Anti-politics 3: Time to demand a real climate policy

This is the third part of a series about the Australian “anti-politics” attitude and how the green left should respond to it. Part 1 lays out evidence for the attitude and speculates on its causes. Part 2 argues the green left needs to distance itself from political elites. This part discusses how we should communicate about climate change and what policies we should demand.

Presently no climate policy survives contact with the enemy, because the fossil fuel industry is just too powerful. We need to change the distribution of power – and that requires public support. It seems to me that it all comes back to ideology. At present, the dominant ideology in Australian society justifies the continued existence and expansion of the fossil fuel industry. We have to discredit that ideology, removing the industry’s social license to operate and the electoral imperative for politicians to uphold it. We need to debunk the denial, underline the urgency, gainsay the greenwash, and advocate real action.

Debunking implicatory denial by identifying the enemy

Our opponents have been very clever at constructing narratives which are completely false but successful at mobilizing large numbers of people. Their fantasy narratives pit 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). Climate activists are in desperate need of our own compelling political narrative.

Because most Australians (like the Abbott government we have elected) are in one or another stage of climate change denial, we need to explicitly explain the full implications of the science.

A comprehensive set of rebuttals to denialist arguments has been compiled by Many, many independent lines of observation show the Earth has warmed in recent decades, and the Earth continues to accumulate heat despite short-term variation in the atmospheric warming trend. There is overwhelming evidence that the main cause is CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, enough to convince 97% of climate experts. Global warming is expected to have enormous negative consequences. Rapid global emissions cuts are urgently needed to avoid tipping points for dangerous climate change.

Beyond literal denial, there is interpretative and implicatory denial. Our political and corporate leaders profess to accept climate science and support action, yet many downplay the science and almost all deny the implication that it is necessary to rapidly phase out fossil fuels. Their vision for Australia is to indefinitely continue mining fossil fuels, and it is considered heresy to even question the country’s biggest contribution to climate change, its fossil fuel exports. It may be tempting for climate activists to gloss over inconvenient implications of climate change science in an attempt to broaden voter support. But this is ultimately shooting ourselves in the foot because it allows people to persist in reaching incorrect conclusions, denying the implications, and hence opposing real solutions.

Climate activist Simon Copland argues that until recently, climate scientists and environmentalists have tended to follow “an indirect approach [that] tells people the science and hopes they make up their own conclusions”. Instead, his organization focuses on identifying the enemy. Every political movement needs an enemy, and the enemy of the climate movement is the fossil fuel industry. The advantage of this narrative, Copland argues, 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.

Pragmatic demands have failed

Global warming is not just another issue; it is an urgent threat to human civilization. Its presence, causes, and effects are more evident than ever. There is mounting evidence that we are already entering a period of dangerous global warming and there is very little time to avoid large feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of control. We urgently need to phase out global greenhouse gas emissions, most importantly fossil fuel CO2 emissions, as quickly as possible. We need to leave the vast majority of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We should also seriously consider geoengineering to remove CO2 from the atmosphere on a large scale and/or directly cool the planet, to keep the Earth from crossing the treacherous tipping points upon which we appear to be poised.

I’ve written before that the Greens and the climate movement face a choice between persisting with our present incremental demands (the “pragmatic strategy”), or advocating what is really necessary to solve the climate crisis (the “radical strategy”). I said at the beginning of this year:

2013 will be a pivotal year for Australian climate policy, and the test of the Greens’ pragmatic strategy. By the end of 2013, we should know whether the Greens have succeeded in leveraging their agreement with Labor to get ambitious climate action in Australia, or if the business lobby will succeed in sabotaging it.

I think it’s time to admit the pragmatic strategy has completely failed. The “Clean Energy Future” policy package negotiated between Labor and the Greens has been used to greenwash the Gillard government and justify no further action, weakened instead of strengthened over time, and are now set to be entirely reversed by the Abbott government. Though heralded as a “first step”, the Clean Energy Future will be a footnote in Australian history – at a time when we have no more time to waste.

This was all entirely predictable. I’ve previously written in detail about where I think we went wrong, so I’ll just summarize briefly here. Australian climate activists have increasingly failed to advocate, indeed actively discouraged advocacy of, action proportionate to the scale and urgency of human-caused climate change. Although the 2010 election result gave the Greens the balance of power in both houses of Parliament, the movement squandered that opportunity by choosing to uncritically “Say Yes” to any carbon price that might be agreed by the politicians. The Greens piled compromise upon compromise in negotiations with the Gillard Labor government, resulting in a weak policy full of holes and time-bombs. Our timidity helped to move the perceived political centre toward our industry opponents, and our failure to expose greenwash enabled them to systematically sabotage government policy.

The Greens might as well have demanded the Gillard government declare a war on climate change, slash emissions within its three years, and start phasing out coal exports. It is difficult to imagine either party could have made themselves any less popular than they did by introducing a weak carbon price.

The Greens continue to defend the carbon price laws they agreed with Labor. Yet the fixed carbon tax is scheduled to soon turn into a cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme (ETS) which could actively prevent decarbonization in Australia. There are reasons to doubt the effectiveness of any ETS, because the mechanism is explicitly intended to minimize costs for polluters. Under current law, Australia’s ETS would set a meaninglessly weak target to be met by international offsets, allowing Australia’s domestic emissions to rise. This is a similar outcome to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) which the Greens rightly opposed in 2009. Milne said then:

The Greens oppose the CPRS as it stands not because it is too weak but because it will actually point Australia in the wrong direction with little prospect of turning it around in the timeframe within which emissions must peak. This is why we say it is not just a failure, but it locks in failure.

Greens anti-CPRS protest 2009
The Greens in 2009.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, it would be insane to continue with the failed strategy of campaigning for half-measures. It is not enough to merely demand Abbott keep the inadequate policies of the Gillard government: defending the ETS gives it credibility it does not deserve. There is similarly no point in trying to cooperate with the Abbott government by supporting its pathetic proposed Emissions Reduction Fund: that would only give Abbott legitimacy he doesn’t deserve. It could not be clearer that both major parties are only interested in propping up the fossil fuel economy. As I argued before the election, the Liberals’ voluntary incentive scheme represents Phase 1 of the fossil fuel lobby’s program of greenwash, while Labor’s ETS represents Phase 2. Allowing them to get away with greenwash does not help build support for real action, because greenwash is how governments attempt to neutralize public concern about the environment. Instead we need to relentlessly expose greenwash.

The fossil fuel industry is inherently unmovable on climate action, and so will be the major parties as long as they remain allied with the fossil fuel lobby. When you’re dealing with an opponent who will criticize you no matter what you do, moving towards their position is not only pointless but counterproductive, because it makes them appear more reasonable. Instead, you must take a strong stand so the public have a reason to support you and not your opponents. We have nothing to lose by saying what really needs to be said.

As of last year, 33% of Australians said they opposed the Clean Energy Future policy because “the measures are not strict enough to result in substantial emissions reductions”. Unfortunately, their complaint is quite accurate. If instead we advocate strong policies which clearly make a demonstrable difference to the climate (such as phasing out fossil fuel exports), we should gain the support of these skeptical voters. Public support for climate action would get much stronger, whereas the opposition from industry cannot get much stronger than it already is.

The climate system operates according to the laws of physics and we cannot compromise with the laws of physics. Given we’re running out of time to preserve a safe climate, we cannot afford to continue to mess around with incremental demands. It is past time to stop sucking up to governments and go on the offensive. We must express the true seriousness of the global climate crisis and demand action on the scale that is truly required.

There is a potential upside to the Liberals’ victory. One of the few things I like about Tony Abbott is that he has never convincingly pretended to be on the climate movement’s side. The Gillard/Rudd government was a false friend of the climate, and activists struggled to adapt, increasingly cheering any positive step. In contrast, the Abbott government will be an obvious enemy, and that may be just what is required to galvanize us into action.

Debunking excuses for inaction

The fossil fuel lobby has manipulated the ideology of society to justify climate inaction and greenwash, by making a series of self-promotional arguments which have become part of conventional wisdom, though the precise arguments vary between countries, administrations, and lobby groups. The set of fossil-fuel-justifying arguments could be called “fossilism”. In this post I debunked the fossilist arguments which prevailed during the former Labor government, some of which are also believed by the new Liberal government. However, the Liberals’ policies are a reversion to Phase 1 greenwash; this post debunks some of their arguments.

Here is a list of some fossilist beliefs on which both major parties agree, with brief rebuttals:

  • The science is too uncertain to justify strong action. (Rebutted above)
  • There is no particular urgency to act on climate change. (Rebutted above)
  • The fossil fuel industry has a future. (Rebutted above)
  • Australia is not responsible for emissions from the burning of its fossil fuel exports. (Rebuttal: In a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target, countries share responsibility for emissions from international trade. Australia must phase out its fossil fuel exports.)
  • The objective of domestic climate policy is to implement the 5% by 2020 emissions reduction target. (Rebuttal: The 5% target is arbitrary and meaninglessly weak. Distant targets ignore the urgency, delay systemic economic decarbonisation, and are easily undermined. Australia must aim to rapidly reduce emissions toward zero.)
  • Marginally higher 2020 targets of 15% and 25% are conditional on international action. (Rebuttal: The existence and specifics of Australia’s conditions are unfair, undiplomatic, and counterproductive. Unconditional unilateral ambition is required to break the international deadlock. Australia is obligated to lead the world.)
  • The aforementioned targets represent Australia’s fair share. (Rebuttal: The targets were determined by Ross Garnaut’s target allocation method, which unjustly favors Australia in multiple ways.)
  • Australia’s emissions have barely increased since 1990. (Rebuttal: Australia’s emissions excluding LULUCF rose 32% between 1990 and 2011.)
  • Fossil fuels are integral to Australia’s economy. (Rebuttal: Even phasing out Australia’s coal exports would merely cause Australian GDP to double by 2031 instead of by 2030. Continuing to rely on fossil fuels would damage Australia’s future competitiveness.)
  • Strong unilateral climate action would cause enormous costs to national competitiveness, jobs, and cost-of-living. (Rebuttal: It merely means slightly slower economic growth.)
  • We must act at zero or low cost. (Rebuttal: Policies that mitigate enormous costs from climate change are preferable to policies that are cheap and ineffective. Many policy measures intended to reduce costs actually reduce effectiveness.)
  • Market mechanisms are preferable to regulatory ones. (Rebuttal: Strong regulation is needed to ensure a market mechanism delivers an effective outcome.)
  • Gas is a transition fuel. (Rebuttal: Investment in gas would lock in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades.)
  • Carbon capture and storage will save the fossil fuel industry. (Rebuttal: The technology is unlikely to be deployed on a global scale for decades.)

There is a tension between the need to deconstruct the complex web of myth woven by the fossil fuel lobby, and the need to communicate in simple terms (which I will discuss in a future instalment). However,’s narrative helps because it identifies fossil fuels as the enemy.

Real direct action

Abbott has been mocked for saying an ETS is a market in “invisible” CO2 and contrasting it with “direct action”. Although the invisibility of CO2 is actually what causes global warming and describing his own policy as “direct action” is mere spin, I think Abbott’s simplistic rhetoric taps into a legitimate concern about whether an ETS can be effective. (After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day.) The problem is not that CO2 itself is intangible, but: given the complexity of emissions trading schemes, how can we be sure the carbon permits being traded will actually represent what is claimed?

Voters are right to be suspicious of the complexity of emissions trading schemes. An ETS creates pollution rights (some of which are free), equates non-equivalent types of action, and can hide increasing emissions by shuffling permits through space and time (including offsets overseas). Consequently any ETS that is less than perfect can actively prevent climate action, but a perfect policy is difficult to achieve due to the sabotaging influence of the fossil fuel lobby. The collapse of overseas carbon markets is a clear warning of the pitfalls.

We need real direct action. We need policy mechanisms which we can all easily understand, don’t need to be perfect to work, result in transparent and concrete progress toward systemic economic decarbonisation, and prioritize the most important and urgent actions (namely phasing out fossil fuels). We need a near-zero emissions target (I’ve suggested 80% by 2020) without international offsets, and policies that will meet it. We need to stop new fossil fuel mining projects, phase out fossil fuel exports (bearing in mind most of Australia’s fossil fuels are exported), replace domestic fossil fuel use with renewables, and transfer fossil fuel subsidies to renewables. If possible we should keep the fixed carbon price (which unlike an ETS, does not need to be perfect to work), but given it is almost certainly doomed the main focus should be building a movement for real direct action.

Although global warming can seem disconnected from everyday life, the need to phase out fossil fuels globally can be brought back to demonstrably effective, concrete, tangible, local actions: stopping specific mines, pipelines, rail lines, ports, and power plants. The flip side of the coin is, of course, deploying renewable energy, so anti-fossil-fuel campaigns can intersect with pro-renewable ones (as long as we don’t lose sight of the necessity for renewables to replace fossil fuels, not merely complement them). Many such local battles are already being waged, but we need to tie them all together into an overarching narrative about leaving fossil fuels in the ground to mitigate global warming.

In Part 4, I discuss debunking the neoliberal ideology of the political elites.

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