This election, are the teals ready to take on the fossil fuel lobby that’s captured the major parties?
Here’s a gotcha question for an intrepid journalist to put in the final moments of the campaign: Mr Morrison, Mr Albanese, why are you killing the Great Barrier Reef? Unlike other gotchas, the query wouldn’t simply test the leaders’ powers of recall.
It would go to the issue most likely to puzzle historians of tomorrow, namely: why an election preceded by catastrophic fires and floods hasn’t centred on the future to which both parties are committing us.
Scientists say that the LNP’s policies align with global warming of well over three degrees. In other words, according to the best available science, Scott Morrison’s policies mean catastrophic heatwaves becoming yearly events – and the end of the already-bleaching Great Barrier Reef. As for Labor, its plan equates to a two-degree increase, which would bring intense heat events every three years (rather than annually). Under Albanese, the reef will still die – though perhaps at a slightly slower rate.
For those covering the election as a horse race, the similarity between the parties’ platforms effectively neutralises global warming as a controversy, which perhaps explains why journalists don’t bring to climate the ferocity we’ve seen unleashed over brain freezes and other gaffes.
But if we’re to avoid the normalisation of the disaster, the coverage of the environment needs far more mongrel.
In a remarkable recent investigation, the Guardian revealed the biggest fossil fuel companies around the world to be planning vast expansions of their operations, allocating an astonishing $103m each day for the rest of the decade to opening fresh sources of oil and gas.
As Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor write in this report, “these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating,” with their investments only becoming profitable if governments fail to quickly bring down emissions.
What makes these oil and gas majors so confident? Think about what happened after the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26). The invasion of Ukraine disrupted energy markets, boosted fuel prices, and sent world leaders scurrying for alternatives to Russian gas and oil.
Joe Biden might have campaigned on climate action but, after Ukraine, he’s released massive quantities of crude oil from American reserves while urging companies to ramp up their production.
That’s the context in which Matt Canavan, the LNP’s senator given to saying the quiet part loud, declared net zero by 2050 “all over bar the shouting”.
Or consider the heatwave engulfing India and Pakistan. Over 1.5 billion people have been enduring temperatures above 45 degrees in what climate scientists called a terrifying glimpse of the future.
“We are living in hell,” one resident of Pakistan’s Balochistan region told the Guardian.
The extreme temperatures in what should have been spring scorched wheat crops, incinerated landfills, sent birds falling from the sky and killed untold numbers of people in both nations.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s minister for climate, talks of an “existential crisis”, with scores of temperature-related emergencies throughout the region.
Yet here’s the thing. The daytime temperatures pushing the limits of human survivability have made air conditioning a necessity – and the need for electricity has, in turn, spurred a significantly increased demand for coal.
It’s a ghastly illustration of how the catastrophes created by fossil fuels can increase reliance on those same energy sources. The fossil fuel corporations aren’t bothered by pledges of future climate action – it seems to me they’re confident that, as the crisis spreads, cascading disasters will bring governments sidling back to comforting hits of oil, gas and coal like so many incorrigible junkies.
That’s why, as well as interrogating climate projections, we need a focus on what politicians intend to do right here, right now.
For instance, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has repeatedly called on political leaders to cancel any future coal projects as the necessary first step to avoiding disaster. At Cop26, over 40 countries pledged an end to investment in new coal power generation and agreed to wind back the use of coal during the 2030s.
The Morrison government, naturally, refused to sign – a stance that Albanese subsequently backed. In fact, both parties now promise to support new coalmines, something entirely at odds with the recommendations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the UN.
Of course, with global warming now so apparent, every politician must pay at least lip service to addressing it. Hence the need to hold their feet to the fire.
Think about Tim Wilson, a man currently touting himself to the good burghers of Goldstein as an MP “protecting our precious environment”.
Every time Wilson appears in public, journalists should confront him with his record, pointing out that, as director of climate change policy at the Institute of Public Affairs in 2012, he lauded the climate sceptic Ian Plimer as a “straight shooter” and, separately, urged the abandonment of the Kyoto treaty, arguing Australia was shouldering an unfair burden after other countries abandoned the deal.
Wilson was recently quoted in the Age as saying he has always had an “open mind” on climate science and “like everybody I’ve been on a journey with this. I’m not trying to pretend otherwise.” Does that mean he now thinks that he was wrong? If so, let’s hear him apologise. Or has Wilson calculated, like the fossil fuel companies themselves, that today airy environmental promises will serve him better than Plimer-style denialism?
Nor should Wilson’s main challenger, Zoe Daniel, escape scrutiny.
To their credit, Daniel and the other independents have put climate front and centre in their campaigns. Yet the teal project depends on presenting a platform sufficiently moderate for voters who once might have plumped for a Liberal wet. As Allegra Spender, the independent running for Wentworth explained, “[this seat] is not radical and I am not a radical at all.”
On that basis, the veteran journalist Barrie Cassidy tweeted about the prospect of “inserting women from the sensible centre” into the political process.
That would make more sense had the Australian climate debate been polarised between two equally misguided extremes. But that’s not the problem at all. On the contrary, the major parties stand shoulder-to-shoulder behind commitments at odds with what the IPCC says we require.
We’ve had plenty of “sensible centrism” – climate action now depends on a willingness to fight. On paper, the teals’ pledges look much better than those offered by the majors. They’d theoretically allow parts of the Great Barrier Reef to survive.
But implementing their program would mean taking on the fossil fuel lobby that’s captured the major parties. It would mean a battle against the corporate giants that are betting on humanity’s failure.
Are the teals prepared for that kind of struggle? Maybe that’s a rude question. But in the last days before a crucial climate election, we can’t worry about being polite.
In a decade’s time, no one will care whether Albanese could recite all six points of a Labor policy. But, unless something changes, the blackened, dead coral off the coast of Queensland will provide a permanent reminder of the choices made in 2022.
Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist | Guardian