It’s odd how climate news tends to rhyme and counter itself across the world in perfect unison. Joe Biden has just announced a huge raft of major new climate policies, after coming into power off a campaign that focused heavily on climate. It’s a big moment, and it’s being received well by both the American energy industry and by the progressive activists that helped shape Biden’s policies.
Back in Australia, the news that opposition climate spokesman Mark Butler is losing the climate change portfolio to a member of the party’s right wing was leaked to media. What a contrast. As the federal government sinks even deeper into a climate and energy funk, the opposition marks this major global climate moment by sacking one of its best.
The total absence of any countering force to pressure a government that’s become stunningly and openly destructive on climate is a dark moment for Australia, and it’s worth exploring how we got here.
Missed opportunities are the norm
If you trace back through every big climate and energy moment of the past two years (and before that, too), the Labor party has failed, catastrophically, to summon any might or certainty or even bare sufficiency in their opposition to the federal government’s fossil expansion fantasies. The climate-intensified bushfires were mostly ignored and there has been near-zero debate about where COVID19 recovery cash flows.
In December last year, a crucial moment for Australia’s climate came and went. In the lead-up to the moment when Australia’s government had to submit an ‘update’ to its 2030 Paris Agreement targets (known as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs), the prime minister and ‘energy and emissions reduction minister’ Angus Taylor were badly exposed.
Scott Morrison claimed to have been invited to an event held by the United Kingdom government – another climate summit talk-fest type thing. Turns out that Australia never made it onto the list; purely because Morrison’s government had steadfastly refused to upgrade their 2030 NDC from something weak, old and insufficient to something newer and better aligned with the country’s potential for climate action and level of ambition. Morrison was furious: he’d saved up a big announcement to promise not to cheat on those already-weak 2030 targets (a shift made possible only because renewable energy has outperformed expectations, and because a deadly disease dented emissions) – where was his congratulations?
2030 is what counts. The world’s performance this decade will largely decide whether net zero by 2050 is a pipe-dream or possible. And in the last months of 2020, Australia’s federal opposition, the Labor Party, had a brilliant opportunity to pressure the government into upgrading their 2030 climate ambitions to something more aligned with what’s required to keep the planet to 1.5°C of warming (around 66% is a good indicator; a new ‘Climate Targets Panel’ announced today suggests somewhere above 50% for 2°C and 75% for 1.5°C).
Of course, that didn’t happen. The absolute peak of opposition was leader Anthony Albanese labelling the rescinding of the Kyoto trick ‘pathetic‘. The reason why? Labor, itself, has not established what a 2030 target should be; they haven’t even set an interim pre-2050 target for emissions reductions.
There’s a popular conception that Labor’s 45% 2030 target, which it took to the 2019 federal election, was a major part in their loss. That’s generally justified on an ‘election review‘ that blamed opposition to the Adani coal mine for the loss; along with too-ambitious climate policies. “Labor should recognise coal mining will be an Australian industry into the foreseeable future and develop regional jobs plans based on the competitive strengths of different regions,” said the review. It was co-chaired by Dr Craig Emerson, who recently wrote in the AFR that ending fossil fuel extraction is akin to an act of white supremacy. Albanese now reminds voters that Australia will be digging up and selling coal in 2050; the year the world ought to be mostly free from all emissions.
CONFIRMED: Mark Butler to be moved out of Climate portfolio and into Health and Ageing as part of big changes in Labor's frontbench.
A significant shift from Leader @AlboMP, on a policy issue that cost Labor in 2019, amid early election speculation.
— Latika M Bourke (@latikambourke) January 27, 2021
Of course, it only ‘cost’ Labor in 2019 due to a mixture of half-heartedness from Labor right leader Bill Shorten, severe misreporting of climate policy from media outlets (“What about the costings!!”) and the government’s relentless and ludicrous scare campaign around zero-emissions transport. The alternative – of doing climate advocacy in an effective way, immune to those immature attacks – wasn’t even considered in that review.
The internal fight was won by the fossil industry
One of the remaining forces for stronger climate action within the Australian Labor party is Mark Butler. He’d come into conflict with the party’s most aggressive advocate of higher emissions, Joel Fitzgibbon, who represents a coal-mining area in New South Wales. Whatever slight momentum existed within the party for climate ambition seems now to have been sidelined.
The alternative vision offered up by Labor – modelled on Ross Garnaut’s ‘superpower’, in which Australia becomes enriched through the export of zero carbon energy – is grand, but still vague. There is little detail on the short-term benefits that strong climate action would bring. There’s no commonly stated policy about a just transition for fossil workers, as that would entail admitting the likelihood that the industry’s on the way down – unthinkable for an unashamedly pro-fossil-mining party.
Butler is tipped to be replaced by Chris Bowen, a member of Labor’s right faction. Bowen’s Twitter history features no mention of wind, solar, coal, oil or gas, and the majority of climate mentions are criticisms of Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly. Bowen reassured voters prior to the 2019 election that he would not ban the Adani coal mine, but has also signalled potential enthusiasm about some parts of the US Democrat’s ‘Green new deal’ policy package. Bowen also led a push to make climate change a health priority, just prior to the onset of Australia’s Black Summer bushfire season. It may not be all bad, but whether it translates into sufficient ambition seems highly questionable.
— Chris Bowen (@Bowenchris) July 3, 2017
Albanese’s reshuffle was welcomed by Joel Fitzgibbon. “Fitzgibbon, who stood down from the resources portfolio after his clashes with Mr Butler at the end of last year, welcomed the news about the reshuffle but signalled he wanted a change on policy as well”.
It’s a weird request, given there is literally no policy to change, save for reaching ‘net zero’ domestic emissions in 2050 while still pumping out fossil fuels to the world. Presumably what Fitzgibbon is requesting is new policy, to do things like build new fossil fuel power stations, subsidise fossil mining operations even more, and change regulations to roadblock renewables, EVs and other forms of decarbonisation. Capitulating to pro-fossil forces means that miles will be taken, after inches are given. Time will tell what this new-found position entails, but chances are that it won’t be good.
A new opportunity to waste again
This is all happening in the context of two global shifts.
First, the US Democrats won against an extremely popular authoritarian figure (for both the presidency and control of the Senate) by making climate action – and in particular, justice-driven climate action – a central focus. Today, Biden has made climate a central focus, announcing a wide range of additional initiatives that focus on communities of colour in the US. Biden just announced a plan to replace the government’s fleet of 650,000 vehicles with all-electric alternatives, cancelled the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and has rejoined the Paris agreement. Of course, Biden has his own Fitzgibbon to contend with, but it hasn’t resulted in a reshaping of the party around total silence on climate.
It’s a winning formula: at least try to do what’s needed on climate, rather than hand-wringing about potential attacks from the opposition – which will always be in bad faith and will always happen, no matter the level of ambition. Make it about people – about jobs, and benefits and air and cities and land. Make it real. That seems to work.
Second, a major global climate conference will be held in November this year, in the UK. If you think the snub from the UK last year was bad, wait until you see what happens after another full year of fossil fuel advocacy from Morrison and Taylor. The lead-up and duration of this massive global climate event ought to be a red hot, near-perfect time to establish a clear alternative to the government’s stonewalling.
The final year of this stretch of government seems like it’ll end up the same as the first two: Morrison and Taylor worsen climate harm, while the opposition fails to oppose.
We can say with total confidence that if the Labor party had already created and popularised a climate plan that targets today’s ills, like the need for cleaner cities, more accessible transport, cheaper power and more varied and secure work, they’d be soaring in the polls even despite COVID19.
Of course doing this would paint a target on their back – but literally anything would invite bad-faith attacks from the government and the media. The best option in the face of those attacks is to build a plan so strong that it can withstand attacks, not to abandon climate policies altogether. The current approach means the party is hurtling towards an election loss, up against one of the most stunningly clumsy, pro-fossil governments in the world.
A half-hearted shrug about being a ‘superpower’, with no real clarity on how that power would flow back to people struggling to understand how climate action benefits them, won’t do the trick. Waiting silently for the government to step on sufficient rakes so as to become unpopular won’t do the trick (Morrison isn’t Tony Abbott – he knows the diversionary power of pretending to act on climate). And the consequences of the wasted opportunity will mean the Liberal-National party stays in power for at least half of the most crucial decade on climate. We don’t have that time to waste, and Labor must turn the ship around while they still can.
Update: Albanese later confirmed the move, saying Butler will be moved to health and ageing: “I think it is a good change. I think he will make an outstanding shadow for health and ageing.” Albanese said Bowen will bring an “economic” focus to the climate portfolio but again refused to discuss if Labor will argue for interim targets, despite the promise of the Biden administration to up its interim targets in April and the new call by scientists for Australia to slash its emissions by 50 per cent by 2030.