Forget the carbon price, campaign for renewables

October 24, 2013
The climate movement should campaign for 100% renewable energy in Australia within 10 years.

PM Tony Abbott has repeatedly said climate change has absolutely nothing to do with the recent record-breaking spring bushfires in NSW. Such ideas are “hogwash”, he told News Limited’s Andrew Bolt.

The claims associate his government with the most extreme climate change denial and explode Abbott’s carefully fashioned pre-election image as someone who now accepts the science but merely opposes costly action.

After years in opposition campaigning against the Labor/Greens carbon price scheme, Abbott’s week of climate-denying gaffes has suddenly put his government on the defensive about climate policy.

Abbott’s argument that the recent bushfires are nothing unusual and just “part of the Australian experience” is belied by people like Shane Fitzsimmons, the commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, who said on October 23: “Never before have we seen the extent of damage and destruction and wide-scale fire activity at this time of the year.”

Environment minister Greg Hunt added his support to Abbott’s denial, earning widespread derision after he told a BBC reporter that Wikipedia’s entry about Australian bushfires backed him up. As it happens, Hunt doesn’t seem to have even read the Wikipedia page, which refers to Climate Commission and UN reports that conclude climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of bushfires.

That Hunt would rely on Wikipedia rather than climate scientists says volumes about his government’s intention to defend Australia’s fossil fuel industry and ignore the climate threat. Some wit temporarily updated Hunt’s own Wikipedia page to read: “Since the 2013 election, Hunt has become the Minister for the Environment. He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise.”

That Abbott and Hunt felt they had to explicitly deny any bushfire/climate link is itself notable. It came after Hunt’s earlier argument that it is wrong and insensitive to “politicise” the bushfires by even mentioning climate change — an argument conservatives used to great effect during the 2011 bushfires in Victoria — fell flat.

Fewer people than ever now accept the argument that we should talk about climate change only when the weather is nice. As the predictions climate scientists have made for the past three decades start to come true, the Abbott government appears unwilling to take any steps to keep the Australian people safe from worsening extreme weather events in the future.

It’s up to the climate movement to respond to Abbott’s vulnerability on climate policy and rebuild the public consensus for emergency action to bring carbon emissions down fast. Getup’s round of national rallies for climate action on November 17 will be a good place to start this process.

But rebuilding the climate movement — a movement that lost momentum and traction during the Rudd and Gillard years — will also require some critical reflection on its past strategies.

In an October 24 Guardian opinion piece climate activist David Spratt offered one criticism, saying the movement made a “strategic mistake in 2010 by trying to sell [Labor’s] climate legislation as about ‘clean energy futures’ and ‘saying yes’ without talking about how climate change would affect people's lives. It was all about selling good news and not mentioning bad news, selling an answer without elaborating the question. Public support went down."

The point is well made. Dramatising the consequences of inaction must go together with explaining the economic, environmental and public health benefits of a shift to a zero-carbon Australia.

But there is more behind the demobilisation of the climate movement in the past few years. It’s not just that the movement sold climate policy badly, it’s that it also sold the wrong policy — carbon pricing.

On the purely strategic level, carbon pricing has proven unpopular. Public support is far greater for a rollout of renewable energy and for restrictions on gas and coalmining. If the movement were to campaign once again with a defence of carbon pricing at its core it would reduce, not increase, the pressure on Abbott (and Labor) for strong action on climate.

So often referred to in the climate movement as “complimentary measures” to carbon pricing, the campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground and build green infrastructure should actually be the main focus.

On the practical level, seven years of carbon trading in Europe has proven disastrous. Prices have plummeted, big polluters and traders have profited handsomely and carbon emissions have not fallen.

The climate movement will face its own credibility problem if it warns of the extreme dangers of unchecked climate change, but then continues to champion a plan to join Europe’s failed carbon trading stock market as a key policy response.

Rather, for the November 17 rallies and beyond it would be best to leave carbon pricing behind and instead return to the kind of campaign strategy proposed by grassroots activists at Australia’s climate action summit in 2009 — a campaign for 100% renewable energy in Australia within 10 years.

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