Australia's fake debate on climate change

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Neither party — the climate deniers or the climate pretenders — proposes effective action against greenhouse gas emissions. Both promote more coal. To see why, just follow the money.

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by Simon Butler
Green Left Weekly, April 21, 2012 

Over the past few years it appears that debate and conflict about climate policy has dominated Australian politics. But the appearance is different to the reality.

There is no serious debate between the two big parties about climate change. A serious debate would be grounded in the climate science, which says we must move to a zero carbon economy at emergency speed.

Liberal and Labor agree the fossil fuel juggernaut must keep rolling on, when the science says this is disastrous. There is no debate between them on plans to double Australia’s coal exports — an insane choice given what we know about the closeness of climate tipping points, the points of no return.

The big parties agree that unconventional gas exploration can go ahead in all six states and the Northern Territory. And they agree on a 5% emissions cut by 2020, although they disagree on how to reach that scandalously low target.

Australia’s mainstream political debate on climate change is a fake debate. You could say it is a debate between the climate deniers and the climate pretenders.

The climate deniers and the climate pretenders are not so different. One group says climate change is a problem that it is fixing, the other says it’s bogus. But climate action is a race against time. To act slowly or to act not at all matters little. Both will bring the exact same result — an unspeakable future of climate catastrophe.

There is also a mainstream consensus that growth is the highest economic goal. But the economy exists in and through nature. Nothing in nature can grow forever and survive. The logic of endless economic growth is the logic of cancer.

You don’t have to look too hard to find the driving force behind this economic suicide pact. You just need to follow the money. Australia’s fossil fuel economy is debasing the environment, but it is also concentrating unheard of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

Noam Chomsky tells us that, “the concentration of wealth yields the concentration of political power,  which in turn gives rise to legislation that accelerates the cycle”. This process is well under way in Australia. The political power of Australia’s 1% has never been greater.

Democracy is corrupted and the planet is plundered under this relationship, in which the government supports the 1% and the 1% supports the government.

It is easier to build a toxic waste dump than a wind farm under Victoria’s renewable energy laws. It is illegal to go bushwalking in New South Wales’s drinking water catchment areas, but coal seam gas companies are allowed to drill inside the boundaries.

Research says burning gas for energy could be as bad for the climate as coal, but Labor trade minister Simon Crean says Australia will become the “Saudi Arabia of gas”.

Writer Guy Pearse says so many new coalmines are planned in Queensland that together they will cause 11 times more carbon pollution than the carbon price is supposed to cut.

Last year, Occupy Wall Street activists said they were protesting because we live in “a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality,  run  our governments”.

The climate movement will also have to develop ways to confront this problem, which applies as much in Australia as it does in the US. It’s a problem of replacing corporate power with real democracy. It’s about replacing an economy based on short-term profit with one capable of restoring and preserving life-giving ecosystems.

As long as the world’s richest 1% keep control over the economy and governments, the ecological crises will worsen.

As for the Labor-Greens carbon price scheme, it is hard to recall a policy that has been subjected to as many ridiculous claims — from sky-high household power bills to covert CIA operations. The hysterical reaction to the scheme from Tony Abbott and big business is similar to the old tale about the elephant scared stiff by the mouse. But no matter how much it stamps and frets, the elephant — the fossil fuel economy — is in no danger.

On the other hand, it is wrong to pretend the carbon price is a giant step forward on the climate. The mouse is just a mouse.

There are several problems with the carbon price, but perhaps the biggest is that it assumes we can solve the climate crisis with the same kind of thinking that got us into it. Carbon trading and carbon offsets offer the hope that we can deal with climate change by extending the market to more parts of nature.

But this approach avoids the bigger issue — an economy that, as Oscar Wilde might say, knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

The proposed carbon price will not reflect real ecological values, which simply cannot be expressed in dollar terms.

Carbon markets are an indirect lever to bring emissions down. But the most important campaigns in Australia today are those that are pushing for direct measures — keeping fossil fuels in the ground, closing existing fossil fuel infrastructure and rolling out renewable energy and other green measures.

To make a real difference, these campaigns will need to go beyond the carbon price and not allow  their goals to be shaped by the needs of an economy that thrives on ever more growth, consumption and profit.


  • There is one way to divorce politicians from the 1% and motivate them to represent the 99%, ‘citizen recall’. Climate and other activists need to push for this change in democracies. If some percentage, X say, of the electorate that voted a particular public representative into office, petitions for the recall of this representative that representative is immediately unseated and a by-election must be held in order to replace the unseated representative.

  • I agree with most of what you said, and said quite well…as would 97% of the world’s climate scientists.  However, although gas emits CO2,  natural gas is about 40% less harmful than coal, so it is a step in the right direction.   Even if  you don’t consider the costs of the harmful effects of coal ( a major cause of climate change and, for example, 30,00 premature deaths/year in the U.S. due to pollution), wind could be less expensive.  I suppose the politicians will get off their butts when the people tire of extreme weather, crop loss, coral reef deaths, etc. etc. etc.  When would that be?  So sad…