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What went wrong for Labor on climate

  • 20 May 2019


This was the climate change election — until, suddenly, it wasn't. Every study showed Australians cared keenly, almost desperately, about the environment. Yet, on polling day, the guy who famously capered around Parliament clutching a coal lump to his breast emerged, to the astonishment of almost everyone, triumphant.

The post-election consensus of most commentators insists the ALP went too far and too fast, that it presented the public with an idealistic program they weren't ready to accept.

As evidence, pundits adduce the results from Queensland, where the Coalition won substantial support by defending the Carmichael coal mine. In a typical piece, the ABC's Allyson Horn claims that, with his anti-Adani convoy, Bob Brown 'hammered a nail in Bill Shorten's electoral coffin'. Yet the argument — and the broader claim about Labor's project — misses a key dynamic in environmental politics today, one with which we're all just coming to terms.

A few weeks back, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published an extraordinary document — jointly authored by some 500 scientists from across the world — laying out the extent of the current extinction crisis. The best estimate by the best experts puts something like a million species at imminent risk.

That document followed on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from late 2018, which argued that, by 2030, global emissions must drop by 45 per cent from their 2010 levels, if we're to avoid exposing hundreds of millions of people to serious climate-related hazards.

Together the reports make entirely clear something that most Australians already intuitively know: namely, that addressing the international environmental catastrophe requires massive social and economic change. As a result, if you want the public to believe you're serious about climate, you have to spell out, in detail, your plan to transform the economy.

Furthermore, because most people now associate 'economic reform' with the neoliberal programs of the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, you need to demonstrate that the burden won't fall primarily on society's poorest. If you don't do that, you're wide open to a conservative counterattack.


"The prevarication reinforced the longstanding and widespread sense of Shorten as an opportunist, a man who believed in nothing whatsoever."


Now, at first sight, it seems obvious from the final result that a stronger stance on Adani would have doomed Labor to an even more disastrous outcome. But, as Ira Gershwin said, it ain't necessarily so.

Had Labor flatly opposed Adani,