Winning the Battle Against the Climate Deniers and Staying on the Right Side of History

In times of crises, it’s usually the Labor Party the Australian people trust to protect the national interest. One thinks of John Curtin and Ben Chifley in World War Two, Gough Whitlam during the great modernisation of the 1970s, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating during the Asian century, and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard during the Global Financial Crisis. Now the national interest must be protected from the twin problems of climate change and rising levels of inequality – both of which are being simultaneously fuelled and denied by the political right.

Sadly, we must contemplate not if but when the next summer of tragedy will occur. The danger isn’t over – for our people or our economy. This is just the beginning of massive economic, social, and environmental dislocation Australia must face up to.

Our target is that the rest of the world has accepted: achieving zero-net emissions by 2050. The alternative is just too dangerous to contemplate. We simply must make progress. But there is a huge problem to be overcome: countering the use of climate change denial as a populist tactic by the political right. Their message is that tackling climate change is an obsession of inner-city people that will cost the jobs of people in the regions and therefore should be opposed. It’s simple and seductive but ultimately a dishonest betrayal because it refuses to acknowledge that big change is inevitably coming and can be made to work for everyone.

The way forward is obvious: to demonstrate how Australia’s inevitable transition to a net-zero emissions economy can be an economically just one that ensures those displaced by change find new sources of jobs and prosperity for themselves, their families and their communities.

We can do it. Labor is determined to do it.

As Ross Garnaut has pointed out, Australia has the wherewithal to become a green energy and modern technology superpower if we want. We can re-industrialise, cleanly. To do so, we have to rediscover the zest for innovation we had as a country not that long ago. We certainly have an abundance of the necessary renewable resources of sun and wind and hydro power, as well as the scientific and engineering know-how and skills to make it all work.

Labor has recognised this for some time. We made the first great leap forward for Australia by putting a price on carbon when we were last in government. Our efforts were scuppered first time by the Australian Greens and second time by Tony Abbott.

As far back ago as 2011, I argued at the National Press Club that you can’t have a first-class economy in the 21st Century unless it is substantially powered by renewable energy. I observed that with the highest level of carbon pollution per capita in the developed world, Australia could become a prime target for trade measures if we fell too far behind what the world expects. 

Well, Labor did it. Our 2011 clean energy package produced a substantial 10.4 per cent drop in emissions in the energy sector and a huge surge in renewable energy investment. After the Coalition in 2014 destroyed our carbon price long with the policy architecture that supported it, renewable energy generation collapsed, and power prices went through the roof. Heartbreakingly, Australia now stands as an environmental pariah, alongside the United States, facing the possibility of future carbon tariffs against our exports.

When people lament Australia’s so-called ‘lost decade’ of inaction on climate change policy, they forget that it didn’t have to turn out the way, and that at one point we were among the most advanced nations on earth in tackling the problem. Our country’s forward-looking policy was sabotaged by a combination of the climate-change-science denying Liberal and National parties, radical culture warriors in the media – particularly radio shock jocks and newspaper columnists – and self-interested efforts by big business. That’s not a partisan accusation; it’s a simple historical fact illustrated by Scott Morrison’s compulsion to brandish a lump of coal in the parliament.

Today our opponents’ tactics are more subtle. With hand on heart, they will say they believe in climate change while trying to do everything they can not only to stop real action but to turn inaction into a populist vote-winning issue. They will say it’s all about saving blue-collar jobs in mining and other industries, while refusing to plan to help those same workers adjust to and even benefit from the sort of change every financial adviser in the world knows is inevitably coming. The tactic seems to have worked so far, so why would they stop now?

Last-minute conversions by elements of the Morrison Government and the Business Council of Australia should be greeted with extreme scepticism. Don’t believe their words until you see their actions.

What must Labor do?

The answer is to be tough and smart. Around the world social democratic parties are losing votes of working-class people on climate issues. We have to buck the trend – by demonstrating how taking climate change seriously is in the direct economic interests of working people and their communities.

Only strong and well-argued industry policies can counter the reckless and dishonest populism being pursued by our opponents on the left and the right.

Our job is not to mouth the hollow slogans of the government, which talks only about technology, or of the Greens, who talk only about ending coal mining, but, instead, to focus on the hard and tough policy needed to reduce emissions across the whole economy.

The next 20 years are certain to see a dramatic reduction in coal production and coal-fired electricity generation. The market is already factoring this in, as shown by the reluctance of investors and banks to invest in new mines and new coal-fired electricity generation plants. It is inevitable that coal-fired power generation will provide less and less of our electricity.

But the notion put forward by some green groups that we could phase out coal fired power by 2030 or even overnight is impossible.

It would be a certain recipe for blackouts and for the further erosion of public support for strong economy-wide action on emissions reduction. It would also certainly destroy the livelihoods of people in coal-mining communities.

One of the things that always dismays me about some green groups’ attitudes towards climate change is their seeming lack of empathy for people who rely on energy, heavy industry and transport for their living. They claim to be progressives, but it’s a hollow type of progressivism indeed that so callously disregards the standard of living working people have toiled so hard and so long to achieve.

I don’t regard it as progressive all – just another form of elitism.

We need something better.

Here are the questions Labor must address. How do we gain net-zero emissions without leaving whole communities in the lurch? How do we help the communities affected the most by change – like coal-dependent communities – diversify successfully to new economic realities? How do we make sure they and their children are able to benefit from new industries like renewable power generation and electric vehicle production? In other words, how do we avoid betraying them with false promises, as the government is doing, and alienating them from the progressive side of politics, the way the Greens seem determined to do?

Some of the answers can be found overseas, in lessons from other countries that are making sustained progress in ways Australia hasn’t yet managed. We could, for example, take a leaf from the Germans’ book in producing a roadmap that will help us manage the decline in the coal industry. It will need strong dialogue between government, industry and the unions and must be based on the principle that ‘no one gets left behind’. Developing this sort of dialogue with the coal dependent regions will help Australia lower its emissions must faster than a policy of compromise and closure and conflict can ever hope to achieve.

And outside those regions? With our potential for renewable power generation, high tech manufacturing and skills, preparing for climate change will be a big job creator and a sure-fire winner.

Yes, the path to zero emissions is expensive, but it will not be impossible. It involves doing again what Australia has done well in the past: pursuing forward-looking and socially progressive economic reforms that will drive future prosperity and social cohesion.

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