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Climate change in an election year: Out of the cave

Climate change in an election year: Out of the cave

Out of the cave: climate change in an election year

Australia crawls slowly out of the cave when it comes to the politics surrounding climate change.

To mix the cave metaphor, we’ve passed peak troglodyte.

The darkness has been pierced by light. Troglodytes still growl, glower, but those who deny or ignore the science are losing their power.

The politics of climate change are still shaped by skeptical language. The troglodyte effect is less powerful in this election year than for the past 15 years.

The crawl from the cave shows shifts in the political spectrum. This spectrum can be described as a transition from denial and scepticism to acceptance of science. The spectrum can be extended beyond acceptance to include belief or action.

Denialists think global warming isn’t happening or simply ignore it, while the sceptics always want more convincing evidence.

The denialist–sceptic forces have pushed Australia into the policy cave with versions of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s 2009 line that climate change is ‘absolute crap’. Abbott wrote that warming might be beneficial for us. Battlelines, and there’s no point imposing ‘certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future’.

Note that the formal position of Australia’s political parties all along has been to accept the science on the warming of the planet. In politics, though, accepting a policy position doesn’t confer priority or action.

Our problem was the leap beyond acceptance to the belief stage. Understanding becomes reality when it is reached by belief. In politics, belief changes priorities, shifts policy, and demands cash. Action is what happens.

This is a wicked problem that requires action. It is compounded by the pressure of the mining industry, and the noise of Murdoch’s media empire.

We’ve been stuck in the ignore deny cave because Australia has an Superpower of emissions, standing with Russia as well as Saudi Arabia among the greatest exportersFossil fuels.

The resource blessing is possible ‘coal curse’. Because the fossil fuel industry wants to make this cave comfortable, ‘grip on Australian hearts and minds’. Mining has muscle to match its riches—throwing its weight against Kevin Rudd and his mining tax in 2010 and killing the Hawke government’s land-rights legislationIn the 1980s.

The miners, our most powerful industry, seldom have to make an overt entry into the political ring; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia is there every day.

News Corp’s defining voice is the national broadsheet, The AustralianSky News does the TV ranting, while the tabloids of the capital do the yapping. The empire is now. ReachSetting up an echo chamberThat Touch the earsEach politician. The rest Australia can either take or leave. The Australian, but for Canberra it’s a constant read in the same way the ABC is a constant soundtrack.

The AustralianIt editorializes that it accepts the science behind global warming. As Murdoch has long maintained, ‘The planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.’

Consistently, the publication reflects a scepticism about scientists and environmentalists. The tag ‘covert denialism’Pinned The AustralianRobert Manne in 2011 and still fits with the facts.

The Weekend Australian of 15–16 January shows how covert denialism works. On page 8, an AFP piece by a Washington correspondent states that the nine years spanning 2013–2021 rank among the 10 hottestOn:

The impacts have been increasingly felt in recent years—including record-shattering wildfires across Australia and Siberia, a once-in-1,000-years heatwave in North America and extreme rainfall that caused massive flooding in Asia, Africa, the US and Europe.

Although there is a lot of evidence, the paper can still turn the temperature. Turn to the op-eds published in the ‘Inquirer’ section for the tonal change.

On the first page, environment editor Graham Lloyd has the lead item on how Australia is weathering the climate storm: ‘Australia has benefited from the effects of two La Nina years, much to the chagrin of climate catastrophists’. Those catastrophists, Lloyd argues in his first paragraph, faced ‘an inconvenient set of realities’ because weather systems plunged Australia’s average temperatures in 2021 to the lowest levels in a decade.

By the third paragraph, things get lyrical: ‘[N]ature is not broken, the natural cycles continue to operate and that resilience persists on land and at sea.’

Deeper into the item, Lloyd quotes from the US study that made the news pages, noting the finding that global average temperatures last year were 1.1°C warmer than the late 19th century average, at the start of the industrial revolution.

Such science gets a cold shower when you turn the page to find a headline about ‘50 years of climate panic’, by Bjorn Lomborg, whose latest book is False Alarm: How climate panic costs us trillions and hurts the poor while failing to fix the planet.

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Lomborg, too, starts by scorning those who fear ‘climate catastrophe’, deriding ‘panic and poor policies’ that are fuelled by ‘overblown predictions and emotional forecasts’ about the planet’s ‘last chance’. His first paragraph puts quotation marks around ‘climate catastrophe’ and ‘catastrophic’, but they don’t indicate irony or sarcasm so much as define the target to be hit. Classic stuff from The Australian’s favourite ‘skeptical environmentalist’, who has been penning variations on the same column for two decades: don’t worry, get smart, spend on adaptation and innovation.

Australia is emerging out of the cave for many reasons. News Corp even did an editorial campaignLast year, the goal was to achieve zero emissions. Murdoch’s top editor called it an ‘evolution’it was a policy, but it had an a mea culpa tinge.

Lowy Institute polls indicate that Murdoch’s empire is on the verge of catching up to the rest Australia. Climate concern. Expect the covert denial to slow down. Perhaps.

After 15 years of argy-bargy, our main parties of government—Liberal and Labor—are closer on climate policy than they have been since the 2007 election, when they agreed on the need for an emissions trading scheme. (A counterfactual: John Howard would have held his seat in government in 2007 if he had been elected to it. we’d have got the ETS(It was not as deep as the cave.

Scott Morrison got the coalition’s agreement to Net-zero greenhouse gases emissions by 2050. Governments receive little credit for what doesn’t happen (especially internal government disasters), so the prime minister doesn’t get much cachet for edging the Libs and Nationals out of the cave. ScoMo was more that a political pirouette. ScoMo performed bomb disposal while ski-gliding down the mountain.

Morrison claimed that the policy passed the Nats party room by only two votes. Only two votes are needed to disintegrate the coalition. ‘I did have to put it on the line,’ the prime minister notes, ‘and it was very close.’  The National Party is roiled but roughly reconciled, especially by promises of cash rewards for the bush.

Australia is about to squeeze two political years into one.

The first ‘year’ will be bookended by the budget on 29 March and the federal election in May. Morrison needs every day he can get, so I’m sticking with The predictionThe election will take place on 21 May, which is the last day for voting. House of Representatives and half-Senate poll.

The Liberals can’t wedge Labor on climate policy as they did in the 2019 election. Both parties are too close together.

Labor has been suffering the pain of having its vote taken from the left-leaning Greens for a long time. Now, the Libs are facing a similar test in nominally stable seats, being attacked by independents. Although the government claims that the independents are coming to the left, they actually reflect the centre of public opinion on climate.

Whether Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese, Labor or Liberal, the government that gets to work in June will have to do more than accept the science—it will have to believe and act.

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