Australians want environmental action.
As Katharine Murphy explained a few weeks back, “private polling conducted for the environment movement and for the major parties suggests community concern about climate change is currently sitting at levels not seen since the federal election cycle in 2007”.
A survey commissioned by the Australia Institute showed the majority of voters wanted to mobilise on climate “like they mobilised everyone during the world wars”. That result was consistent around Australia, with 57% of Queenslanders and 60% of Victorians agreeing that the country faced an emergency.
The ABC Vote Compass found the environment ranked as the most important issue by 29% of respondents, up from 9% in 2016.
Why, then, aren’t we seeing the parties in a bidding war to address such concerns?
We know that if focus groups returned equivalent anxieties about refugees, the campaign would devolve into a contest to formulate new techniques for border cruelty.
We’ve all seen that movie before.
In 2013, Tony Abbott made the three-word slogan “stop the boats” central to his bid for election.
Kevin Rudd desperately sought to counter by introducing the grotesque PNG solution, which incarcerated new boat arrivals on Manus Island and prohibited refugees from ever settling in Australia.
He described it, correctly, as “a very hardline decision” – and yet at the time only 14% of Australians had nominated asylum seekers as one of the three most important issues determining their vote.
If that tiny proportion could radically alter refugee policy at the election, why hasn’t the support of 53% of voters for a WWII-style climate mobilisation dramatically reshaped the 2019 contest?
As we head to the polls, neither major party is promising anything like the “emergency action” the majority of Australians wants.
The Coalition shows more enthusiasm for ridiculous fulminations against electric cars than any serious attempt to address global warming. As for Labor, Shorten’s policies represent a significant step back from the (inadequate) measures previously proposed by Gillard and Rudd. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Shane Wright rightly calls the ALP platform “as much an effort to neutralise the political attack as to find ways to truly reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions”.
The reluctance of politicians to propose real environmental action might seem bizarre, given a context where that action would be not only right but also popular.
But the comparison with refugees illustrates the peculiar dynamic of climate politics.
Perversely, asylum seekers became such a preoccupation for both parties because, in one sense, border security was never a significant issue in Australia.
Jordan houses nearly three million refugees; Pakistan, 1.4 million. Precisely because the refugee numbers arriving in this country were, in relative terms, utterly minuscule, governments could deliver “solutions” (albeit at great financial cost and with tremendous cruelty).
Addressing the environmental crisis isn’t as easy as beating up on defenceless asylum seekers. A meaningful response entails challenging powerful vested interests.
In particular, you can’t decarbonise an economy without defeating the corporations whose business practices depend on the despoliation of the planet.
A recent study noted that just a hundred companies were responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. But those companies include some of the most significant corporate entities in the world – and mainstream politicians regard going toe to toe with multinational capital as “courageous” in the Humphrey Appleby sense of the word.
To put it another way, in our system, the wishes of the voters don’t necessarily prevail. Think of the war in Afghanistan and how it dragged on and on, even though, for years, every survey showed most Australians wanted the troops brought home.
What mattered then was not popular opinion but the elite consensus in support of the war. The same might be said about climate. Ordinary people want radical policies but corporate Australia doesn‘t.
In Britain, hundreds of environmental protesters have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience organised by Extinction Rebellion.
“We are facing an unprecedented global emergency,” ER’s manifesto reads. “Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”
The group calls for governments to declare a “climate and ecological emergency”. But it also demands a “citizen’s assembly”, on the basis that professional politicians have proved themselves incapable of addressing the crisis.
Let’s say it again: Australians want environmental action.
We can’t afford more delays. .The majority of carbon emissions from fossil fuels have entered the atmosphere in the last 25 to 30 years – that is, during the period in which global warming was understood and governments were supposedly fighting it.
Extinction Rebellion’s now an international movement, with an Australian group signing up those prepared to embrace civil disobedience, up to and including being arrested.
It’s election season, the one period in which politicians supposedly listen, and there’s still no sign of the climate message getting through. We desperately need a people’s movement. As Tim Winton wrote in the Guardian on the weekend, “Enough cowardice. Enough bullshit. Time for action.”
Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist