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Playing politics on climate action?

Tony Webb

What is needed if our democracy is to tackle the current climate emergency? A major obstacle to change is the way we allow our thinking to be constrained by what we believe to be possible – rather than what we know to be necessary.

Calls for "our leaders to stop playing politics" on the issue and "come together" to achieve results fail to recognise that the politicking is to a very large extent within federal Liberal-National Coalition where internal divisions have blocked every practical policy proposal and unseated leaders when anything came close to being enacted.

On the other side, in government Labor activated the carbon tax that significantly reduced emissions and softened the economic impact on those most vulnerable. An, albeit imperfect, Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) was blocked by the Greens siding with the Coalition. In opposition Labor agreed to support the government's National Energy Guarantee (NEG) which, while a fifth-rate option, would have delivered a bipartisan framework, supported by industry, that could be built on over time. Opposition from hard core climate-change deniers within the Coalition – playing politics within their own parties killed the NEG and led to another round of leadership change.

Perhaps the call for an end to political games is not just aimed at members of the government because Labor has failed to mount an effective challenge and because it also failed to tackle opposition within its own ranks. It has failed to counter the view that action on climate change is a threat to jobs particularly in the coal industry. It has allowed the debate to be framed by the government and sections of the media in terms of 'jobs versus the environment'. The reality is that jobs will be lost if we do not make the transition – in energy, transport, industry, housing, agriculture and land use. What is needed is nothing less than a thoroughgoing structural transformation of the technological economic and social base of our society.

The good news is that this transformation can create new jobs in more sustainable industries for the future – but social, economic and environmental justice requires some serious planning and a mixture of direct government and market-driven investment in new technologies and the training, job guarantee/assistance programs and new jobs in the right places. Sections of industry, finance and insurance recognise the need for change but planning and investment is currently hampered by lack of coherent overarching policy and totally inappropriate policy signals.

The story carries the message?

Successful politics is about being able to articulate a clear intelligible case that can be understood and accepted by the voting population – and increasingly by those who will be coming of voting age within the next few electoral cycles. The activities of those still school-aged in demanding action on the climate emergency is a call for action among those who wish to be elected over the next decade. What we need to hear now from Labor as the potential alternative government from 2022 onwards are arguments that, together, make this case. It has committed to the target for a carbon- neutral (zero net emissions) economy by 2050 ‒ in line with the global commitment to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees and preferably 1.5 degrees. But this alone is not enough. To achieve it will require both interim targets, plans for how these will be met.

The Coalition target of 26-28% emissions reduction by 2030 puts us on track for a 3 degrees Centigrade temperature rise by mid-century. It is around half Labor's 45% target that the science in 2015 said was needed – by 2022 we will need emissions reduction targets closer to 67%. Even this will mean greater effects of climate change than we are currently experiencing from just 1 degree of global heating. Potentially a doubling of these effects could be 'locked in' for future generations. The 'normal' most of us grew up with has passed and every year we delay changes increases the risks, the challenge/difficulty and importantly the costs. While accurately modelling these costs is difficult what is certain is that delays now will cost more later.

Alongside this there must be a realistic message of hope and opportunity. The challenge can be met. We know what needs to be and can be done at least in the short run to significantly reduce the pollution that is driving the climate changes. We know how to generate electricity from sun and wind and with a suitable level of storage using batteries and pumped hydro and integrating the domestic rooftop solar into the system as 'virtual power plants' we can have a national electricity supply that is cleaner, more reliable, and significantly cheaper than the current antiquated carbon-polluting one. Electrically driven vehicles (EVs) are already cost- and performance-competitive with those powered by petrol and diesel. There is scope for a new Australian car industry based on EVs. We know how to generate hydrogen as a 'portable' fuel from water using electricity. It can replace carbon in the smelting process to produce steel and other metals from their ores.

Housing comfort can be improved through building codes that mandate better thermal efficiency and bush-fire resistance standards. Land use and agricultural practices present a challenge but many measures regarding land clearing, strategic bush fire management and changes to animal feed that reduce emissions are already understood. A national water management strategy is needed to better manage demands for domestic, commercial-industrial, agricultural, and environmental uses.

The technological and other changes needed will inevitably result in workers in a wide range of existing jobs being affected but they will also create many new jobs. Fair and equitable job-transition policies are needed that expand the workforce skill base and deliver new, cleaner/safer and hopefully more satisfying jobs in the communities affected. Again, the earlier these are developed the easier the transition.

Both current and future policies involve costs and benefits. The environmental and economic devastation from drought fire and flood indicates ongoing costs of inaction. Set against these are benefits from Australia developing, adopting and potentially exporting sustainable technologies. History teaches that capitalism survives, reinvents itself and thrives by adopting new technologies. It also highlights critical roles for government in planning and supporting changes so that benefits are equitably distribute.

Much of the capital needed to finance investment in these changes is currently wasted in 'speculative' activity. 'Casino capitalism' makes money for a few, already rich, leaving less for investment in real wealth and job creating enterprises for the many. A future government must rein in the finance sector – as was done last century in the 'New Deal' era following the 1930s financial crisis and WW2 – and develop programs that draw on both direct government and private investment funds . While Australia's super funds currently participate in the speculative economy to benefit existing members they recognise this reduces investment in real wealth and job-creating enterprises that allow members to contribute to their 'super' in the first place. Wealth-creating opportunities delivering reasonable returns at low risk would be welcomed.

A challenge for Labor?

Advocating these policies is far from playing politics. Anything less is less than what is needed. Labor must make the challenges and opportunities of climate change central to the debate and future policy so it has a mandate for these by 2022.

It will be attacked. Its policies need to be defended and accepted well before then. Some will come from within. There is a legitimate need to 'protect' workers and their communities from crisis-driven closures of coal mines and power stations. But it needs to be said that there is no long-term future for these jobs. Domestic and global markets on which they rely are declining and will close within decades. Further investment in these is a waste of money and will not protect jobs (new 'automated' mines often mean job losses in existing ones).

There is no long-term future for thermal coal or electricity from coal-fired generators. Replacing coal with hydrogen in refining of metal ores is necessary. It only needs a plan for research and development of the technology and job-skills to make it happen. Similarly, oil and gas can now only be very temporary transition fuels, with limited future uses predominantly as feedstocks for chemical industries. Starting a discussion about how a 'just transition' to new jobs based on the technologies outlined above needs to start now – not when the crisis makes change inevitable.

Such a political debate will require leadership that speaks truth to power. While getting the messaging right is essential, we need leadership that does not resile from the essentials. Polling and focus-group research can inform but should not define the narrative – particularly when this reflects public opinion distorted by mainstream and social media campaigns from opponents of the climate emergency. It is disturbing that some poll-driven 'research' suggests policy development needs to avoid mention of 'climate' or joining with the global movement for a Green New Deal because it includes the word "green". Whatever we call it we need to develop details of the plans that make Australia 'climate change ready' – plans that explain what is needed and how meeting the challenge will be met and in the process create jobs in all sectors of the economy.

However we 'badge it' we need a policy that defines targets and dates along the path we know we must follow to meet the challenge of carbon neutrality by 2050. We also need policies for financial regulation and government-led programs that direct investment into building this sustainable future. We need a government with a policy mandate to lead by creating this new more sustainable political economy ‒ fairer and more future oriented. A government with a new 'deal', agreement' or 'compact' with the public for action that results in the kind of changes outlined above. One that, whatever colour we chose to label it with, has a clear commitment to being socially and economically as well as environmentally sustainable – something we can be proud to leave to our grandchildren.

Dr. Tony Webb is a member of the Labor Environment Action Network.


Published in Chain Reaction #138, May 2020. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.


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