During Anthony Albanese’s victory speech, he uttered a few words that have set the tone and topics for climate discourse since his win: “Together, we can end the climate wars”.
That sounds nice. But, what are the “climate wars”? Prod usage of the phrase and you’ll get something generally referencing partisan disagreement between the major parties on climate; a disagreement assumed as the sole and primary cause of emissions stagnation in Australia. The phrase has been in use for some time. A notable example: top ABC journalist Leigh Sales tweeted, during the 2019-20 bushfire crisis, that “the extremes at both end of the climate wars over-egg their cases and show why this issue is so vexed in Australia.”
That formulation is classic civil centrism. The idea that the problem lies not with an abuse of power, or some demonstrable untruth, or disconnect from evidence. No – the problem is that people are disagreeing, and that if there’s peace and consensus, society’s problems fade away. This is why former Labor politician Kristina Kenneally doesn’t feel uncomfortable expressing her friendships and civil interactions with both Matt Canavan and Malcolm Roberts.
Here’s the thing though – in that framing, there really aren’t any actual climate wars. There has not been any material disagreements between the Labor party and the Coalition on climate action for quite some time. It has been, it is very fair to say, a long stretch of peace. The Labor party has had its will shaken by repeated losses and the Coalition government has wielded power for nearly a decade. Thus, no friction.
If you’re doubtful, please have a scroll through this monstrous Twitter thread I wrote cataloguing the climate failures of the former government, and when you read each one, consider whether the Labor party opposed it, and if so, how loudly and aggressively?
Reminder: there is already near total bipartisan agreement on climate policy in Australia. There are no climate wars. This is because everyone is agreeing to not do anywhere near enough.
What's needed is an actual climate war – where one side argues for real action. https://t.co/VkVi3dGsQt
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) November 2, 2021
Massive expansion of coal and gas mining, carbon credits for CCS, great big new publicly funded gas pipelines and power plants, an open door for industry to rely on carbon offsets instead of emissions reductions – all quietly or openly unopposed. The exception was a ham-fisted effort to twist ARENA and CEFC into funding CCS – a weirdly rare moment of opposition from the opposition, but sadly, a brief one.
Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions profile has barely shifted, even subject to Labor’s carbon pricing mechanism and the growth of clean energy under the Renewable Energy Target. The only quarters that have seen a reduction relative to 2005 levels were during the pandemic. There is no relationship between the cause of climate change and the intensity of squabbling between the two major parties.
The real war is invisible
The engine of Australia’s climate problem largely does not play out in the arena of soundbites, public debate and political squabbles; at least not for the past half-decade. The entire spread of corporations and lobby groups that work to protect the interests of fossil fuels in Australia get left out of this false formulation. This is where the real war is – a stunningly powerful industry that has effectively captured both major parties, and benefits hugely from a lack of scrutiny or attention.
‘Ending the climate wars’ would require us to seriously engage with extractive colonial capitalism in ways that are too ‘radical’ for either major party. Any consensus they reach will remain inadequate because it’ll have to be palatable to the very system that created the crisis
— Tatiana Andersen (@tatiandersen) May 29, 2022
There is a broad consensus among the Labor party, the Coalition, big business and high-emitters, fossil fuel extraction industries and conservative commercial media to position themselves squarely in what they perceive to be the ‘middle;’ go slow, delay where possible and greenwash with reckless abandon. Scratch the surface of rhetoric about ‘renewable superpowers’ and ‘tech not taxes’ and you’ll see a very distinctive commonality between the policies and language of political and industry fossil fuel advocates.
A neat example of this is a tweet from Nine’s The Age newspaper, which says “David Littleproud, who successfully challenged Barnaby Joyce for the Nationals’ top job on Monday, has promised to reset his party’s agenda to end the climate wars.” In the article, of course, Littleproud’s motivation is clear.
“His signature policy as agriculture minister, still being trialled, is a market-based payment system for farmers… credits can be sold to companies that want to offset the impacts of their activities or enhance their green image.”
This system of justifying climate harm through greenhouse gas emissions through the purchase of ill-gotten carbon credits has become a major system of delay and fossil fuel expansionism. This is what ‘ending the climate wars’ really looks like – everybody in quiet, nervous agreement that green-washing is the perfect way to sustain the fossil fuel industry for another decade.
What this means, more simply, is that Australia’s shocking climate footprint won’t change without the recognition of the real climate wars – between those defending the fossil fuel industry, and those working to free themselves of it.
The sheer physical reality of the consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s malfeasance has been manifesting with increasing frequency in Australia. Bushfires and floods – navy boats and the military rescuing people from disasters intensified by the burning of coal, oil and gas. That is a war, and Australian citizens are combatants.
There are influential forces working to ensure that the real war is obscured underneath layers of complex greenwashing, and that the ludicrous theatre of political spats gets falsely identified as the real barrier to emissions reductions.
That said, I think there’s going to be a high chance of a return of those old political spats, alongside the emergence of a collection of serious and threatening new challenges that these newly elected representatives (including the ‘teals’ and the Greens) will have to grapple with. Like:
- A new campaign to blame the Coalition’s legacy of rising electricity prices on the new Labor government; already commenced by opposition leader Peter Dutton and the opposition’s various News Corp cronies. It’s a dark mirroring of the rise in electricity prices during the Rudd / Gillard years, caused by exploding network costs but blamed on carbon pricing. Are Australian media outlets prepared and equipped to deal with this tsunami of misinformation? (Amusingly, less than a month ago, Labor was insisting that power prices are going up and the Coalition’s Angus Taylor was denying it).
- All eyes are – thankfully – on Australia’s coal fleet, after Mike Cannon-Brookes’ successful bid to stifle AGL’s demerger. It is an ugly way to close to coal plants, but it seem to be working, and there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. That is because the Labor party’s climate plan does not involve shutting down coal plants before their design life end dates; something that essentially dooms Australia to comfortably miss the Paris agreement’s 1.5°C goals. Labor will need to be forced to grow some confidence and show some leadership, and ensure that the shutdown of coal in Australia happens in a way that protects affected communities, and also happens at a pace aligned with strong climate action.
- Ditto for Australia’s forecast coal and gas exports, which are themselves a major driver of domestic greenhouse gas emissions (digging up dirty fuels is almost as dirty as burning the dirty fuels). Extractive industries have a quiet but terrifying hand on the shoulder of policy-makers, and anyone considering tighter regulations or controls on those companies – whether to reduce domestic or exported emissions – will certainly know what a “war” looks like.
- A collection of shocks to the supply chains for battery, transmission and solar and wind construction materials alongside growing community backlash to new transmission puts the chances of dead-ends and delays for Labor’s renewable energy plans very high, without clever planning and strong policy. The opposition will surely spy this as a key bottleneck and work as hard as they can to cause trouble.
Ketan Joshi is a European-based climate and energy consultant.