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Climate change: the political limits

We must look through the political spin in climate change discourse

Image of a smoke stack emitting pollution, foregrounding a blue sky with clouds. Source: David Suzuki Foundation.

Climate change rhetoric tends to revolve around carbon emissions. We associate climate change with atmospheric carbon levels, excluding broader ecological destruction. In a consumption-fuelled market society, resulting mass waste causes forest and marine habitat destruction. Yet, where politicians escape accountability when they classify climate change as a problem that should be traded off against economic prosperity. The historical politicisation of climate change must be confronted in order to reach the radical solutions needed to save our environment.

In 2011, Julia Gillard’s government introduced the Clean Energy Act, aiming to set business’ emission trading targets, backed by tax incentives. The market was tasked with reducing pollution levels. After three years, there would be a fixed carbon price to further reduce carbon emissions. Tony Abbott famously repealed the carbon tax in 2014. The Abbott Government’s response to the climate problem was made clear early. Abbott was effective as opposition leader because he divided the public’s understanding of climate change. In a 2013 Insiders interview, Abbott explained that climate change should not be considered independently of market behaviour: “The important thing is to take strong and effective action to tackle climate change, action that doesn’t damage our economy.”

This was a crucial juncture in recent political history — two key, inter-connected responses followed. First, Abbott’s rhetoric scared the Labor Party while deepening an ideological divide in the Liberal Party. Second, Abbott, popularised a greater concern; namely, how to simultaneously appease the state, the market, the public, and the climate. From thereon in, climate change became politicised; a phenomena characterised to be either threatening the current economy, or that future generations had a stake in fighting.

As an opposition leader, Abbott was fiercely conservative — nothing changed when he became Prime Minister in the 2013 election. The Labor government, that had torn itself apart through leadership spills, stood little chance at that election. Abbott’s fear-mongering rhetoric around policies designed to take action on climate change policy was enough to frighten the Labor party to near incapacitation.

Rhetoric and anticipation within the Australian public grew when Malcolm Turnbull assumed the office of Prime Minister, proving himself more popular than Abbott in 2015. Turnbull had been an outspoken voice within the Liberal Party when opposition leader in 2009, claiming climate change was an unignorable problem. Yet, when it came to climate action, Turnbull was virtually silent. All the while, Abbott lurked on the back bench, taking swipes at Turnbull, before calling for Australia to pull out of its 2016 Paris Climate agreement targets. It is tactical for conservative politicians of Abbott’s ilk to deprioritise impending climate destruction, enabling them to focus on more winnable battlegrounds.

Australia under the Coalition Government has committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. This means that we will reduce carbon emission by 26-28%, on 2005 levels, by 2030. The Labor Party have claimed that, if elected, they will commit to a 45% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. Australia must stand in contrast to Sweden, where the government has committed to complete carbon neutrality by 2045.

Yet, Australian and international governments alike are ignoring a point that Abbott made in 2013, that being, environmental policy supposedly cannot come at the expense of the economy.

We live in a market society. We rely on the market society — our social structure — to live the lives we lead. We pay for water, buy food and rent shelter. But, we also have the choice to consume non-essential items within a market society. We buy coffee to stay alert and clothes to stay fashionable, we attend events to stay social, all the while we pay for goods and services. We inject money into the economy and create demand a greater variety of goods and services until we arrive in the present. So much of our consumption is unavoidable and yet contributes immensely to environmental degradation. We look around and see litter, but not very much. In fact, capital-rich market societies tend to be very effective at removing the vast amounts of waste it generates.  Our waste disappears quickly and we generally like that.

However, a major problem arises, what in fact does happen to our waste? It is buried, sent overseas, sent into the ocean and burnt. This is the real impact of climate change and its cause is precisely the creation of so many varieties of goods and services to consume within the market. Even the individual solutions sold to us, like keep cups, use similar market incentives. The desire to consume and the subsequent waste that this process incurs is at the core of climate change. If we desire real, lasting and effective action on climate change, we must be willing to question whether a global market society is the most efficient and sustainable way of allocating resources and shape policy solutions to new ends.