The Abbott government: Climate policy as culture war

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The Abbott-led LNP is prosecuting climate policy as a social polarisation between two conflicting sets of values, principally those of science and ideology.

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Overnight in London former prime minister John Howard gave the climate-denialist Global Warming Policy Foundation’s annual lecture, telling his audience:

“I’ve always been agnostic about [climate change]… I don’t completely dismiss the more dire warnings but I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated… I don’t accept all of the alarmist conclusions… You can never be absolutely certain that all the science is in.”

Agnosticism masking denial has been Howard’s trademark. In February 2007, he told Lateline that 4-to-6 degrees Celsius of climate warming “would be less comfortable for some than it is now”. Yes, really!

Howard’s art has been well adopted by his protege and now Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott. In both opposition and government, the Abbott-led LNP is prosecuting climate policy as a “culture war”, a broad social polarisation between two conflicting sets of values, principally on the relationship between science and ideology, the role of government, the relationship between humans and nature, and the future of the fossil fuel industry and of society’s technological path. In some aspects it is not dis-similar to the politics brought to Washington by Newt Gingrich and, in a more extreme form, by the Tea Party, exemplified by Abbott’s recent “(carbon) taxation equals socialism” pitch.

The Abbott government’s climate policy exists in the space between denial and delay. It is founded on:

  • conservatism and the preservation of the status quo against change: a desire to hold back the tide and champion the interests of the fossil fuel industry, even while recognising that a huge economic–technological tide of change is closing in;
  • a commitment to neo-liberal, deregulatory economic policy: defence of free-market capitalism against higher levels of state intervention and regulation;
  • an instrumental view of nature as a resource for exploitation;
  • an anti-scientific stance, which extinguishes the distance between science and ideology and drives a culture war with a religious component against secular science and environmentalism; and
  • the ethos of “politics as warfare”, the virtues of confrontation and political extremism, and the dumbing-down of politics.

The Abbott government’s strategy is to:

  • remove regulatory and tax imposts on the fossil fuel industry and carbon pricing, inhibit the growth of the renewable energy sector, and diminish the effectiveness of the climate action and anti-fossil-fuel-industry movements;
  • formally accept climate change as real, but downplay the human role: persistently deny any link between climate change and impacts including more extreme events (for example, their response to the October 2013 NSW bushfires), accompanied by a chorus of backbench denialist rhetoric;
  • dumb-down and politicise climate science, exploit scientific uncertainty;
  • tar climate action with the brush of Labor’s political incompetence;
  • promote fear of economic loss, by claiming climate action will “put at risk our manufacturing industry, penalise struggling families, make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia”;
  • utilise the politics of resentment; and
  • ruthlessly exploit the myth of cost of living pressures, in particular carbon pricing and RET as the main culprits for higher electricity prices.

But there are also realities that the Abbott government is desperate to avoid. These include:

  • more and more intense extreme weather events driven by climate change;
  • “connecting the dots” between extreme events and climate change. Lenore Taylor in “Coalition deploys straw man against burning issue of climate change” tells why the government was “desperate to keep bushfires and climate change apart” for fear its climate policies would be found wanting;
  • constructing the narrative about climate impacts, rather than electricity prices and taxes. The government cannot deal with a narrative about people in Australia and not distant places, about now and not just the distant future, about connecting the dots, about record heat and heatstroke deaths, about extreme floods and property, about how family and friends will live in a hotter and more extreme world, about how a retreating coastline will affect where we live and work, a story about health and well-being, about increasing food and water insecurity, and the more difficult life that children and grandchildren will face.
  • government ministers and members being drawn into discussion about climate impacts, for which most of them are very poorly prepared. In his infamous BBC interview, Greg Hunt said that the Coalition had taken ”science off the table” when it came to climate change, and ”We’re not debating it”;
  • narratives about the responsibility of political leaders to “protect the people” and protect the Australian way of life from the impacts of climate change, exemplified by the approach of Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt here.

The Abbott government will not be persuaded by reason and is not interested in compromise because this is a battle to be won, and compromise and negotiation are signs of weakness. For this government, fighting enemies is more important than reality-based policy-making. This is about the politics of resentment, fear and revenge, about winning, and about debilitating the enemy. Culture wars are not primarily about policy detail, but about building legitimacy and establishing dominance.

A culture war mentality pervades the prime minister’s thinking, and was well described by Damon Young in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

Tony Abbott recently pronounced the former government ”wacko”… Abbott’s message – that the former government is uniquely irrational and inept – is so consistent and vehement, it is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister is not genuinely committed to some version of this idea… He describe(s) the Labor government as ”the most incompetent and untrustworthy … in modern Australian history”…

At the very least, Abbott seems to believe his caricature as he draws it. And so confident is Abbott of its veracity or popularity that he will sketch, without pause, his picture for a global audience…

Put simply: Abbott is committed to this caricature of his political rivals, or he at least believes that this portrait will sell as well abroad as it has domestically. Either way, this picture is worrying. It does not suggest practical wisdom: a knack for responding to milieu and ambiguity. It suggests an evangelist or apparatchik, for whom the world is neatly divided into us and them, goodies and baddies, my common sense and their lunacy. Instead, Abbott’s slur suggests that word so often reserved as an insult for the left: ideology.

John Howard on steroids, perhaps?


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  1. Keith 6 years ago

    So Abbott’s message is “electricity bill” and the counter has to be connecting the dots on climate change and staying on message relentlessly. Our children deserve no less.

  2. Philip Sutton 6 years ago

    The Labor Party tried to be a friend of both the fossil fuel industry (especially for the export $$s) and also the renewables industry (in fits and start, for the domestic economy, and the votes). But the Abbott Government has thrown it’s lot in with the fossil fuel industry in toto. Since the fossil fuel industry causes climate change, the Abbott government has to hold back the tide of reality. So, while they are locked into this commitment, they have no choice but to deny reality. That’s why they have to fight a culture war (ie. they have to shape a reality in people’s heads that does not faithfully represent the reality outside their heads. But while Abbott is an expert at culture wars, the culture war mode is really only a means to an end. The fundamental end is to allow the fossil fuel industry to maximise its growth. So we need highlight both aspects of reality – the impact of climate change here-and-now and, the real driver of the damage, the fossil fuel industry. We have to be careful not to get sucked into the detail of the insanity that Abbott will try to inject into our minds to keep our attention off the real life damage and the real life cause – the fossil fuel industry.

  3. Michel Rahme 6 years ago

    What do you see after your swim when you walk up the beach and sit under a tree facing the ocean, where it’s cool and calm and the air is clean? Close your eyes, listen to the waves, open your eyes and what do you see?

    Look closely – see, its spring low tide, oysters are exposed on the rocks in the sun, and look there, down from the driftwood that lay at your feet amongst the rounded stones and whole shells….. look down there – the Abbott Government has built a mighty sand castle with a mote and big walls! They sit in it and look out under a flag of victory! Hahaaa

    So look again and think…..the fools have built their castle below the king high water line – fools that they are! – Ha, see, so its only a matter of time …with the rising tide – as their castle is washed away with nothing they can do to stop it- their stupidity and ignorance and corruption and dead old rotting gods will be washed away back into the ocean….. and there will be a clean beach and the time for a new beginning….. and let the builders of that castle know now – we are watching and waiting and ready to stand up!

    Ha the fools built their castle in the oceans path! The fools built their castle in the oceans path!

  4. somereasoning 6 years ago

    I trust you guys understand what you are saying here. At this moment the question is: which way are you going down? You better speak up now and get serious, before this downward spiral spins into motion. It apparently has already.

    • suthnsun 6 years ago

      care to elaborate ‘get serious’ somereasoning?

      • somereasoning 6 years ago

        of course. ‘Get serious’ means to get involved, to educate yourself on the issues, and to speak out to your friends, your colleagues, at all occasions even if that is “inconvenient” to do so.
        Climate change has reached the status of an existential threat. To see that, recognize it for what it is, but not speak out is shameful. You become an implicit collaborator, enabler for what is a criminal act on your collective.
        I don’t submit that same moral hazard to people like a John Howard and Abbott, plus the people sponsoring that pov. For some reason, they either don’t see, don’t have the capacity to understand, or have some switch in their minds that has not been turned on that makes it ok to think and act the way they do.
        But for anyone conscious, aware, awake, you better speak out now and explain what you think, insist on being allowed to state your mind, and call stupid for what it is….stupid! You will take some heat for that, you may have some issues coming out of that, but think of the alternatives.

        Therefore, my take on it; if you can’t intervene now and force reason to enter the equation, the only remaining question is ‘how will you go down’, collectively as a country. Because you are setting a path that will be very difficult to recover from.

        Please ‘get serious’.

        • suthnsun 6 years ago

          thanks for that somereasoning, yes, I agree. I am trying, it’s not easy.

  5. somereasoning 6 years ago

    here is an article that may be well worth disseminating, “the coming collapse and transformation of our world”. How is Australia going to participate in this new world? As a power for a brave new world, or as one more basket case to worry about?

  6. Chris Fraser 6 years ago

    Readers may very well read a certain determination into the actions of the new govt since September. No science minister, sacking a quarter of the CSIRO, the CCA, the Climate Commission, reducing green tape, approving Qld coal mines, spending or committing $25Bn on coal railways and ports (the Snowy Hydro only cost A$6Bn in 2012 dollars). I watch with increasing incredulity. It could only be a culture war that would make people stand back in shock while all this happens, as quickly as the new govt can make it happen. Other writers have pointed out the great disparity between these actions and what appears to be the best way for us to build wealth through our natural heritage. And that we are heading for a great disappointment because it can’t be sustained. It probably won’t be a conflict between groups of any particular belief system, but Australian dreams of coal export will have profoundly bad effects on others. It will become passe, boring, costly, maybe dangerous. We won’t be able to show the world anything new. We’re not a part of the future so we’ll be left alone. A legacy of our short term thinking, conservatism, our hanging on to a time when we thought we mattered. The only question that remains is how much damage will be done to the environment and our super funds.

  7. AnnaCamille 6 years ago


    Your list of “realities that the Abbott government is desperate to avoid” reads like a game-plan for climate campaigners!

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