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We shouldn’t blame Carbon Cate for politicians’ failure to lead on the environment

During a leadership vacuum on environmental policy, Cate Blanchett was heavily criticised for supporting a carbon tax. AFP/Say Yes Australia

As the International Energy Agency says the world faces a bleak future as emissions fail to fall at a fast enough rate to combat climate change, the challenge is on for governments to act globally, but win elections locally.

In Australia, the current Julia Gillard-led Labor government has been under attack by its opponents for seeking to implement a carbon tax after Ms Gillard proclaimed that it was off the agenda prior to the election.

This may have been the case had the electorate given Labor a majority in the House of Representatives. But the fact the government relies on independents and a Green MP who want to see action on climate change suggests that at least part of Labor’s decision may be motivated by political survival.

A sticky issue

In Australia, and the world, tackling climate change is a contentious issue. There are sections of the community that do not wholeheartedly believe in the concept of climate change being the result of human activity.

There are also those who do believe in climate change, but question whether the proposed carbon tax is the best tool to tackle it. Then there are the people who do want to see action on climate change but don’t want to pay for it.

Rather than genuine discussion, however, the debate in Australia appears to be built around derogatory name-calling.

Those who question climate change, or ways to deal with it, are branded as “climate sceptics” whose views should be marginalised.

Those who support a carbon tax are seen to be the harbingers of economic ruin.

“Carbon Cate” steps up

All of the above was illustrated in recent days when Cate Blanchett appeared in a pro-carbon tax advertisement. The Hollywood actor’s involvement in the debate was immediately criticised as she did not appear to be an “average” Australian.

Moreover, the legitimacy of Ms Blanchett’s contribution became the focus of the debate, rather than the issue of climate change itself.

The tone of the current debate suggests there is a leadership vacuum in Australia, and that the country has far from crystallised its position on climate change, let alone been able to galvanise support to try and tackle the issue.

A failure of leadership

The problem for the major parties and their leaders is that the climate change debate is a truly global issue and poses a wide range of questions that have not yet been answered.

In an attempt to ameliorate this problem, the major parties appear to be couching the debate in issues they are more comfortable with.

As a result, there is much discussion on the impact a carbon tax would have on manufacturing, household finances and broader job security.

Indeed, in Australia the carbon tax debate increasingly looks to be more about taxation reform rather than the environment.

The partisan name-calling seems to be an extension of this approach.

Climate change is a long term issue and will not disappear within one electoral term.

But if the major parties don’t manage the competing needs of bolstering their own support while seeing to be actively tackling climate change, they may find themselves out of government for many electoral terms.

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