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The renewables debate is won, but we may still lose the war

  • 17 August 2017


In the last few years, vested interests have changed their strategy for opposing action on climate change. Where they once focused on denying the problem, they’re now putting their efforts into sabotaging the solutions. Instead of funding fake experts to say the ‘science isn’t settled’, fossil fuel companies and their political backers have been running a smear campaign against renewable energy technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and batteries.

We can see this in Australia, where, in just a few short years, the ‘climate debate’ has morphed into the ‘energy debate’. Right-wing ideologues like Tony Abbott, who previously rejected climate change as ‘crap’, now concede it’s happening but retaliate with attacks on renewable energy. Since September last year, the coal mining lobby has been pushing the myth of ‘clean coal’ and a branch of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia was even caught using fake Twitter accounts to spread misinformation about the cause of blackouts in South Australia.

Al Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel, brings this ‘solutions denial’ out into the open. In one scene, Gore meets with an Attorney-General to discuss ExxonMobil’s PR campaign against solar power in the US.

The film covers many other topics—particularly the devastating impact of extreme weather events—but the main source of hope throughout is the exponential growth of clean energy, which has become a proxy battleground for public discourse on climate change.

The focus on energy solutions rather than the climate problem has huge implications for the role of government. Previously, many environment groups were calling for government to intervene in the market by making polluters pay for the damage they cause (e.g. Australia’s carbon price laws, now repealed); or by giving government agencies the power to regular greenhouse gases more directly (e.g. Obama’s Clean Power Plan in the US).

But now it’s cheaper to build new solar and wind power stations than it is to build coal or gas. The economics have flipped, and it is easy to mount a financial argument in favor of cleaner energy sources and cutting emissions. In fact, even the lobby group representing big polluting energy companies is calling for a national Clean Energy Target.

Environment groups, and the many millions of people who want stronger action on climate change, are surprised to find themselves arguing for less government intervention in the market. We can see this in Australia when they say a big new coal mine or coal-fired power