When he announced his bid to unseat Tony Abbott as Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull promised a “new style of leadership”. The problem is that is about all we can hope for from the new prime minister: a change in style but not in substance.
In his first day as the new PM, Turnbull ruled out any change to his predecessor’s climate policies. That means a refusal to improve to Australia’s tiny emissions cut pledge at the UN climate talks in Paris later this year. It means Abbott’s Direct Action scheme will stay, despite a report last month that showed it will force only 30 of the nation’s 150 worst polluters to cut emissions at all. Of the top 20 polluters, all will be allowed to increase emissions under Direct Action.
It also means no change to federal government support for coal and coal seam gas extraction. Under Turnbull, prime farmland will still be dug up for coalmines. Public health will still be sacrificed for toxic gas wells. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park will still be dredged to make way for coal exports.
Nor will there likely be any substantial change to the monstrous $41 billion in public subsidies the fossil fuel industry will be handed this year. Maddeningly, it would be cheaper for the government to instead fully fund the Beyond Zero Emissions plan to convert Australia’s energy to 100% renewables in a decade at about $37 billion a year.
So Turnbull will not stray from Abbott’s climate agenda, but he does intend to sell it far less crudely. Goodbye to the oafish claims that “coal is good for humanity” and the revolting jokes about Pacific Island nations being swamped by rising seas. Look forward to guarantees of gradual, market-led change sometime far off in the future and, perhaps, cultivated murmurs of regret that low-lying islands face such a troubling future.
Whatever Turnbull’s personal preferences might be, there is little prospect of genuine climate action under his prime ministership — not if he wants to stay the leader of a political party that is so wedded to the powerful mining and fossil fuel industries.
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, an Abbott supporter, furiously denounced Turnbull on September 14 as “the Kevin Rudd of the Liberal Party”. On environmental issues, it is more likely that Turnbull will be remembered as the Liberal Party’s answer to former environment minister Peter Garrett — yet another politician who abandoned their prior commitments to green policies at precisely the moment they attained the political sway to advance them.
It is not just the Liberal party that has been captured by the big polluters. The newly elected president of the National Party is a coal company lobbyist. The newly appointed chief of staff to Labor leader Bill Shorten is a coal company lobbyist. Former Labor minister Martin Ferguson shows us that the revolving door spins in both directions. He left politics to become an oil and gas company lobbyist.
Meanwhile, the alarming signs that climate change is hurtling us into a new, unstable future keep mounting up. Last year broke the record for the hottest yet recorded. But so far this year, with the return of the El Nino effect, the old records are not being broken; they are being knocked out of the park. Scientists have marked the hottest July on record and the hottest January-July on record.
In a paper released last month, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen said: “We can already predict that the 2015 global temperature will exceed the prior warmest year (2014) by an unusually wide margin (~ 0.1°C), exceeding 1998 — ‘the El Nino of the century’ — even further.
Other scientists have warned that this time around the global warming-supercharged “Godzilla El Nino” may lead to even higher temperatures in 2016.
Ocean scientists predict coral reefs near Hawaii will suffer their worst ever bleaching this year, due to ocean temperatures peaking up to 3°C above normal. In California, still gripped by a record-breaking drought, the ice pack in the Sierra Nevada is reportedly at its lowest for the past 500 years. The Arctic ice cap reached its yearly minimum extent this week. It was the fourth-smallest recorded. The nine smallest Arctic ice caps have been recorded in the past nine years.
So what to do? What can we do when we are witnessing the life support systems of the Earth being destroyed, when that destruction is accelerating and when those who hold political and economic power see their first priority as keeping things as they are?
At her recent talk at the Sydney Opera House Naomi Klein offered some good ideas. Foremost among them was her plea for people to take action themselves and refuse to leave our fate in the hands of deceitful politicians, the invisible hand of the market or hope in a technological silver bullet.
In her book This Changes Everything she calls for building a “movement of movements” around climate change, which can bring together all those that will be worst affected by climate chaos: farmers, indigenous groups, trade unionists, environmentalists, religious faiths and others.
But Klein’s most important contribution to the climate debate has been about what this “movement of movements” should aim for. Her conclusion, that climate change means we must change everything, draws attention to the fact that our present system is not just wrecking nature. Rather, as Klein said in her Sydney talk: “this economic system is failing the vast majority of people on this planet, with or without climate change”.
Recognising the connections in how the system, which thrives only on the never-ending accumulation of greater and greater profits, despoils both people and planet is crucial if we hope to bring people together to campaign in their shared interests.
It also means we have to expand our definition of what a climate issue is. For example, the inhumane way this country treats refugees can be understood as a ghastly dress rehearsal for an unstable and dangerous future, conditioning us to refuse help to the future victims of rising sea levels and extreme weather events.
Klein said: “There is a bright line connecting the degradation in the way we treat human beings, whether they are refugees from Syria trying desperately to reach Greece or whether they’re Greek citizens suffering under unending attacks to their standard of living — bloodlessly called ‘austerity’ — and the degradation of the planetary systems on which all of life depends … The same forces, the same logic, are behind all of these attacks on life…
“That is what our current system is doing and it’s why I make the argument that climate change is not just about carbon pollution. It’s the collision between carbon pollution and a toxic ideology of market fundamentalism that has made it impossible for our shackled leaders to respond while they simultaneously make the problem so much worse.”
Taking on this toxic ideology, which itself derives from and serves to justify the toxic social system we live under, must be an essential part of our climate campaigning.
Here in Australia it will put us sharply at odds with the climate-wrecking agenda of Malcolm Turnbull — another Tony Abbott, but with better manners.
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