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The problem with taking politics out of climate change



‘Get the politics out of climate change.’ It’s a slogan heard almost inevitably whenever discussion turns to the looming environmental catastrophe.

Independent MP Zali Steggall leaves the House of Representatives after a division at Parliament House on February 11, 2020 in Canberra. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

You can understand why, given the paralysis gripping both major parties. If politicians can’t — or won’t — do anything as the natural world falls apart, it’s scarcely surprising that people seek an alternative to them and their politics.

Yet the common-sense enthusiasm for depoliticising environmentalism — voiced most recently in relation to the bill proposed by the conservative independent Zali Steggall — pushes in entirely the wrong direction.

In part, the complexity of carbon modelling encourages a faith in apolitical solutions. Because most of us struggle to read dense mathematical papers about ice flows and atmospheric temperatures, calls to ‘listen to the scientists’ rather than the politicians make sense.

If we wouldn’t want our surgeon to have learnt her doctoring from YouTube, we shouldn’t take assessments about carbon levels and temperature patterns from rightwing bloggers — and yet, of course, many of our leaders do.

Yet a respect for expertise should also mean a recognition of its limits. While physics explains the processes heating the atmosphere, it doesn’t — and can’t — provide direction as to how we should respond to those processes. On the contrary, because climate change follows from our relationship with nature, it forces us to consider how we should live — the central question for the political sphere.


'To put it bluntly, there’s no historical parallel for a social change comparable to that required to decarbonise the developed world without massive political polarisation.'


Unfortunately, a conflation between science and politics runs throughout even the respectable literature on climate change, since much of the research makes assumptions about economic activity and social life that naively extrapolate from the status quo.

That’s particularly important because, while the ‘apolitical’ approach gets touted as a way of winning over the public, in practice it’s invariably defended as a way of wooing parliamentarians. A rhetoric stripped of politics will, we’re told, allow MPs of goodwill from both parties to abandon their silly culture wars and come together for the benefit of the planet.

Of course, the divide over climate change bears less relationship to will (whether good or bad) than to power. Specifically, the power of those individuals and corporations enriched beyond measure by fossil fuels. Both major parties now contain sizeable groupings tied politically, organisationally and financially to the carbon lobby. It’s those factions that give rise to culture war, not the other way around.

Because the support for business-as-usual rests on material interests rather than ideas, the pro-carbon politicians won’t be swayed by clever framings or conciliatory messaging. In the unlikely event they can be induced to sign up to the Stegall project, they’ll do so only to surreptitiously wreck it.

After all, throughout parliament the enemies of climate action masquerade as its friends.

Last week, for instance, we discovered the existence of the co-called Otis Group, a semi-organised faction of pro-coal Labor MPs. In public, many of those people mouthed along about the importance of fighting global warming; in private, they came together to buttress fossil fuel interests.

Similarly, Canberra’s now blessed with a Parliamentary Friends of Climate Action, described as an ‘attempt to take partisan politics out of the nation’s climate policies’. The member of that august body include Tim Wilson, whom you may remember as the former Human Rights Commissioner who thought protesters should be water cannoned.

In a previous life, Wilson worked for the Institute for Public Affairs — specifically, as ‘Director of Climate Change Policy’. Yes, that’s right. For many years, our pro-climate change guy ran the IPA’s campaign to foster climate denialism (you can watch him denouncing Labor’s carbon tax here).

Now, you might believe that Tim Wilson’s undergone a Damascene conversion since realising where electoral sentiment lay, or you might wonder as to the kind of ‘climate action’ that attracts such friends.

The example illustrates the urgent need not for consensus but for its opposite, the kind of polarisation that might unmask the pro-carbon politicians and drive them out of respectable political life.

To put it bluntly, there’s no historical parallel for a social change comparable to that required to decarbonise the developed world without massive political polarisation.

Think of the defence of discriminatory marriage laws mounted by reactionaries only a few years ago. The passage of equal love legislation did not require any significant economic changes and yet conservatives fought tooth and nail against it for years.

By contrast, the prevention of catastrophic climate change threatens the billion-dollar assets of corporations whose tendrils run all through society. Is it sensible to pretend all that wealth and power will shrug its shoulders and exit the stage of history, simply because its asked nicely? Or would it be less utopian to expect a struggle and prepare accordingly?

One of the biggest obstacles in responding to the environmental emergency lies in the understandable suspicion by ordinary people that economic reform — which is what decarbonisation involves — means they’re about to get screwed over by technocrats once again. The revolt by the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) in France against a carbon tax penalising drivers illustrates what happens when climate action doesn’t feel to the public like something they do, but instead becomes something done to them.

That’s why, rather than proclaiming their indifference to politics, environmentalists need to articulate a program that links a defence of the planet to a defence of the working class — not as an optional extra but out of a recognition that, without popular support, decarbonisation simply won’t happen.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Independent MP Zali Steggall leaves the House of Representatives after a division at Parliament House on February 11, 2020 in Canberra. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, climate change, auspol, Zali Steggall



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Existing comments

Hear, hear! It would be wonderful if the problem lied simply within the culture wars and that people just need to lay down their reactivity and she'll be right. To me it's more like arguing that a certain app should be removed from your laptop and then it will all magically start working properly when the problem is with the operating system that's the problem.

Sue Stevenson | 21 February 2020  

Everyone would like to live in a cleaner, healthier de-carbonised world and the key to doing so rests with finding safe and reliable energy sources. This is where global efforts should be directed now!. The human race needs to become more organic in its practices and like other animal species, our survival depends on a sustainable environment.

Cam Russell | 24 February 2020  

Class vs class (however you like to define 'class') - a political problem, which requires political solutions. Informed by what science has to advise, of course. As you say, Jeff, popular support is the key. One would hope that in a democracy the popular vote would return a government capable of governing with popular support; doesn't seem to be happening. This ongoing 'wedging' of populations is the stuff of revolution.

RJ | 24 February 2020  

Thank you, Jeff. I always read your work with interest and am the better for it.

michael walsh | 24 February 2020  

The issue that needs to be addressed is better land management as the CSIRO Climate Scientist advocate:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUmxY0xCsZM&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3lWT8_uL2iYe17T_iASyO2sND1-hD56wbMdWceh21vQ_tIot_xkcS-S1Q

Nev Hunt | 24 February 2020  

Thank you Jeff. Have you read Pope Francis' "Laudato Si'"? He gets it! " The twin cries of the poor and the Earth, our Common Home!

Anne Lanyon | 24 February 2020  

This is very well argued. Its logic would elude only those who deny the concept of working towards social change to accommodate emerging realities. It's not just climate such people rail against.

Richard Laidlaw | 24 February 2020  

I agree with Cam's response.Education ( I am a retired secondary teacher) is one vehicle to help ordinary people realize that we can decarbonize the means of production without wrecking the economy.There is an awful amount of misinformation going around in the media and on the Net about the perils of decarbonization .Like the "Luddites" of the early phrase of the Industrial Revolution , there are forces at work to try and stall or even wreck the path to renewable energy production.More jobs will be created than destroyed by this new revolution if only the public can see and accept.

Gavin O'Brien | 24 February 2020  

In addition to the thousands of coal-fired power stations operating world-wide, “there are 458 coal-fired units being built worldwide today, and 903 if you include those in the pre-permitting or permit phase.” (Politifact) Australia has 20 plants, which confirms what Australia’s Chief Scientist said—that if you shut down the whole of Australia it would make no difference to the world’s climate. So who benefits from decarbonising Australia? Linking “a defence of the planet to a defence of the working class” sounds like a noble cause—rather like creating a Worker’s Paradise. But closing down Australian industrial capacity won’t benefit Australian workers. It will benefit Chinese workers. Deep Green Resistance noted that Al Gore went from being worth $2 million in 2001 to $300 million by “being an inside investor in government-backed renewable energy projects, many of which went belly up after insiders made off with millions, leaving hard-working US taxpayers with the bill.” And despite Al Gore’s inconvenient predictions, the snows of Kilimanjaro refuse to disappear. But Mr Sparrow is correct about this being political. As Edmund Burke wrote, “Never wholly separate in your mind the merits of any political question from the men who are concerned with it.”

Ross Howard | 24 February 2020  

“….defence of discriminatory marriage laws mounted by reactionaries only a few years ago.” That the gates of the underworld won’t hold up against the Church is a given. What is still in play is finding the right kind of evangelicalism to mow down those still upstanding gates. Is Jeff Sparrow, in working out the right strategy of politics, another kind of evangelicalism, saying the same about a global anthropogenic warming church and the gates of the climate sceptics?

roy chen yee | 25 February 2020  

Citizens' Climate Lobby proposes support for the Australian Carbon Dividend Plan which is demonstrated to reduce harmful emissions while stimulating the economy, as shown in British Columbia which introduced a revenue-neutral carbon price a decade ago. https://www.change.org/p/climate-polluters-pay-not-taxpayers

Louis de Villiers | 25 February 2020  

If We agree that carbon usage should be reduced , how in the world do we do it. That question is how and when and at what cost. Recent reports show that most developed countries are building more coal fired power stations. We should study what their plans are to reduce carbon emissions. It should not be too hard! Adrian Harris

Adrian Harris | 28 February 2020  

An insightful article. I think J Sparrow highlighted the 'real' interests behind much of the resistance to effective action on greenhouse gas emissions. many thanks

Ros Ives | 01 March 2020  

Jeff I have witten multiple times to Sussan Ley current environment minister about water, tree planting, the latest methods adopted in Myanmar but she's too busy hosting tea parties for the mad hatters to bother to reply. They just raise an eyebrow and comment that "he's just another crank". The environment was Frydenberg's portfolio. He was well under the thumb of the denialists as well. QUT have developed a direct fuel cell that converts any grade of coal to gas without the need for combustion and the CO2 emission reduces to 2%. I guess the cost of replacing all the coal fired power stations with the new technology has just been regareded as too expensive. The CO2 gas can be stored in underground salt caverns. There's one near Gympie and one at Lake Ayre. Coal is plentiful, reliable, cheap and proven. It's the method of transforming it to energy that has caused the problem. But will the politicians listen to the scientists? " Fuel Flexibility - ability to use syngas from coal, natural gas, biomass Lower operating costs/kWh, wide choice, established infrastructures Syngas from coal is far cheaper and plentiful than hydrogen resulting in far lower electric production costs ($0.01-.03/kWh vs $0.08-0.10/kWh claimed by Bloom and Siemens) ? Thermal Quality - superior thermal qualities of the tubes – lower operating temperatures (by 200 C) reducing component fatigue and maintenance. Temperatures high enough to allow cogenerating opportunities thus increasing efficiencies. ? CO2 Sequestration- anode and cathode off-gas streams are separate ? no dilution of carbon-rich stream with atmospheric nitrogen resulting in simple and inexpensive carbon dioxide separation and capture downstream. DCFC – Unique Aspects ? Low CAPEX - ideal for retrofit applications ? Low OPEX - 2 - 2.5 X power generation/ton of coal substantially reduces operating costs and water usage - Uskmouth – 80 mil reduced fuel, 30 mil reduced penalty ? Scalable - from micro to large grid applications ? Flexible - allows lower rank coal (or previously unacceptable coal) to be used in this process. Environmental Benefits ? Zero SOx/NOx emissions ? Significantly reduced CO2 emissions ." Research source:www.dehpl.com.

francis Armstrong | 02 March 2020  

There was an interesting article in a very recent edition of the Australian by Janet Albrechtsen lamenting the low calibre of all current Australian politicians. I had felt, before reading it, that we did not have the able leadership to phase out coal, without either economic disruption or major unemployment, which the Germans have. Until this changes we are really up the creek sans paddle and no amount of talk will get us on course.

Edward Fido | 05 March 2020  

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