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Sep 2

The Climate Movement - The Bad, the Ugly and the Not-So-Good

On Wednesday night I got a call from a friend and fellow climate activist. An anti-carbon tax rally had been called by GetUp, in conjunction with Climate Action Newtown, had called a counter-rally. I managed to attend both and learned quite a bit about that state of the modern climate politics in Australia.

A convoy was planning to travel to Marrickville after local member Anthony Albanese’s “Convoy of No Consequence” comment. It was the latest in a long string of anti-carbon tax demonstrations.

We were disappointed from the start that the pro-action organisers had scheduled the rally to begin an hour before the anti-carbon tax convoy rolled in. The rally was supposed to be finished by 11.30 am and the convoy would kick off at 12. My friend saw this failure to confront as a capitulation to the other side. Rather spontaneously we decided to hang around after the pro-action rally had finished and tentatively made our way up towards the convoy.

It was huge. I’m not sure what the official estimates were but my guess is 300-350, well larger then the 80 or so people that the pro-action side was able to mobilise. It was clear we had lost the numbers game. 

Then we started talking to some of the convoy members. That’s when I realised that the anti-carbon tax people are fucking crazy.

I’ll admit it, I was sceptical of how bad they were. Much of what has been said about them revolves around three main points; they’re old, they’re probably senile, and they will die before the effects of climate change are felt. Personally, I don’t care how old they are. It’s an incredibly lazy argument that fails to confront their position and their politics. Also, I was concerned that many of the people who attended the rallies had genuine concerns, shaped by increasing electricity prices and looming job cuts. These were the types of people I believed the climate movement should orientate towards (and I still do, though more on that later).

Suffice to say, the convoy did not contain these people. No, it consisted of a range of people, mainly climate change deniers, bigots and conspiracy theorists. In saying that, they were able to teach me alot, like how carbon dioxide is a marker of warming and not a cause (wrong), that it’s present in too low amounts to have an effect (wrong), that the medieval warm period was warmer then today (wrong), that the carbon tax is a way to get money from Australians to subsidise the third world and that Malaysian forrests are being cut down to grow hemp which has led to worse land slides (which Bob Brown is somehow to blame for). I was also warned of the dangers of Globalism as posed by Barack Obama and the Pope, while members of the Citizen Electoral Council handed out newspaper claiming Charles Darwin invented natural selection purely to justify eugenics. A sign informed me that “Tolerance Is Our Demise”, itself surrounded by a sea of Australian Flags (all relevant to climate policy). There were a few jibes thrown our way; condescending laughs, did we have jobs, how much tax we paid etc. The only victory I could claim was when a man was forced to apologise after he learned I did in fact have a job and worked for just over the minimum wage. 

Needless to say we didn’t stick around for long. Why would we? There was nothing we could do to convince people of our side. There was barely a way to get a word in. But after all this, arguably the most disappointing thing about yesterday came from our side.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have the numbers of the convoy. The counter-rally was only planned a couple of days in advance, and didn’t have the likes of Alan Jones spruiking it. The distressing part was the politics of the rally. 

The first thing that stood out was the dominance of “Say Yes” campaign material. Let me be clear when I say that “Say Yes” is completely inept. Its sole purpose is not to get good environmental outcomes, but rather support the current government’s carbon pricing policy. The “Say Yes” campaigners were supporting the carbon tax even before it was announced, effectively neutering any power it had. It has given the government a blank cheque, allowing them to produce any climate policy they want without fear of losing the support of the campaign. 

Low and behold, that’s exactly what the Government has done. Under the current Treasury modeling, domestic emissions will continue to rise until 2030, and by 2050 will only be 2% lower then 2000 levels. To make up the remainder of the 80% reduction target, the Government is relying of overseas offsets, a notoriously difficult mechanism to police and one that lets domestic polluters to continue unabated. Compensation to polluters is already expected to deliver them windfall profits. Funding for renewable energy will mainly come in the form of loan guarantees. The problem is that this still relies on the raising of private capital as a prelude to public funding. The withdrawal of private financing will see the collapse of these projects, as has been seen with recent solar and geothermal plants. And this is all before we start looking at the governments commitment to mining, including a doubling of coal exports by 2025 and the massive expansion of gas.

But none of this was brought up at the rally. Instead, we stood there and watch Albanese soak up the praise of a very conservative climate movement. When organisers read out the results of a survey that showed 91% of people wanted the Government to drive towards 100% renewable energy, not a single mention was made of the fact the Government has no such plan. Nor was it mentioned that Treasury modelling shows the majority of Australia’s electricity in 2050 will still be generated by fossil fuels in despite (or perhaps, because of) the carbon price. 

The uncritical nature of the rally let Albanese off the hook completely. His address to the crowd barely mentioned the carbon price other then a few comments on household compensation and some broad statements on climate action. Most of the speech was spent discussing freedom of speech and association, all of which was eaten up by the demonstrators.

This inability to combat the Government on its environmental credentials undermines the movement. Similarily, the movement is stifled on the socio-economic front. The carbon tax sends a clear signal to people that they have to pay the price for our response to climate change. Given the enormous inequalities present in Australia, is it any surprise that so many oppose the carbon price? 

This was highlighted for us in some conversations with some local fire fighters. The men were FBEU members and had all demonstrated against the O’Farrell Governments attacks on public sector worker rights. And whilst they recognised the need to act on climate change, were concerned about potential job loses and price rises. 

The reality is much of the climate movement ignores these concerns. Worst still, some treat them with contempt, speaking of how everyone needs to do there bit. In many ways it is a similar rhetoric used by the Right when they discuss “broadening the tax base” i.e. eroding progressive taxation. The danger here is that the climate movement faces the serious prospect that such ordinary people will be lost to the other side. Given the insanity that side is composed of, that could have consequences far beyond climate politics.

But with every dark cloud there is a silver lining. I was fortunate enough to talk to a couple who had recently returned from Spain. There they had taken a tour of the Gemasolar Concentrated Solar Thermal Plant. Opened just this year, ahead of schedule, the plant is able to generate and store heat energy from the sun. This allows the plant to run continuously for 24 hours. Indeed, the plant is able to maintain consistent output over the peak, noon-10 pm period.

I bring this up because it is this that the climate movement must orient towards. The technology for baseload renewable energy exists. This provides us with a tool to fight back the sceptics who claim renewables can’t produce enough electricity, as well as provide a clear alternative to the coal industry. Furthermore, it gives us a positive message, one that is focuses on job creation and nation-building. It would signal to ordinary peoples that the climate movement wants to build a world focused on meeting the communities needs, rather then putting them at odds. At this point time, such an orientation may be the only thing that can keep us from losing the climate debate.