Changing climates

Changing climates

The ultimate conservationist? The looming crisis for the Abbott government

AAP/Alan Porritt

Two political speeches that grabbed the most attention last week were those of Greens senator Scott Ludlam and prime minister Tony Abbott. Both were quite peculiar but for diametrically opposing reasons.

Perhaps timed for this weekend’s Tasmanian state election, Abbott gave a “let’s help Tasmania” speech to a room full of appreciative forestry workers, while Ludlam pursued a kind of ode to everything that he saw as wrong with the current government to an almost empty senate chamber.

Abbott received applause during his speech, and Ludlam only silence.

Yet these speeches were also covered by mainstream and social media, where the reception they received was abruptly reversed. Only a few news outlets bothered making a clip of Abbott’s speech, with tweets and social media recommendations numbering in the hundreds. As of today, Ludlam’s speech has passed an astonishing 710,000 YouTube views.

Ludlam’s speech dealt with a wide range of issues that are core to the agenda of the Greens: asylum policy, anti-mining, anti-privatisation, same-sex marriage, manufacturing workers. It was a broadside against the Abbott government ahead of the Senate re-election contest in WA that is not looking promising for Ludlam.

However, Ludlam returned to green themes the most – renewable energy, nuclear power and climate change – to put to Abbott:

Your only proposal for environmental reforms thus far is to leave minister Greg Hunt to playing solitaire for the next three years whilst you outsource his responsibilities.

It is “bitterly obvious”, Ludlam said, that these responsibilities have been handed to the agents of “predator capitalism” rather than the public interest.

Abbott’s speech to the Australian Forest Products Association was an impassioned clarion call to another kind of environmentalism. It was a call to people who work on the land who are seen to be in touch with “mother nature”, a nostalgic view that assumes a respect for the natural world.

Abbott begins with an account of timber craftsmen: those who can create wonderous objects of beauty out of the forest. People who work with timber, who know the value of “working with one’s hands” are the “ultimate conservationists”, he said. He continued:

Man and the environment are meant for each other. The last thing we do – the last thing we should want – if we want to genuinely improve our environment is to want to ban men and women from enjoying it, is to ban men and women from making the most of it and that’s what you do.

And here the speech is most revealing of the Abbott government’s philosophy of nature. Enjoyment of “nature” is not an aesthetic matter but an economic one. It is economic, because “nature” is assumed to be an inert and abundant resource to be “husbanded”, which is how 18th century enlightenment thinkers constructed discourses about “nature”, assuming that “man” has very little impact on the natural world.

Thus these forests are said to be “locked up” from such enjoyment – namely logging.

We have quite enough National Parks, we have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.

This is why Abbott consistently throughout his speech attacks what he calls the:

…green ideology, which has done so much damage to our country over the last couple of decades.

The green ideology is deemed to be anti-enjoyment, in two senses, as it separates us from the resources to craft timber, but also from economic enjoyment.

AAP/Forestry Tasmania

Abbott was able to appeal to a largely sectarian audience. Most of them have been part of very effective management strategies in the Tasmanian forest industry that has allowed World Heritage listing of the pristine areas in the first place.

But the problem for Abbott began as soon as he walked out of the chamber of applause. To begin with, the forestry industry in Tasmania, where the Abbott government is proposing to “unlock” 74,000 hectares of World Heritage listed forest, is not exactly an economic bonanza. It employs, directly and indirectly, far less people than are about to lose their jobs at Qantas.

And as far as romanticising it as a resource for craftsmen, 75% of trees logged in Tasmania go to woodchips at a price barely competitive with chips from southeast Asia.

Forestry Tasmania, which oversees public native Forests, reported a A$64 million gross net loss for the 2009-12 period, and it is widely viewed as a declining industry. If any part of the World Heritage forests lost their certification, Tasmania would have trouble selling its timber anywhere on the world market.

But the much larger issue here is how such a policy conflicts with “Direct Action”: a policy with no program for carbon pricing, a green army of underpaid, unemployed people, whose main carbon mitigation reform is the carbon sequestration offered by planting trees. Yes, planting trees, not logging them.

It might be just as well that Abbott’s speech has been largely “locked up” within the auditorium of the forestry workers given the Abbott government is now on a collision course with its responsibilities at the G20 meeting in November. This meeting is being hosted and chaired by Australia in Brisbane, and member nations are pushing for climate change to be very high on the agenda.

The international pressure for climate change action will be exquisite in Brisbane. It would be difficult to invent a more awkward contrast between Australia’s domestic myopia and the international momentum on climate action.

A Globe International assessment of the climate mitigation strategies of 66 countries rated Australia as the bottom of the barrel. Headed by former Thatcher government minister Lord Deben, the Abbott government’s climate policies are described as:

…so unintellectual as to be unacceptable; I mean it is just amazing.

Australia is identified as the only country on earth to be winding back national climate legislation.

How Australia is going to chair a meeting that is starring climate change as a priority item will be excruciating to watch. And if Greg Hunt or Tony Abbott have to give a speech, that would be amazing.