OPINION: This year I will turn twenty five. I was born, and have grown up, under the looming shadow of environmental catastrophe, and even in my short, quarter-century lifespan, I have watched the climate deteriorate to the point that the childhood I remember has been killed off for good.
The first strains of my political consciousness were accompanied by former Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s pronouncement of climate change as “the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”. However, my formative years saw this ambition reduced to tatters.
I was thirteen when Copenhagen failed, and was embroiled in year ten exams when the heavily compromised Clean Energy Bill finally came into effect. But even that was too much. The day after my eighteenth birthday, in its infamous 2014 budget, the Abbott government attacked one of the few climate success stories of the preceding seven years by proposing to abolish ARENA, and two months later, repealed Australia’s modest price on carbon.
Just recently, of course, the Morrison government harnessed a global pandemic to install a fossil fuel chief executive officer at the head of its National COVID-19 Commission, and began touting gas as the energy source of the future.
For over ten years – as I progressed from student, to activist, to public servant and back to student – I have watched powerful people shred my future while feeling increasingly desperate to understand why effective climate change action seems impossible.
Only since September 2020, however, have I been divorced from the toxic environment of Australian climate politics and policy. Marooned in the UK, watching UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson bumble his way toward hosting COP26 in Glasgow later this year, I have realised that when it comes to climate change, Australia is not like other countries.
The shrillness, perversity and dysfunctionality of the Australian climate change debate is actually rather unique. Notwithstanding the importance of more material policy commitments, and acknowledging the relative ease with which it can be assimilated into the prevailing structures of the global economy, it is stunning nonetheless to witness the speed with which Australia has become isolated by its stroppy refusal to adopt a target for net zero emissions by 2050. By the beginning of 2020, commitments to this goal already covered half of global GDP. This is a figure that can surely only grow.
Here, in the UK, the Conservative government actually diverts attention from its handling of coronavirus by insisting that it must not be allowed to overshadow the climate crisis. Indeed, the response to climate change has been a crutch for the UK government throughout the pandemic, with Johnson continually wielding the UK’s ongoing successes in the transition away from fossil fuels – 2020 marked the first year that renewable energy contributed more to the UK’s total energy mix than coal and gas – in response to accusations of incompetence.
But even seemingly emphatic policy decisions, such as the November announcement that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2030, have failed to distract an electorate that has already seen the EU, China and other jurisdictions do something similar. While surprising to an Australian, who might have Scott Morrison’s blustery defence of “the weekend” during the 2019 federal election still ringing in their ears, it seems, frankly, that motorists in the UK were going that way anyway.
To be sure, the situation in the UK is not perfect. The first new deep coal mine in three decades has just been approved in Cumbria, with its product slated for use in UK and European steel production over the next several decades. The decision, however, is under review, and a context bereft of the loud-mouthed, pretend farmers with vested interests that stymie similar debates in Australia means elevation above the realm of the ideological into that of the technical. This frees a coalition of environmentalists, scientists and elected representatives, helped along by the government’s legally binding commitment to net zero by 2050, to make a case for rejection. The technical case for approval, on the other hand, is weakening all the time. There is a sense that there can really only be one outcome, with pressure escalating for Johnson to exercise his government’s veto power and pre-emptively overturn the mine’s permission to proceed before he is humiliated.
So, what can we learn from this perspective? What does it mean to say that Australia has languished, mired in volatile 20th century debates, while in almost all comparable countries the need to stridently address climate change is a relatively uncontroversial matter of fact?
A crucial thing to realise is that while Australia’s climate politics feel unique, its structural contours are anything but. We are not a nation of climate deniers, and the broad acquiescence to evidence-based public policy during the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates that we are more than capable of acting on scientific insight when it is truthfully put.
Likewise, and related, Rupert Murdoch’s media stranglehold has not prevented popular endorsement of relatively ambitious climate policy in the UK or even – if I am permitted to be buoyed by the recent presidential election – the US.
Finally, the success of countries like Norway, Germany and – closer to home – the NSW government decision to establish a series of rural renewable energy zones that quadruple the share of wind, solar and hydro in the state’s energy mix, highlights how an economically and politically powerful extractive sector need not stand in the way of climate change action.
Instead, it underscores a truism persistently echoed by economists, environmentalists and some policy practitioners; that it is possible to address climate change without sacrificing the economic situation of rural and outer suburban workers whose prosperity was tied to Australia’s declining traditional industries. Activists call it a “just transition”, economists call it a “growth story”, but most of us can recognise it as plain old common sense. The slow shift in Labor Party rhetoric on climate change – recapturing the spirit of economic diversification that underpinned the early iterations of the Gillard Clean Energy Futures package – suggests that they once again understand this fact.
If we are to speak of structure, one of the only concrete features of any real note is the electoral alliance between the Liberal and National parties that gives aforementioned loudmouths a disproportionate influence over national policy.
Their support keeps the Coalition in power, and as long as the incentive to take contrary environmental positions remains, this influence is unlikely to diminish. However, while this dynamic was bolstered by the UAP and One Nation routing Queenslanders’ preferences toward the Coalition in the last federal election, it is hard to see it becoming even more influential when the Nationals’ vote is stagnating and minor, more representative players continue to chip away at their position.
It is hard to maintain an optimistic climate politics in Australia, and if it often feels uniquely stifling; well, that’s because it is. We can benefit, however, from a perspective that looks outwards, toward our international contemporaries where the need for strong climate change policy has become an accepted norm.
By highlighting where other jurisdictions have fused climate action and economic progress into a political no-brainer, we are less likely to see Australia as structurally doomed.
Instead, we see it for what it really is; a squealing toddler, being simultaneously pushed from within and dragged from without, over to the right side of history.
Angus Chapman is a young Australian currently studying a masters in public policy and administration at the London School of Economics. Prior to that, he was an economic policy analyst at the Commonwealth Treasury, and prior to that an activist and educator with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.