10 July 2012

A sober assessment of our situation (1)

by David Spratt 

Where we are   [Part 1 in a series]

1.1 Introduction

In the last five years, Australia has signed the Kyoto Protocol, legislated a price on greenhouse gas emissions, established a Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), and more than doubled the Renewable Energy Target (RET) to 20 per cent of electricity production by 2020. The Contracts for Closure of around 2GW of dirty coal power is due to be resolved soon. Household electricity demand is falling and the wholesale price has dropped substantially. Energy efficiency measures, installed household solar PV and higher prices have already reduced demand by the equivalent of Hazelwood power station’s full capacity.
     The Greens’ vote and influence has increased, the Transition Towns and sustainability movements are growing, and a formidable community campaign against coal seam gas is gaining significant political power. The coal industry in Queensland is a hot topic. The cost of renewable energy, especially PV solar, is falling quickly and household rooftop solar is already grid competitive. Community support for replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy is strong.

     Yet there is “exhaustion” amongst many people and organisations working for strong action on climate, and a growing sense that the problem has become “too big” to solve quickly enough.
     One factor is Australia’s continuing failure to build policy on a sound scientific footing: the bipartisan goal of reducing emissions below 1990 levels by 5 per cent by 2020 (largely by buying foreign offsets) is our nation’s contribution to a global political failure than now has global warming by century’s end heading to 4.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.  The gap between the science and the politics – between the necessary and the “possible” – continues to widen at an alarming rate.
     A second factor affecting morale is the evidence that on many fronts we are going backwards, as conservative State governments decimate climate and energy programmes, and federal Labor oversees a huge expansion of coal mining whose total emissions will dwarf the proposed reductions from carbon pollution pricing. Energy for campaigning is driven by a sense of current progress and future opportunity; without them momentum and morale can fall away.
     A third factor is the state of the electorate. Despite increasing GDP per capita (albeit spread unevenly), people are feeling insecure about their jobs, the cost of living, the future, and the pace of change, and seem less concerned about the big and moral questions.

1.2 Engaging a politically detached electorate

As the rate of change accelerates (what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity” because, “like liquid, none of the consecutive forms of social life is able to maintain its shape for long”), people find it hard to keep up: globalisation and the “two-speed economy”; the digital revolution at home and at work; less secure employment and the death of “life-long” skills and professions. The shadow of the global financial crisis of 2008 is lengthening and becoming more threatening. It’s all revolving too fast, so there is a retreat to the safety of home, family and friends. And solace in consumption, because as collectivities and old identities have broken down, culture is fashioned to fit individual freedom of choice and, as Bauman says, is “engaged in laying down temptations, luring and seducing, sowing and planting new needs and desires, a demand for constant change, serving the turnover-oriented consumer market.” But such consumption does not satisfy, but engenders only a new fear of being left behind. Fashion is a game of catch-up you can never win.
      People have become more detached from politics, with only 39 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 saying democracy is better than other forms of government. “Whatever”. This is disturbing but unsurprising as identity becomes more individualised and people more self-obsessed. Recent polling shows Australians are not concerned with big moral issues, the state of the planet, and rich and wrong, but with their daily lives. One survey concluded that: “Food, health, crime, safety and rights to basic public services – the tangible things that people confront on a daily basis – are dominant national concerns.  What we see in these results is a picture of a relatively conservative society concerned with local issues that influence its members' daily lives.''
     Climate campaign strategy and messages have not dealt with this reality, as analysed by Daniel Voronoff in The real climate message is in the shadows. It’s time to shine the light. and in Brightsiding: Rethinking climate communication and engagement, because:
All the lines of evidence show that framing climate change as an environmental threat is obsolete when talking to conservatives. We need a frame that can reach across the divide of world-views and speak to common values. That frame is climate change as a threat to health, well-being and livelihood. It is a frame that projects our movement as the preservers and protectors of life: yours, your family’s, your community’s, your country’s. It is a frame that says – in this ever-changing world, a world of threats that seem insurmountable – that you, everyone, have a role to play in making it safe again, bringing security, bequeathing certainty.
We have failed to bring along with us a politically detached and insecure electorate whose immediate interest in climate action has declined. Widespread recognition of a problem, that someone should do something about, is coupled with uncertainty over who and how and what. This has resulted in climate change being relegated to the ‘too hard basket’ and collectively pushed to one side. That change has made the rise of anti-climate-action conservative governments easier. 

1.3 Taking climate off the agenda

Just as the federal carbon price/CEFC legislation comes into force, both major political parties in Australia have taken global warming off the agenda, narrowly framing the legislation as a fiscal issue: a “bad” carbon tax versus “good” compensation. Mark Latham observes that: “Climate change has become the issue that dare not speak its name in Labor circles.” Opposition leader Tony Abbott wants to talk about global warming only to deny it. His assault on carbon action is a dog whistle for that half of the population which thinks that global warming is either not happening or not human caused.
     New conservative governments in east coast States have moved quickly to systematically unwind climate and renewable energy policies, and then speak no more on the subject. Their actions should bury the idea that “clean energy” is post-partisan politics.  At State level, the big parties on both sides of politics are united in not making global warming any sort of priority. It would be a good bet that the conclusion that Labor will draw from the current period is to not make climate an issue from now on. There is evidence that the new conservative State governments are over-reaching and providing opportunities for a fight-back on issues including climate and environment (as happened when the NSW attempted to trash the household PV feed-in tariff). The electorate appears not to be aware of the impact of many of these regressive policies.
     The increasingly vicious, base character of politics in Australia – and the climate and refugee debates in particular – is turning more people off politics. Listening to hypocritical politicians from the major parties cry crocodile tears for drowning refugees is enough to make one puke. And parliamentary politics is more and more like that. It’s not surprising people don’t want to know about climate change and what might be done about it when they are assailed by Alan Jones’ “Ju-liar”, Andrew Bolt’s climate–culture war diatribes, Tony Abbott’s relentlessly negative, abusive language and Gillard’s zombie-like delivery on climate. Facebook is more comforting that politics in the old media. When media coverage about climate is little more than an uncritical repetition of Abbott’s deceitful daily inventive about carbon taxes ruining everything, its hardly surprising people don’t want to engage.
     What is even more disturbing is the evidence in 2012 that many of the larger organisations  who have been concerned about winning better climate policy also seem to have taken climate off the public agenda or given for now. Many big groups campaigned in 2011 under the “Say Yes” banner for the carbon price, which was legislated at the end of that year.  That was the start of a new battle, but in 2012 most of those objectively disappeared from the public discourse, leaving Labor and the Greens alone to fight it out against the opposition, the miners, the Murdoch press, the deniers, the shock jocks and all and sundry. To be honest, I have seen hardly a peep in the media in defence of climate action from the ACTU or unions, the aid and welfare sectors, or many of the big eNGOs. I can see only four explanations, all disturbing. Some ran for cover because it got too difficult or they had gotten what they wanted (e.g welfare lobby); some didn’t understand the strategic need to continue fighting it out in public; the media and communications professional in those organisation were not up to the job; or these organisations and their campaigners were simply “exhausted”. All four point to management failure.
1.4 Conservative victories

In the east coast States, conservatives won power either without releasing environment or climate policies, or with few commitments. There was not the political capacity to hold them to account on, or direct public concern towards, these issues. The conservatives were able to slide to victory on the issues of Labor government incompetence and arrogance, without environment or climate or a number of other specific issues coming into focus.
     Tony Abbott has been bolder, with commitments to abolish the carbon and mining taxes, the CEFC and the Climate Change department. The only big thing untouched so far is the RET.
     Bookmakers and punters have the likelihood of an Abbott victory currently at 80–85%, though that may change if Gillard goes. If present polls hold, it is possible for conservatives to win control of the Senate (more so with Labor’s new deal to preference the anti-union, anti-gay, anti-women Family First ahead of The Greens in the Senate), and it would be unwise to think Abbott would not go to a double dissolution if required. Nor can we assume that a defeated Labor Party would stand by all of its climate legislation.
     With Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, Labor cannot save itself. (Looking at only national poll figures hides a more complex picture: federal Labor is doing OK in the southern states and may not suffer a net loss of seats there, but things are very grim in NSW and Queensland.)  It’s situation is diabolical because people have stopped listening to the prime minister. Labor’s only other option for PM has been trashed by its own stupidity, and they do not know what to do. 

1.5 The emperor has no clothes

My estimate is that there is not a marginal federal coalition seat where the local member fears that their party’s climate delay-and-deny stance might cost them the seat.  On the other hand, there are Labor seats that will likely be lost because of the opposition’s successful fear campaign on a range of issues, including climate. The harsh reality is that conservatives have denied, defied, and crucified our climate action goals and sweep to power.
     In general terms, the climate movement (eNGOs, other sectors and community campaigns) have been shown not to wield substantial political and electoral power in the current period. One sign was the 2010 federal election, where both major parties campaigned on doing nothing on climate, and the carbon price was off the agenda.
     Public concern about climate appears to be waning: more people in Australia see it as less important, or less urgent, or do not believe government actions will work. A Lowy Institute poll in June 2011 showed that just 41 per cent of those polled agreed with the statement, "Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs" down from 68 per cent in 2006.
     A study released in April 2012 found that environment has dwindled into a ''middling'' issue that many people do not have strong feelings about: “People's concerns about industrial pollution, climate change, renewable energy and depletion of energy resources plummeted when compared with an identical study in 2007, with only logging and habitat destruction remaining among the top 25 issues of concern to Australians. In 2007, environmental sustainability was the only set of global issues that was ranked as highly important. When the same questions were repeated last year, no global issues appeared among the nation's top concerns.”

1.6 The good and the bad

Much of the climate movement’s resources have been devoted to energy issues: the good and the bad. Though not strictly focussed on the “climate” impacts, the campaign against coal seam gas has been very successful in mobilising community action, especially in NSW and Queensland. Political pressure has forced local councils to act, and state MPs are feeling the pain. Whether this momentum could or will be translated into more overt climate campaigning is unclear, but objectively we have the same aims of stopping the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, even though the narratives differ.
      Campaigning about the rapid expansion of coal exports has been largely unsuccessfully so far, but there is a renewed commitment to funding and expanding the effort, particularly in Queensland with the issue of coal versus the Great Barrier Reef now firmly established as an issue of public  concern. The rabid reaction to the release in early 2012 of Greenpeace’s coal campaign, and to the recent UNESCO report, are instructive as the centrality of the coal export issue.
     Much energy has been put into renewables campaigning and community education, but so far little new and concrete has been achieved. Goals have shifted over time and between campaigns – direct investment, feed-in tariffs (FiTs), finance, extending the RET, building medium-scale community projects – with little consistency. The RET goes back to the Howard period and strengthening it (in 2009) was a Labor pledge in opposition, and State FiTs are now being wound back.  Campaigning for large-scale FiTs has not brought big results so far, nor has direct investment as Solar Flagships and State programmes have suffered from constant postponement and funding reductions. Most of the momentum has come from the RET, and increasing competitiveness, PV in particular.
     The most concrete results apart from energy efficiency and improving the RET – carbon price, CEFC and Contracts for Closure – are the consequence of hard work by eNGOs and activists, but their existence in legislation is due to the serendipity of the Greens winning a lower house seat and the balance of power in 2010. Both major parties had gone into that election with pathetic climate policies, and it looked like the climate movement’s work was about to achieve a big fat zero. But community campaigning and the Hazelwood issue did contribute substantially to Adam Bandt’s breakthrough success in the lower house seat of Melbourne in 2010, where the single most prominent message in his campaign was: “I will not backflip on climate”. 

1.7 Community climate groups and eNGOs  
Community climate groups do not in general appear to be in good shape. Some are struggling to exist, some have closed down, others are growing, but overall their reach does not seem to be increasing. Most suburban areas of the big cities have no community climate groups. Community climate campaigning has generally not reached or consistently engaged a critical mass of people sufficient to bring consistent fear into politician’s calculations about climate in their electorate. A good deal of community education and engagement has infrequently resulted in specific and substantial policy victories.
     Community groups are often conflicted between overt political campaigning and engaging in the personal–community sustainability end of the spectrum. Transition Towns and sustainability groups far exceed in size climate community groups with some political focus, many times over. But few Transition Towns and sustainability groups have overt political influence on climate issues on their agendas.
     The influence of the environment NGOs probably reached its highpoint in 2007 with Labor in opposition wanting to build electoral support. Divisions over the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2008-9 and the role of selected groups (banded together as the Southern Cross Climate Coalition) in endorsing a bad policy caused a significant split and the end of the Mittagong Forum. Some groups appear to be doing little more than running cover for Labor, and failed to work hard for higher aspirations, for example on the carbon price package. The Say Yes campaign in 2011 was mediocre, and had little impact. Most of the outcomes of the multi-party climate change committee were driven by its parliamentary members. However, two eNGOs (ACF and EV) contributed significantly to deliberations on the CEFC, and on getting Contracts for Closure onto the agenda. Claims by a myriad of others about their role and influence are debatable.
     Many people professionally engaged in the issue and others who have a reasonable understanding appear depressed and/or exhausted. I am sure that most of us who devote a large amount of our effort to climate campaigning feel like that at times. There seems to be a sense that the climate issue is "too big" for individuals, or for the society as it currently functions. Elephants in the room (such as the likelihood of an Abbott victory and a sober situational analysis) are too often ignored or trivialised, as happened at the recent 2012 grassroots summit in Sydney in April and the 2012 CANA conference in May.

1.8 Cognitive dissonance

Globally, and in Australia, the gap between the action required for a safe climate and what is actually being done is growing wider at an alarming rate. Nothing is spoken about any of this. Public leadership in Australia on climate is thin. Ask friends to identify who they could name as public figures in Australia who have shown courageous and consistent public leadership on climate. Some will say Christine Milne. and then struggle for another name.
     The problem is now so big and action required is so far outside business- and politics-as-usual that for most of the climate movement the only way to be “relevant” is to not describe the problem as it is, and not describe the scale and urgency of the solutions.   We have achieved a collective cognitive dissonance where the real challenge we face is excluded from discourse. This is our Climate Policy Paradigm.
     Most eNGOs and activists consciously seek not to specifically engage about the scale of the problem and the urgency of the action required because it is not an immediately winnable goal or kosher inside the political beltway and in the daily news cycle. This Catch-22 means that what really needs to be done is rarely articulated. It’s pretty crazy when you know (on the present political and economic settings) that we are heading towards an apocalypse and the public discourse is so deluded that you are excluded or marginalised for saying so.
     US environmentalist and former deputy director of Greenpeace USA, Ken Ward, describes the problem:
There are powerful arguments against the anything-is-better-than-nothing philosophy, but there is an even more basic problem with our "policy-first" approach. The world can only draw back from the climate tipping point by transformative political action.. (yet) For twenty years we have approached the problem by pre-negotiating with ourselves on behalf of our opposition. We don't think about it in those terms, but that is what climate policy is all about. We calculate what concessions are necessary to placate whichever interest, power or nation is thought must be mollified, and then devise a scheme to fit within those limits… Over decades, layers of accommodation and polite behavior have built up by accretion, while our rough edges have been worn down. The net result is a worldview – we may call it the "Climate Policy Paradigm" – that is so universally accepted that it goes unnoticed, yet its power is so great that we have abandoned the precautionary principle, environmentalism's central guide for action, with barely a murmur when the two came in conflict.

Read Part 2: How we got to here
Read Part 3: Challenges