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Zombie politics vs climate action: will the coming election focus on our future?

Few other world leaders are as enthusiastic as Tony Abbott in endorsing coal as ‘good for humanity’. AAP/Dan Peled

Zombie politics vs climate action: will the coming election focus on our future?

Few other world leaders are as enthusiastic as Tony Abbott in endorsing coal as ‘good for humanity’. AAP/Dan Peled

The issue of climate change has had a significant and polarising impact on Australian politics in recent years. The political fortunes of several major players have revolved around it. While Kevin Rudd’s call to arms on the “great moral challenge of our generation” was rhetorically memorable, the debate in Australia has largely focused on developing policies that do not significantly alter the economic status quo.

Since 2007, when Rudd capitalised on the zeitgeist of climate change concern, the political debate has shifted from advocating policies to deal with the challenge to those that “axe the tax”. Australian politics has wrestled with climate change as both an existential global scientific phenomenon and a parochial political and ideological issue.

Climate change is surging again as a fundamental form of political contest in this country, yet without a politics of climate change in place. Action on climate change is, however, a key debate among a handful of future-defining deliberations that Australia needs to have in the next 12 months.

The decisions made within the year could shape the Australia to come for decades. Will the next federal election be decided by action on climate change or lack of it?

A debate that ebbs and flows

Having slipped from the national agenda following the lack of consensus at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, climate change made a limited comeback in the 2013 federal election campaign. The ALP and the Coalition made similar commitments to reduce emissions by 5-25% on 2000 levels by 2020. These were based on the ambition of global agreement at a UN conference in Paris in 2015.

Media coverage of Maurice Newman and other climate contrarians is generous by global standards. AAP/Julian Smith

The shift of recent years has been exacerbated and enabled by highly concentrated media ownership and conservative mainstream media that are broadly sympathetic to climate contrarians. They include Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief business advisor, Maurice Newman. Newman has claimed that the UN is using climate change as a vehicle for world domination.

Since the 2013 election, a global renewal of prominent voices have urged action on climate change: from Naomi Klein’s bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, to the call to adopt the Oslo Principles on Global Obligations to Reduce Climate Change.

Momentum for serious international action is building in the lead-up to the Paris Climate Conference in December. High-polluting countries such as the US and China are increasing efforts to confront climate change. They are adopting more aggressive targets for developing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia slipping back in the pack

Despite movement globally, Australian policy and debate appear stuck in a time warp. The government’s lack of leadership and vision on climate change is evidenced by Abbott’s pronouncement that “coal is good for humanity”. His government is making further moves to discourage investment in renewable energy technologies.

Barack Obama has voiced impatience with Australia’s attitude to climate change. AAP/Dan Peled

Australia, once a leader in climate change policy, has been warned it risks becoming a global “pariah”. World leaders from US President Barack Obama to former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan have criticised Australia’s approach.

Australia’s recently announced emission reduction targets have been described as “pathetically inadequate” for a country with the highest emissions per capita in the developed world. New UN rules have put the spotlight on Australia as a climate laggard. We must lift our game.

Twelve months to make up minds

The earliest possible date for a simultaneous House of Representatives and half-Senate election is August 6, 2016. The latest possible date is January 14, 2017. This suggests the next federal election will most likely take place in around 12 months’ time.

How will action on climate change shape this election? As the election countdown begins, the government continues to play what cultural critic Henry Giroux has called “casino capitalism”, aiming for a quick economic return from the slot machine of the coal industry, while failing to make long-term investments in renewable energies and the environment. Australia seems to be enveloped in a “zombie politics” in which the only thing that drives us is our concern for our wallets and our mortgages.

As Giroux has observed:

The macabre double movement between “the dead that walk” and those who are alive but are dying and suffering cannot be understood outside of the casino capitalism that now shapes every aspect of society in its own image. A casino capitalist zombie politics views competition as a form of social combat, celebrates war as an extension of politics, and legitimates a ruthless Social Darwinism in which particular individuals and groups are considered simply redundant, disposable – nothing more than human waste left to stew in their own misfortune – easy prey for the zombies who have a ravenous appetite for chaos and revel in apocalyptic visions filled with destruction, decay, abandoned houses, burned-out cars, gutted landscapes, and trashed gas stations.

The Climate Institute’s latest report on public attitudes suggests the lack of a clear and progressive climate policy agenda is causing growing apprehension among Australians.

The climate change debate is about the future of the country we want. It’s about the relationship to nature and within nature that we aspire to have. It’s about thinking about extractivism and the economy. It’s about tackling security vulnerabilities in each of Australia’s biomes and varied environments, including desertification, extreme weather events and sealevel rise.

A lack of debate about climate change policy will put the eminence of Australian representative democracy in doubt. If we are to shake ourselves out of a zombie politics, let’s reboot the serious debate that is demanded of this country and shed the mentality that it’s OK to be back of the pack. The conversation is on.


Juan and Myra will be one hand for an Author Q&A between 3:30 and 4:30pm on Tuesday, September 1. Post your questions in the comments section below.