The public wants clean energy – but this is Australia, where the climate wars never die

27 02 2024 | 09:44Adam Morton / THE GUARDIAN

Voters have made their position clear but our politicians are still not talking about how we can change the way we live and work to ease the climate crisis

The last federal election was less than two years ago but the caravan moves on quickly. With politics dominated by cost-of-living concerns and daily distractions, it’s easy to forget the central role that dissatisfaction with the Coalition’s inaction and doublespeak on the climate crisis played in the result.

It wasn’t the only factor, but an in-depth study found it was the biggest issue in driving voters away from the major parties to independents. It was the second biggest in motivating people who changed their vote to Labor. It stands to reason it was at least as important in the Greens increasing their support and seat count.

We know from this and other data that Australians have backed a historically rapid shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy to limit the climate crisis. Opinion polls are sometimes over interpreted, but there is evidence to suggest the public is ahead of politicians on this.

The basics of mainstream climate science are widely accepted. Australia’s average temperature has already increased by 1.5C in a little over a century, and heatwaves and extreme weather events are becoming more severe.

You would think that this might have triggered a shift in the national discussion to focusing on what the majority of people accept: that changes in how we live and work are inevitable. The key question then becomes how we can make these changes effectively and fairly, and at the speed that’s required.

But this is still Australia, where the climate wars never die. Despite the views of the public, much of the political and media debate continues to frame the climate crisis as a sideshow in which saying you’re committed to addressing the problem is OK, but introducing policies to back that up is treated with significantly more suspicion than doing nothing. There remains an implicit message that still we don’t need to change.

The lead proponent of this view is the federal Coalition, which claims to back a target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, but opposes any policies that could help get there and has none of its own. (No, its vague support for creating a nuclear energy industry that all credible evidence says would be massively expensive and not possible before 2040 does not count. It’s a delay tactic.)

The opposition’s stance is illogical, but reinforced whenever opposition MPs are given media space to attack government climate policies. It is buttressed by the party’s phalanx of media backers, including shock jocks, Seven West Media and News Corp outlets, which run daily stories portraying Labor policies as reckless and damaging. It means the question that should be asked – whether the policies are up to the task of delivering a change that nearly everyone in the parliament claims to support – struggles to get a look in.

That News Corp is anti-climate action is hardly a blinding insight, but it’s worth raising because it continues to skew the debate. The people it elevates, particularly from fossil fuel lobby groups, get picked up and echoed elsewhere. And the government internalises the framing even while the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, oversees plans for an ambitious clean energy expansion.

For those who watched the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai in December, the most notable climate discussion in Australia so far this year is one that isn’t being had. It’s now two months since nearly 200 countries backed a call for the world to transition away from fossil fuels. It might sound a statement of the obvious, but it hadn’t happened before.

The Dubai text said the transition should happen in line with what scientists say is necessary, including accelerating action “in this critical decade”. It doesn’t bind anyone to anything, but the deal sends another important message to major institutional investors managing trillions of dollars in assets about where they should be directing their money if they want to remain profitable in the decades ahead.

Given Australia is the world’s third biggest fossil fuel exporter, logic suggests it might have triggered a serious discussion from the prime minister down of what this will mean for the country. There’s been no sign of that to date.

The government is doing more work on climate at home than it is sometimes credited with, including a renewable energy underwriting program, the belated introduction of a vehicle emissions standard to encourage cleaner cars and establishing a net zero authority. Anthony Albanese last week flagged an upcoming “think big” announcement of multi-billion dollar support for new green energy industries. The 2035 emissions reduction target, due to be announced in the next year, will be the key test of how ambitious the prime minister is prepared to be.

Wherever it lands, these positive steps risk being drowned out if Labor supports major new gas export developments that have the potential to add far more to global emissions than can be avoided through cuts at home. The government is doing work on a “future gas strategy”, but there has been no suggestion projects will be stopped on climate grounds.

Contrast this with the US, where Joe Biden has announced a pause on all pending liquified natural gas export licence decisions on the grounds that it is contributing to the climate crisis, which he called “the existential threat of our time”.

There is politics in Biden’s decision – he needs progressive democrats to vote for him if he is to beat Donald Trump – and his language has been seen by some as hypocritical given his administration has already approved a massive gas export expansion. But even with these caveats, the divide on this issue between Australia and its major ally is marked.

The Australian position is, of course, familiar: that nothing on gas needs to change, at least not for now. It’s going to be interesting to see how long that can be maintained. And, with an election not far away, it will be interesting to check in again with voters to see what they think.

Cover photo: The opposition has long been out of step with public opinion about the climate crisis but what’s the government’s excuse? Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images