On the politics of climate change, Australia crawls slowly from the cave.
To mix the cave metaphor, we’ve passed peak troglodyte.
Light has pierced the dark. Troglodytes still growl and glower, but those who ignore or deny the science have declining power.
Sceptical language still shapes the politics of climate. Yet the troglodyte effect has less impact in this election year than it has had for 15 years.
The crawl from the cave reflects shifts on the political spectrum. Render this spectrum as running from denial and scepticism towards the central position of acceptance of the science. Going beyond acceptance, the spectrum reaches belief and action.
Denialists think global warming isn’t happening or simply ignore it, while the sceptics always want more convincing evidence.
The denialist–sceptic forces have pushed Australia into the policy cave with versions of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s 2009 line that climate change is ‘absolute crap’. Warming might be good for us, Abbott wrote in Battlelines, and there’s no point imposing ‘certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future’.
Note that the formal position of Australia’s political parties all along has been to accept the science on the warming of the planet. In politics, though, accepting a policy position doesn’t confer priority or action.
Our problem has been the step beyond the tick and nod of acceptance to the belief stage. Reaching belief means that understanding becomes a truth that defines reality. In politics, belief rearranges priorities, shifts policy and demands cash: action happens.
Action hurts because this is a wicked problem, compounded by the push of the mining industry and the noise of the Murdoch media empire.
We have been stuck in the ignore-deny cave because Australia is an emissions superpower, standing with Russia and Saudi Arabia among the greatest exporters of fossil fuels.
The resource blessing can be a ‘coal curse’. The cave is comfortable because the fossil fuel industry seeks a ‘grip on Australian hearts and minds’. Mining has muscle to match its riches—throwing its weight against Kevin Rudd and his mining tax in 2010 and killing the Hawke government’s land-rights legislation in the 1980s.
The miners, our most powerful industry, seldom have to make an overt entry into the political ring; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia is there every day.
News Corp’s defining voice is the national broadsheet, The Australian, while the capital city tabloids do the yapping and Sky News does the TV ranting. The empire has reach, setting up an echo chamber that touches the ears of every politician. The rest of Australia can take or leave The Australian, but for Canberra it’s a constant read in the same way the ABC is a constant soundtrack.
The Australian editorialises that it accepts the science of global warming. As Murdoch has long maintained, ‘The planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.’
Just as consistently, what it publishes amounts to a scepticism that treats scientists and environmentalists as the enemy. The tag ‘covert denialism’ was pinned on The Australian by Robert Manne back in 2011 and still fits the facts.
The Weekend Australian of 15–16 January shows how covert denialism works. On page 8, an AFP piece by a Washington correspondent states that the nine years spanning 2013–2021 rank among the 10 hottest on record:
The impacts have been increasingly felt in recent years—including record-shattering wildfires across Australia and Siberia, a once-in-1,000-years heatwave in North America and extreme rainfall that caused massive flooding in Asia, Africa, the US and Europe.
Hefty evidence, indeed, but the paper knows how to turn the temperature. Turn to the op-eds published in the ‘Inquirer’ section for the tonal change.
On the first page, environment editor Graham Lloyd has the lead item on how Australia is weathering the climate storm: ‘Australia has benefited from the effects of two La Nina years, much to the chagrin of climate catastrophists’. Those catastrophists, Lloyd argues in his first paragraph, faced ‘an inconvenient set of realities’ because weather systems plunged Australia’s average temperatures in 2021 to the lowest levels in a decade.
By the third paragraph, things get lyrical: ‘[N]ature is not broken, the natural cycles continue to operate and that resilience persists on land and at sea.’
Deeper into the item, Lloyd quotes from the US study that made the news pages, noting the finding that global average temperatures last year were 1.1°C warmer than the late 19th century average, at the start of the industrial revolution.
Such science gets a cold shower when you turn the page to find a headline about ‘50 years of climate panic’, by Bjorn Lomborg, whose latest book is False alarm: how climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor, and fails to fix the planet.
Lomborg, too, starts by scorning those who fear ‘climate catastrophe’, deriding ‘panic and poor policies’ that are fuelled by ‘overblown predictions and emotional forecasts’ about the planet’s ‘last chance’. His first paragraph puts quotation marks around ‘climate catastrophe’ and ‘catastrophic’, but they don’t indicate irony or sarcasm so much as define the target to be hit. Classic stuff from The Australian’s favourite ‘skeptical environmentalist’, who has been penning variations on the same column for two decades: don’t worry, get smart, spend on adaptation and innovation.
Australia is emerging from the cave for many reasons. Even News Corp did an editorial campaign last year about reaching zero emissions. Murdoch’s top editor called it an ‘evolution’ of policy but it had a mea culpa tinge.
The Murdoch empire is catching up with the rest of Australia, as tracked by Lowy Institute polls showing increasing climate concern. Expect the covert denialism to dial down. Perhaps.
After 15 years of argy-bargy, our main parties of government—Liberal and Labor—are closer on climate policy than they have been since the 2007 election, when they agreed on the need for an emissions trading scheme. (A counterfactual is that if John Howard had held his seat and held government in 2007, we’d have got the ETS and not gone as deeply into the cave.)
Scott Morrison got the coalition to agree to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Governments receive little credit for what doesn’t happen (especially internal government disasters), so the prime minister doesn’t get much cachet for edging the Libs and Nationals out of the cave. More than a political pirouette, ScoMo did bomb disposal while zooming down the mountain on one ski.
Morrison said the policy got through the Nats party room by only two votes. So only two votes away from blowing apart the coalition. ‘I did have to put it on the line,’ the prime minister notes, ‘and it was very close.’ The National Party is roiled but roughly reconciled, especially by promises of cash rewards for the bush.
Australia is about to cram two political years into one.
The first ‘year’ will be bookended by the budget on 29 March and the federal election in May. Morrison needs every day he can get, so I’m sticking with the prediction that the election will be held on 21 May, the last day possible for a half-Senate and House of Representatives poll.
The Liberals can’t wedge Labor on climate policy as they did in the 2019 election. The two parties are standing too close together.
Labor has long suffered the agony of having its vote eaten from the left by the Greens. Now the Libs face a similar test in nominally safe seats, attacked by independents. The government says the independents are coming from the left, but on climate they reflect the centre of public opinion.
Whether Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese, Labor or Liberal, the government that gets to work in June will have to do more than accept the science—it will have to believe and act.
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