Lessons learned in the climate wars

I couldn’t sleep after watching last night’s Four Corners about the sorry tale that was Australia’s climate wars over the last decade. It is a tale of a narrow window of political opportunity for serious climate action that was wasted. 

As background, I have been an environmental and then climate campaigner since I was in high school; for more than twenty years. In 2005 I took a year off my Arts/ Law degree at Sydney Uni to work full time as the National Union of Students’ Environment Officer and coordinate the Australian Student Environment Network. At the end of that year, I attended the UN climate talks in Montreal, where I started working on an idea for a broad-based youth climate organisation after meeting activists from the Energy Action Coalition in the United States. In 2006, An Inconvenient Truth was released and I met a group of other young people who shared the same vision (including Amanda McKenzie, now CEO of the Climate Council) and together we co-founded the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. In 2007, Kevin Rudd won the first federal election where climate change was a top 3 issue. Then, the whole ‘climate wars’ that were the subject of last night’s Four Corners began in earnest. During the period of 2007- 2013 described in last night’s Four Corners, my whole life was focused on trying to influence federal climate policy: first as Co-Director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (which went on to become Australia’s largest climate organisation), then as a climate communicator (with a documentary, book and a lot of public speaking to reach new audiences), and then back into campaigning. Which is all just a long way of saying: I spent a lot of time at Parliament House during the events described in last night’s Four Corners. It brought back a lot of trauma, and a whole lot of “what ifs”. 

It’s not cheerful, but here’s a selection of the “what ifs” that have been going through my head today. 

What if Paul Keating hadn’t won the leadership spill against Bob Hawke in 1991, or what if he had won but not jettisoned Bob Hawke’s climate policy, which was shaping up to be ambitious? What if Bob Hawke had been at the pivotal Rio Earth Summit in 1992? Or if new Prime Minister Keating had decided to go and had been inspired and transformed by the commitments made there? 

What if John Howard had won the 2007 Election!? Would he have actually implemented the emissions trading scheme that he promised? When we were co-starring in a climate documentary for the ABC in 2011, former Finance Minister Nick Minchin told me that forces in the Coalition would never have let an ETS actually come to pass. After all, at least 50% of the Coalition party room at the time did not accept the science that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, despite it being a basic principle of atmospheric physics. The evidence would suggest that Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz and Tony Abbott would have led an internal revolt and John Howard, always in touch with his party room, would likely have acquiesced. 

Or what if, after winning that 2007 election, Kevin Rudd had immediately moved to introduce an emissions reduction target and a carbon price, rather than going through a slow bureaucratic process of Green & White papers that allowed the fossil fuel lobby time to mount a campaign, in partnership with the Murdoch press, against any serious action? I was spending a lot of time at Parliament House at the time. The halls were crawling with lobbyists from the Minerals Council and coal and gas companies, and politicians’ desks were full with their reports designed to derail serious climate policy. 

What if the Global Financial Crisis had not happened, right at the time the carbon pricing scheme was almost ready to be introduced, paving the way for the cost of living scare campaign to ramp up even more? 

What if Rupert Murdoch hadn’t owned most of Australia’s media? Or what if he did, but kept to his promise a few years earlier that we should “give the planet the benefit of the doubt” and prosecuted a pro-climate action agenda rather than instructing his newspapers to act as a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel lobby? 

What if Kevin Rudd hadn’t backed away from ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ and had instead called a double dissolution on the legislation? Would Australians have stood up for climate action then? They didn’t a few years later, when they elected Tony Abbott on an anti-carbon price platform. But maybe they would have backed Kevin Rudd at that time, shocked out of their complacency by a politician risking his Government over a principle that he believed in.

What if Julia Gillard had genuinely cared about climate change and not helped convince Kevin Rudd to walk away (with the help of party bosses like Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib)? What if she hadn’t uttered those words that would later become etched on her political gravestone: “there will be no carbon tax under a Government I lead.” 

What if Andrew Robb had not come back from sick leave to betray Turnbull in the party room meeting called to decide whether or not to support the CPRS? What if, one week later, Malcolm Turnbull had not lost the leadership by one vote (a person who didn’t turn up for the vote!)? 

What if, in 2009, when Rudd’s legislation was introduced for the second time, the two Liberal Senators – Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth – who defied new Liberal leader Tony Abbott and crossed the floor to vote with the Government on the CPRS, had convinced more of their colleagues to come with them?

What if in 2013 Australians had not elected Tony Abbott? What if we had a financial war chest to rival the amount of money that the fossil fuel lobby and the Coalition spent on that election and the scare campaign prior – money raised either from philanthropists, or from the renewable energy sector? What if the advertising campaign the climate movement had waged was more inspiring and convincing than “say yes” and had the same reach as the campaign the other side was running? 

And then, six years later, what if Bill Shorten had won last year’s election? What would he be doing with the once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our economy that has been presented by the Coronavirus tragedy? Labor’s climate policy wasn’t perfect, but I’ll bet he wouldn’t have appointed gas industry lobbyists to run the National COVID recovery body. 

But the biggest “what if” for me, is the one that I could have had some small influence over back in the period between 2009 and 2011. The one where in hindsight, my younger self, despite the best of intentions, obviously made the wrong call. 

What if the Greens had supported the CPRS? What if people in leadership roles in the climate and environment movement had pushed the Greens to pass the scheme, flawed as it was, low targets as it had – because we had more political foresight, more pragmatism, and a deeper understanding of the internal dynamics of Liberal Party. 

At the time, most of the climate movement was more familiar with climate science than the reality of political science. I stayed up late at night reading detailed IPCC reports but not The Australian. Most of us didn’t talk to, or even know, anyone in the Liberal or National parties. 

I certainly didn’t understand the future leadership pipeline of the Liberal party, or how hard it would be to find any champions inside the Coalition willing to risk any political capital at all, for any type of climate policy, in the future. 

I remember having a coffee with an older mentor of mine who ran a large climate organisation that was supporting the CPRS trying to convince me to change AYCC’s position and support the policy. I argued that the youth movement’s role was to be the “left flank” of the movement and push for what was necessary, not what was politically possible. But I have now learnt the hard way that politics is the art of the possible. 

I had naive hope that Australian voters would not fall victim to a multi-million dollar scare campaign, and would reject Abbott’s “Axe the Tax” campaign. I thought we had enough power to inoculate people against a campaign based on absolute lies, by telling the truth and appealing to their better nature. But it turned out that while support for climate action was broad in 2007, it was never deep enough to withstand Abbott’s political tricks, amplified by vested interests. 

I was so wrong. In hindsight – we all should have done everything we could have to get that initial CPRS passed – ideally in a bipartisan way, with the Coalition, so it wouldn’t be used as a political wedge later on. 

That’s not to ignore the fact that the scheme, on its own, struggled to live up to the expectations of anyone who genuinely understood climate policy. But the truth is that bipartisan support would have helped pave the way for more ambitious targets and policies in the future, and stopped the climate debate getting so absolutely “stuck”. 

Of course, I don’t hold anything against anyone who was working on climate at the time – we all did the best we could with the information we had at the time. It’s much easier to look back with hindsight than it is to predict the future. 

What’s interesting is that the vast majority of climate campaigners who were around during that 2006- 2011 period are still active. Rather than letting defeat define us, we’ve kept working. 

What I wished Four Corners had looked at was how to move forward from here. Because the climate crisis is too important to just wring our hands, say ‘we tried’ and give up. The best time to get climate policy passed was ten years ago, the second best time is today. 

On that note, perhaps the federal Government’s announcement today that they may consider changing the safeguard mechanism is one small glimmer of opportunity. The Guardian writes today:

The proposal could be a step towards transforming the safeguard mechanism, which has been criticised as a pointless policy that did little to limit emissions, into what it was initially intended to become: an emissions trading scheme under which companies could buy and sell credits to each other.” 

And taking a step back to look at the last decade overall, there’s one more glimmer of hope: action beyond federal politics. Whilst federal politicians and those of us trying to influence the federal sphere have failed, others have acted decisively, showing enormous leadership. Local councils, state Governments, business, and communities have acted to reduce their own emissions. Renewables have come down in price to the point where they are the cheapest form of new electricity generation. New and unlikely champions for climate action have emerged, and are catalysing leadership.

So even though the climate movement didn’t achieve the federal outcomes we wanted, it was our movement that inspired much of the progress outside this sphere. From the corporate campaigns run by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition that helped shift the positions of all four big banks, to the Cities Power Partnership program run by the Climate Council that engages local councils, our efforts still bore some fruit. 

It wasn’t entirely a lost decade, and we should keep that in mind. 

Five Lessons (of many) I’ve learnt along the way: 

  1. We need bipartisanship on climate. Scientists tell us this is the last decade where the world has a window to turn things around on climate. Unless we truly think the Coalition will not be in power for the next ten years at state or federal levels (Oh wait! They already are federally and in three states!) then we have to find a way to find and support champions inside the Coalition to push their parties to improve their climate policy. The Coalition-held States, South Australia and Tasmania, are leading the way right now, with Matt Kean in NSW championing much stronger action at a state level too. This principle underpins all of the work I do today. (On that note, if you’re a Coalition voter reading this piece, I encourage you to join the group Coalition for Conservation. If only they’d existed in 2009, would things have been different?)
  2. Work smarter, not harder. We were all so busy during that period. Early mornings, late nights. But the strategy clearly wasn’t solid enough, or based in political reality. I remember occasions when we rushed our decision making because we wanted to get a press release or an email to the database out, to respond quickly, including the response to Kevin Rudd’s initial target range of 5-15% emission reductions over 1990 levels. The 24/7 news cycle undermines considered responses from campaigners and NGOs just as much as politicians. Slow down. Think more. Debate strategies. Get your ego out of the way and be open to constructive feedback and others challenging and interrogating your ideas. Rushing around doesn’t just risk burnout – it also risks solid decision making.
  3. The climate movement needs to pay for experienced political strategists and Government relations advice. There was a gap in the climate movement back in 2007-2011, and that was in political strategy and Government relations. This is especially so when it comes to understanding and engaging with the Coalition. As the saying goes, you wouldn’t navigate court without a lawyer so why would you navigate politics without a lobbyist? The same answer goes for both: if you can’t afford it, you can’t do it. This touches on another point – the chronic underfunding of the climate movement and the lack of philanthropy going into climate advocacy, especially back in 2007. Even now, the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network estimates that only 2.5% of charitable donations go to the environment – even less to climate. (If you’re reading this and want to chip in $20 a week to fund high impact climate advocacy and be part of an awesome network of people, join Groundswell Giving Circle).
  4. The messenger matters more than the message, and environmentalists are not the best people to be the public face of the climate movement. It was so easy for Tony Abbott to win the story when it was framed as inner-city lefty greenies wanting higher taxes vs. hard working ordinary people who couldn’t pay their energy bills. As a movement, we were slow to realise we needed people other than ourselves to be the communicators and the community organisers – that “unlikely” leaders were more effective at reaching and changing the hearts and minds of persuadable swinging voters in marginal seats. This has now changed – it’s so heartening to see the rise of climate groups led by farmers, First Nations communities, bushfire survivors, doctors and other health professionals, emergency leaders, veterinarians, sportspeople, religious leaders, parents, surfers, and so many more groups. This is the climate movement we needed back in 2009 – but better late than never!
  5. Don’t give up! As the saying goes, “those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those already doing it”. We all make mistakes – we’re human. But we have to learn from them and keep going. Even when we lose, even when the odds seem insurmountable. We know from studying history that things can change, and change fast. As one of the world’s most effective climate campaigners and authors, Bill McKibben, says “the odds are against us but as morally awake people it’s our job to do everything we can to change the odds”. When I started working on climate, I was a child – fourteen year old. I felt like I was fighting for my future. Now, I have a four year old son, and I’m fighting for him. I’ve felt pretty depressed today, after watching Four Corners last night and remembering the trauma of those years. But I’m still working to do what I can, having learnt what I’ve learnt. So I’ll get through today’s work, put my son to bed, wake up tomorrow and do the best I can.