Time To Stop Talking About Climate


Australia has a new government agency dedicated to advancing the public understanding of climate change. It’s called the Climate Commission and yesterday it handed down its inaugural report.

Entitled The Critical Decade, the report lays out in clear but rigorous detail the scientific understanding of global warming and the urgent need for action — now. Take home message? We’re in the critical decade. If Australia and the rest of the industrialised world can’t stop greenhouse gas emissions from growing, and begin to rapidly decrease them, the planet is going to cook.

"Our Earth’s surface is warming rapidly and we can already see social, economic and environmental impacts in Australia," the Commission writes.

"Failing to take sufficient action today entails potentially huge risks to our economy, society and way of life into the future."

In other words: nothing that we didn’t already know. The Climate Commission is not actually doing any new science, merely collating and contextualising the latest and best science as it has progressed since the IPCC’s 2007 assessment.

Despite this, the release of the Commission’s report yesterday dominated news headlines and had a major impact on the media cycle. This is important, because the last few years have seen a growing public apathy about climate science, as sceptics have won important battles for the hearts and minds of western citizens. Indeed, it’s a measure of just how skewed the reporting about climate has become that a report such as this should even be considered news. Scientists have been warning of huge risks from catastrophic global warming for a generation now.

Of course, there is a political aspect to the role of the Commission. It was set up by the Gillard Government to try and patch up the fraying public consensus on climate change and carbon reduction policy. And given the coverage of the report yesterday, it must be judged a success so far.

The Commission’s two leading figures, Tim Flannery and Will Steffen, both performed calmly and substantively in media interviews, patiently explaining the strength of the science and refusing to be drawn into policy debates — for instance about the dubious merits of the Coalition’s laughable "direct action" policy. Flannery, for instance, showed admirable restraint last night on 7.30 as the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann asked a series of irrelevant questions about tropical cyclones.

It might sound strange to talk about the media reception of a scientific report, but that’s where we’re at in climate policy in 2011. In the era of what in the United States has been called post-truth politics, the opponents of change and the proponents of pollution have so successfully muddied the waters that it is still common to hear Liberal and National Party politicians running discredited denialist talking points on the steps of Parliament. They were at it again yesterday, with prominent Liberal sceptic Dennis Jensen mumbling nonsense about the mediaeval warm period.

In this turbulent confusion, the ability of a gifted communicator like Tony Abbott to cut through the debate with his scalpel-sharp slogans about the evils of a carbon tax is all the more devastating. No wonder Labor has struggled to get its point across. After all, if there is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on, it is that this government is an exceptionally poor communicator.

The Climate Commission report hints at what Labor might have achieved since 2007 if it had approached climate policy with the sort of resolve that was always going to be required of such a major economic reform. In the early days of the Rudd Government, soon after signing the Kyoto Protoocal at Bali, the government enjoyed huge popular support in the opinion polls. So did strong action on cutting emissions.

But despite the extremely sensible (if moderate) proposals put forward by Ross Garnaut, Rudd and his government squandered its political capital, preferring to use climate policy as an instrument to divide the Liberal Party than as an imperative for its first-term policy agenda. As a result, we’re back to square one, with the government having to slowly rebuild a consensus for climate action.

Throughout its time in government, Labor has shown a puzzling inability to grasp the tactical battlefield on which climate politics is played out. The opponents of climate change include some of the wealthiest and most ruthless corporations on the planet, as well as many their captive proxies among the key business lobby groups, and even some on Labor’s side of politics, for instance in the union movement.

On the other side of the debate lies the environmental movement, most scientists, the Greens, the renewable energy, insurance and superannuation industries, and many citizens in the progressive political spectrum. But Labor has consistently refused to mobilise this potential power base for reform, preferring instead to pretend it can somehow play both ends against the middle as some kind of impartial arbitrator.

Throw in some astounding unforced errors, like Kevin Rudd’s decision to abandon the CPRS and Julia Gillard’s broken promise about the carbon tax, and you have a government which can martial few friends in support of what should be a popular and politically advantageous reform. Mealy-mouthed attempts at "getting the balance right" only underline the government’s inability to recognise its friends and resolutely face up to its enemies.

Many have been writing off Julia Gillard’s government. Yesterday, Bernard Keane in Crikey even asked if it was terminal — a strange question given this government has two years left to run and precisely zero incentive to return to the polls early. But a run of seriously bad polls — much worse than those that confronted the party at the end of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership — can do that to jumpy backbenchers and excitable political observers.

The time has come for this government to take up the fight on climate change. If not, now, then when?

The government must quickly announce the rough details of the carbon price. $26 a ton is the price that has been mooted several times, so why not go with that? Greg Combet should be given carte blanche to promise whatever it takes in terms of complementary measures and regional electorate bribes to get Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and the Greens to sign on. Then Labor must mobilise every available remnant support base to rally around the carbon tax proposal. I’ve addressed the media strategy Labor should adopt in a previous article.

And if it does this, the government might just find that voters will be prepared to give it another go. Perhaps my daughter may even grow up on a liveable planet.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.