Click here to listen to Carol Ride’s contribution to the CPA’s Fertile and Sterile Dialogue Event, or read a transcript below.
In 2011 the Labor government of Australia introduced a carbon package – comprising a tax on CO2 emissions, funding for renewable energy projects, an independent advisory body on Australia’s emission targets based on science and international action, and a body independent of government to advise the community on the latest climate science. This package was backed by a pre-existing renewable energy target. This impressive suite of measures was introduced by a minority Labor government under pressure from the Greens party, because the government needed the support of the Greens to have governing rights.
Despite the fact that the opposition conservatives had supported an emissions trading scheme in 2007, by 2011 the carbon tax and accompanying measures were criticized both by the Murdoch press (who control two thirds of Australia’s print media), and the opposition conservative parties. The tax itself was criticized on the grounds that it would destroy the economy and disadvantage families because of electricity price rises.
A recent study, found that in 2011 – 2012, one third of articles in Australia’s major newspapers did not accept the consensus position of climate science: that human beings are contributing to climate change. Campaigning against the tax, “The Australian”, a national Murdoch paper, produced 49% negative articles about the tax to 9% positive articles.
Because of their role the Greens also took a beating from the press – and as scapegoats, paid a huge price later in the subsequent 2013 election.
The 2013 election was dominated by the then opposition who dubbed it a referendum on the carbon tax. Slogans such as ‘axe the tax’ and ‘dump the government’ were aggressively promoted by the Murdoch media.
In its one year of operation, the carbon tax initiative reduced electricity consumption by 7% – a change unseen in Australia since the time of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. Electricity prices did increase but not out of line with increases in previous years. And households were compensated in tax for carbon tax price rises.
Polls at 2013 election show that people actually want action on climate change: two thirds of Australians now support action an illustration of the complexity of how to really engage people – and with what action.
The opposition conservative parties won the election and claimed their victory vindicated their first step in office – the repeal of the legislation in relation to the carbon tax and the supporting measures.
Their first target was the Climate Commission. It was set up to deliver current understanding of climate science to the community. On their very first day of office it was abolished.
The Climate Commission was headed by Professor Tim Flannery and included other eminent Australian climate scientists. In a resounding response from the a dismayed public, climate concerned citizens rallied using crowd funding to re-establish the body as one independent of the government funding. So phoenix like, the Climate Commission survives, now stronger and more secure than ever, as the Climate Council.
This body has been pivotal in informing the community of the need for serious action this decade. They regularly published very clear, vital explanatory information – and will be able to continue to do so.
And this is essential! Australia has to date experienced its hottest year ever with 100 records being broken. The first month of our spring was the hottest September ever.
In October bushfires were ablaze in 73 different locations across the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. While bushfires in October are not unknown the firefighters feared the fires would all join to create a massive fire front 1500 km long – in impossible conditions, hotter and drier and windier than normal. Thankfully no lives were lost but over 200 homes were destroyed.
Our climate change denying prime minister Tony Abbott – an experienced volunteer fire fighter – joined a local firefighting effort in the Blue Mountains. This was seemingly to make a point that bushfires are a familiar part of our experience and nothing out of the ordinary that we tough Aussie blokes can’t manage.
Did he also fear people might make a link between the bushfires and climate change – and then find gaping holes in his climate policy? When one Green’s politician did make the link and accuse the government of failing to protect its citizens, he was vilified for being insensitive and for seeking to score a political point. It was a very sensitive subject for Abbott, so much so that he even accused the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, of “talking through her hat” for suggesting there was a link between global warming and bushfires.
Not to be outdone by the PM, the Environment Minister thought he had settled this question when he reported he checked Wikipedia – and found the answer he wanted – no link. It would be laughable if not so pitiful.
In place of a carbon tax and the associated measures, the new Government’s climate policy is called Direct Action. It is fuzzy plan to pay companies who agree to reduce their emissions – a ‘pay the polluter ‘ rather than the ‘polluter pays’ scheme. It includes a plan to plant trees – but without halting the vast deforestation that goes on across the country. Direct Action aims for 5% emission reduction (by 2020 relative to 2000 levels): No economists thinks this is achievable under the current Direct Action policy. The 5% target falls way short of the latest target advice from the government’s own Climate Change Authority (which he is about to dismantle). A 5% target is a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed, especially when we are the highest per capita CO2 emitter in the world.
The bushfires were seen by many citizens as evidence that climate change is already occurring in Australia and a precursor to what is predicted to be a hellishly hot summer and early autumn in South Eastern Australia – in December to March.
The link between bushfires and climate change provided fertile ground for climate discussion to surface again, even while it is conveniently considered by the Murdoch press to be insensitive to do so. Whilst to join the dots at this time was difficult, there was a recognition that when the horrific bushfires occurred in Victoria in 2009 (the state in which I live), when 170 lives were lost and over 2000 homes burnt to the ground, the link between severe weather and climate change was evaded by the climate movement because of fear of being seen to be politicizing suffering. But as the recent report by the UK organization COIN (Climate Outreach and Information Network – headed up by George Marshall) says, we need to be able to bring the impacts of climate change closer to home in order to resonate with the values of those on the centre-right.
Abbott is using the crucial issue of climate change to create of a cultural divide in the community. He charges those wanting climate action with destroying the economy, destroying jobs and damaging family financial security. Those supporting climate action are denigrated for giving tacit support to what he has termed a ‘wacko’ Labor government that he repeatedly claims was a failure and incompetent. He is supported in the Murdoch press by journalists who also wickedly promote the idea that concern about climate change is a quasi religious ideology, as well an economic threat. These threats I believe feed the community’s confusion, cynacism and distancing from what they see has become primarily a political issue, rather than a moral one.
Abbott instead advocates freedom to mine for new coal and new coal seam gas on farmland and environmentally sensitive and protected areas – without constraint – and with “red – tape – free” deregulation.
Will the devastating reality of ever more record breaking temperatures, severe summer heatwaves and bushfires break through the denial and stop the promotion of this alienating and divisive culture?
Sadly, a blisteringly hot, destructive summer might have to be what it takes to re-establish some fertile ground for a constructive approach to climate change in Australia.
Carol Ride is President of Psychology for a Safe Climate – based in Melbourne, Australia. She is a psychologist and couple therapist and has been active in the climate movement in her local community since 20