way of life (more in the distant future than soon), want some action on climate change but don’t want it to cost them, so oppose carbon pricing.

Looking in more detail at this middle group, the fact that they are unwilling to countenance climate policies they perceive as costing them even a small amount — hence Abbott’s largely fallacious but effective appeal to “cost of living pressures” and electricity prices — will only change when the visceral impacts of climate change — on health, home, livelihoods, children — are well understood as personally affecting their lives in a significant way, and sooner rather than later.

Abbott is playing to this middle 40%, but his position contains a weakness. His credibility will plummet if Australians realize, as they did in 2006, that global warming is an immediate threat to our way of life, and our government is failing to protect us from it. If Australians realize this, they’ll want action even if it involves some short-term economic costs. No wonder the Liberals try to smack down anybody who dares link extreme weather with climate change. Don’t be intimidated: Abbott’s bluster betrays his fear voters will realize he is acting against the public interest.

All the extreme weather we experience today is occurring in the context of a climate system containing much more heat than it did 50 years ago. It’s true we can’t say whether global warming caused a single hot day, just as we can’t say tobacco smoking caused a single case of lung cancer, but in both cases we know it dramatically worsens the odds. More frequent heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires are already costing Australian lives.

Abbott’s voluntary “direct action” scheme is a non-policy designed to appeal to those who want action at no cost. Instead of addressing the human cause of increasingly extreme weather, Abbott intends to sit back and wait for disasters to strike, then pontificate that it’s just something that happens, it has no political implications, and all that can be done is to fight the symptoms. His policy on fires is “We didn’t start the fire”. His policy on droughts is “I wish it would rain”. And his policy on floods is “Don’t go out in the pouring rain”.

To rebuild support for climate action, we need to break the silence and get climate back in the headlines. We need to create another “perfect storm”. With every heatwave, every bushfire, every coal mine approval, every coal seam gas battle, every climate policy repeal – climate activists, scientists, and the Greens must chime in loud and clear: this is caused by or causing global warming.

The Climate Council (formerly the Climate Commission) has played an irreplaceable role in getting climate into the headlines, through frequent reports highlighting scientific developments and extreme weather events (most recently a report on heatwaves). We need more people to do this – both relatively apolitical voices like the Climate Council, and overtly political voices like the Greens.

Adam Bandt’s comment on the October bushfires was the most effective thing the Greens have said for some time. Unfortunately, they missed subsequent opportunities to draw attention to extreme weather during the heat of the summer holidays. The Greens should organize a rapid response to these events as they occur, so that such opportunities are not missed in future. Abbott would say I’m insensitive to describe tragedies as “opportunities”, but I think the truly insensitive position is to pretend our actions are not contributing to those tragedies and do nothing to stop the situation getting worse.

The Greens can learn from Abbott’s successful campaign tactic of daily visits to businesses supposedly at risk from the carbon price. Perhaps the Greens could organize similar photo opportunities at the sites of extreme weather events (eg. hospitals overflowing with heat stress patients, assuming a visiting politician wouldn’t get in the way), local environmental battles (eg. the Maules Creek coal mine), or anything else that ties in with the overall campaign purpose.

When climate isn’t in the news, we should point out a climate angle to whatever the Government is talking about (as I did in my recent article on entitlement hypocrisy, for example). And we can point out that by failing to act, Abbott is helping to create a hotter world for his daughters.

With all that said, we must avoid the trap into which climate activists fell during the Howard government: assuming a Liberal Prime Minister is the main villain. It’s not enough to campaign only against the Liberals, because it creates the impression that electing a Labor government will result in action on climate change. In 2007, the climate movement defeated Howard but failed to get meaningful action. Rudd and Gillard did little more than shift Australia to a second phase of greenwash. Though the Greens managed to extract slight improvements in 2011, unfortunately you can’t compromise with the laws of physics.

Under current law, the carbon price will soon become an emissions trading scheme (ETS), which could do more to prevent than drive decarbonisation in Australia. The ETS would set a meaninglessly weak target to be met by international offsets, allowing Australia’s domestic emissions to rise. The effectiveness of any ETS is doubtful because the mechanism is explicitly intended to minimize costs for polluters.

Bill Shorten will not be our saviour. His absence from the extreme weather conversation is telling. Abbott and Shorten are mere figureheads for the real villain, the fossil fuel lobby who have long controlled both major parties. This time around, we should criticize greenwash from both of the establishment parties.

The Greens desperately need to distinguish themselves from Labor in any case, having been tainted by their association with the former government. Recent polls suggest the Abbott government is already unpopular but Labor is failing to channel the discontent. The Greens can take advantage of Labor’s weakness to promote themselves as the real opposition. They won’t achieve that by defending the flawed policies they agreed with Labor, whose intention was to neutralize concern about the environment.

Australians have disengaged from politics partly due to the lack of anything meaningful to engage with: the lack of any party visibly offering a reason to support them. The Greens need to become the party that gives people a reason to vote. The Greens need to take a strong stand based on their own set of values: namely, about protecting our future.

Science tells us that to have any hope of preserving a safe and stable climate, we must leave most fossil fuels in the ground. This identifies both what would qualify as success and who is our enemy – the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Thus our central demand should not be merely “keep the carbon price”; it should be “leave fossil fuels in the ground” – in other words, real direct action.

These arguments will be more credible if delivered on an interpersonal level rather than by politicians (whose messages are distorted by media bias anyway). So tell all your friends: fossil fuel emissions are warming the climate, it’s already costing lives, and the major parties are doing nothing meaningful to protect us from it.

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