On Track For a Climate Catastrophe

Why we need to change the political climate

The climate catastrophes that scientists have been predicting for decades have begun. Five Pacific Islands have so far been lost to the sea in what will likely become a mass displacement of people due to rising seas. The Great Barrier Reef is dying due to rising ocean temperatures with coral bleaching affecting 93% of the northern reef. Last year was the hottest on record and we are rapidly approaching the 2 degrees Celsius “point of no return” in the rise of global temperatures. Climate change is no longer threat. It is a reality.

And people get it. That’s why ordinary people, as a whole, are investing five-times more money into carbon reduction initiatives (like solar panels and energy efficient consumer goods) than is being invested by big business.

Yet the response from Australia’s politicians is akin to Canberra fiddling while the world burns. Instead of introducing measures to rapidly curb carbon dioxide emissions and develop a zero carbon economy, this year’s federal budget includes the usual enormous government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. An estimated $11.75 billion of taxpayer money (equal to $979 per taxpayer per year) will be used to prop up this industry, the key carbon-emitting culprit. That’s right, you and me are subsidising the polluters to the tune of almost $1,000 each year!

Under some pressure to respond to the destruction of the largest living thing on earth, the government allocated $171 million towards the Great Barrier Reef. This was done with much backslapping and false fanfare, without mention of the fact that all of this money will be redirected from other green initiatives, meaning no net gain for the environment.

That’s not it. One way to deal with a problem you have no intention of solving is to sweep it under the rug. When there was increasing criticism of abuses in Australia’s offshore refugee detention centres, the government simply banned journalists and made whistleblowing punishable with a prison term. Similarly, with alarming research coming from Australia’s premier science institute giving the government headaches, it has decided to cut up to 74 jobs from the climate research unit at the CSIRO.

This is the policy equivalent of Malcolm Turnbull closing his eyes and sticking his fingers in his ears. But it wasn’t so long ago that Turnbull marketed himself as a leader seriously concerned about climate change. What happened?

Australian capitalism finds itself in the difficult situation of slowing waking up from a decades long boom in the mining sector. This means Australia’s most successful and most powerful capitalists made their wealth from mining fossil fuels like coal and gas. As we know, money buys political capital. In a developing country this can be in the crude form of bribes to politicians. In a country like Australia, it usually means political donations and “jobs for the boys” after they leave politics.

More than simply handing over donations in the hope of favourable policy, the industry demands action. Or rather, inaction. The fossil fuel industry has seen the writing on the wall. Whether the diagnosis is a decade or half a century until its demise, the end is coming nearer. This means the industry is aggressively making hay (or mining coal) while the sun shines, manipulating the brightness of the sun through its political lobbying.

We saw this so clearly with the mining industry takedown of Kevin Rudd. What was in reality a “soft coup” organised by Australia’s capitalist class of mining barons has been distorted into a Shakespearian tale of betrayal between two ambitious party leaders. The truth is, Kevin Rudd proposed a very, very modest mining tax to help business begin the shift to a post mining-boom economy and the “powers that be” in the mining industry eliminated him for it. The fact that they used an advertising campaign, newspaper columnists and a political rival in his own party to do it allowed them to get away with it without much resistance.

This is largely the same section of Australian capitalists who are blocking the necessary steps we must take to address climate change. Both major parties have learned their lesson. Any climate policy proposed must benefit these interests, or else!

This was certainly the case with Labor’s last attempt at a climate policy, the emissions trading scheme that morphed into a carbon tax that ended up handing an estimated $1 billion to Australia’s coal-fired power stations without shutting any of them down. Attempting to coax polluters with financial incentives to pollute less has failed in every major economy it has been tried.

Like is often the case, it is the one exception to this that proves the rule. The ACT government has announced it is on track to reach 100% renewable energy in the state by 2020. How is this possible – both politically and economically – when the targets proposed by Liberal and Labor federally are a paltry 23% by 2020 and 50% by 2030 respectively?

The ACT has reversed-auctioned the provision of renewable energy to its population of almost 400,000. Despite weaknesses in the policy, it is far better than what any other Australian government has been able to achieve. This is because, according to ACT Environment Minister Simon Corbell, Canberra has been able to “take advantage of favourable market conditions to lock in great long-term prices”. What he is saying is that because Australia as a whole has no coherent renewable energy strategy, the price the private renewable energy companies are charging has dropped dramatically. In other words, this bright spot is only possible because no coordinated national action has been taken. It’s like getting a great deal on the deck chairs on the titanic!

But most notably in the case of the ACT, it is not a state heavily influenced by the coal and gas industry. Were Queensland or NSW governments to take similar action the backlash from the fossil fuel industry would be fierce. Neither Liberal, National or Labor are interested in testing this.

So here we are at a stalemate. The most powerful industries have the politicians in their pocket, blocking any serious curbing of emissions and investment in renewables. In a depressing acknowledgement of this situation, the government’s own Clean Energy Regulator announced its Renewable Energy Target report in May saying current progress was “adequate under the circumstances”. This is despite progress reaching just over 10% of the immediate target to reach the totally inadequate target of a 23% renewable energy by 2020. Therefore “adequate under the circumstances” really means “not at all adequate but the best we could have expected in this political climate”.

The answer then, clearly, is to change the political climate. This will require building an oppositional force to the power of the fossil fuel industry; one based on ordinary people and socialist principles. The huge climate marches of the early 2000’s succeeded in putting climate change onto the political agenda but failed to put forward solutions. This time around we need to be clear in our demand for a program of publicly funded, job creating renewable energy projects across the country, cutting big business out of the equation entirely. If we can build a mass movement along these lines we can begin to stand our own candidates beholden to us, not the big polluters. We have no more time to waste pandering to them.

By Emma L

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