Chasing the consensus chimera

As Australia’s government goes to an election promising consensus-building on climate change, action

Setbacks for advocates of strong action on climate change have come in quick succession in the months since Copenhagen. If the demise of the US climate bill was the most important, the turnaround in Australia -- which boasts some of the highest per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the world -- may be the most striking.

Australian Labor fought and won the 2007 election pledging an emissions trading scheme (ETS) by 2010. It will face the people later this month promising to defer a final decision on whether to introduce an ETS to 2012.

This dwindling of political will has raised fundamental questions about the government. Climate change was the totemic issue for the "new leadership" offered by Kevin Rudd in 2007. In addition to his off-the-cuff welcome to Hu Jintao in excellent Mandarin, Rudd's climate activism was crucial to his self-presentation as a modern, forward-thinking leader. Back then, Rudd called climate change "the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation". He condemned the inaction and climate scepticism of his predecessor, the conservative John Howard.

Labor's advertising campaign even depicted Howard asleep in his bed, famously bushy eyebrows visible above the duvet, with a framed photo with George W Bush on the bedside table. While an alarm clock blared away in vain, the voice-over pronounced Howard "asleep on climate change".

But the "greatest moral challenge" does not feature in Labor's ad campaign this time around.

Labor's ETS was rejected by parliament in December after a last-minute rebellion of opposition conservatives -- one of whom branded climate change a conspiracy of "the extreme left" to "deindustrialise the western world". But instead of fighting another election on the issue, Rudd announced in April that the ETS would be delayed until at least 2013.

His credibility never recovered. Political opponents who had accused the government of having a hollow core claimed vindication. Ross Gittins, a prominent economic commentator, labelled Rudd "a weak man fallen among thieves". His standing deemed unsalvageable by party hardheads, Rudd was replaced as leader in June by his deputy, Julia Gillard.

Gillard soon called an election and announced that a returned Labor government would review plans for an ETS in 2012, after establishing a randomly selected "Citizens' Assembly" to "examine" climate change and "test" community consensus. But consensus on contentious issues is by definition a chimera. Each of the major economic reforms in Australia over the past 30 years was carried out in the distinct absence of community consensus.

The announcement drew widespread derision. Labor's lead has evaporated in most polls. The attempt to kick the ETS into touch simply exacerbated the doubts raised by Rudd's backflip.

This should not be a surprise. A recent poll found that 60 per cent of Australians want an ETS. The global financial crisis is often cited as a reason for weakening demand for action on climate, but Australia did not have a recession. What's more, many people were persuaded in 2007 of the urgent need to put a price on carbon. They find it difficult to accept that this need has become less urgent, not more, in 2010.

Australia's three-year electoral cycle makes U-turns decidedly risky. People may not have long memories, but they certainly have short ones.

Few doubt that Rudd would have won an election immediately after the parliament rejected his ETS. Eight months later, his successor is locked in a tight race with an opposition leader who once declared climate-change science to be "absolute crap". Labor did not learn the obvious lesson. It was Rudd's capitulation on climate, not his original boldness, that shattered his credibility and his standing in the polls.

Gillard's campaign has borrowed the "Forward not back" mantra from New Labour. On climate, she might have been better off paying heed to another of Tony Blair's tenets: "At our best when at our boldest."

Stephen Minas covered the Copenhagen climate summit for Radio Television Hong Kong and the Diplomat magazine and recently completed a Master's in international relations at the London School of Economics.Twitter: @StephenMinas

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496