As global surface temperatures have plateaued over recent years (a trend that is still consistent with the fact the globe is warming), the public conversation over climate change has stagnated as well. Australia has been bogged down in a rhetorical battleground, with each side of politics entrenching themselves across from one another, trying to make small gains for themselves but ultimately creating a political no-man’s land in between them. In a bicameral democracy which often requires widespread agreement and compromise across the political spectrum to achieve progress, Australia’s climate policy has lagged behind the rest of the world as a result.
When Clive Palmer, flanked by Al Gore at a press conference yesterday, announced his party’s positions on a suite of climate policies ahead of the start of the new Senate in which he holds the balance of power, he broke the stalemate and offered an alternative direction. Palmer declared that he would oppose Tony Abbott’s plans to scrap the the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and dilute the Renewable Energy Target. He would also disagree with the government’s attempts to abolish the independent Climate Change Authority.
But the critical announcement was that his support for getting rid of the carbon tax depended on whether the government would force energy providers to pass on the benefits they would receive from the tax’s repeal on to households. One of the main concerns involved in repealing the tax was that it would only benefit energy companies, not families themselves; Palmer is making sure that scenario does not happen. However it was Palmer’s other announcement – that he would push for Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) synced up with our major trading partners as an alternative to the carbon price – that really hits home when it comes to his relevance to the overall political conversation over climate change.
In Australia, much like the US, public discussions over climate change often involve bickering about the science behind it. If the evidence of global warming itself isn’t being called into question, or the fact that it is man-made after all, it is often the significance of the threat it poses that gets scrutinised (especially in the media). Yet elsewhere in the world, particularly across Europe and Japan, the discussion isn’t so much about whether or not the science is debatable, but on how to react to the evidence (for more on this, see my article on climate change in the global media). For people in those places, the (scientific) jury is out on climate change – it is, for them, a real problem that requires our attention. All that needs to be debated is how we should respond.
It is in this respect that Australia’s political conversation over climate change is stunted. Conservatives still try to paint the picture of global warming as if it were a quaint little environmental problem that only tree-hugging hippies and latte-sipping hipsters care about and that only justifies a wishy-washy policy like Direct Action. Not the serious threat to national – and international – security that it actually poses. “Real world” problems like how many jobs are being created or how well defended our air force is are more deserving of our attention. By coming out alongside Al Gore and saying that, although he doesn’t like the carbon tax, Clive Palmer still thinks there needs to be an appropriate way to address the issue of global warming, he may effectively change the dynamic of conservatives’ participation in the climate change debate.
For a mining magnate whose entry into national politics looked as suspect as Gina Rinehart’s into the country’s media, and who vehemently opposed the carbon tax, the suggestion of supporting an ETS is a big deal. But it is nothing out of the ordinary. Surveys repeatedly show that the business sector believes Australia has a role to play in tackling climate change and its preferred method of doing so is through an ETS. This is an indication that conservative elements of society do have avenues to support climate action in ways that harm them less. In fact, it is in their best interests to actually engage positively in the climate conversation now, to maximise their future gains from the scenario and minimise potential risks and consequences.
If they continue to poo poo the science and let the parallel discussion on how to act to combat climate change be dominated by the Left, they will face bigger economic and managerial costs when climate change becomes more obvious a problem and people begin to demand more climate action. It is effectively a matter of collective bargaining, and if they won’t even come to the negotiating table now they will lose out in the long run. Perhaps Clive Palmer has realised this.