When will Australia have its Kodak moment on renewable energy?

AAP/Alan Porritt

Ever since Clive Palmer announced that the Palmer United Party (PUP) would support the retention of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), The Australian and News Corp’s tabloids have really ramped up their attack on both renewables and Palmer.

Immediately following the press conference that Palmer shared with Al Gore, News Corp papers presented it as a great victory for the Abbott government and completely downplayed the fact that Palmer had actually committed to retaining the RET, the Climate Change Authority and the Renewable Energy Finance corporation.

After that came an attack on Palmer himself for having an above-average carbon footprint, and an editorial in the Daily Telegraph attacking Palmer and Gore.

The Australian also featured a number of columnists attacking Palmer and Gore in the days that followed.

But for all the editorialising and subservience to the anti-renewable core of the Abbott government, the appeals to save carbon-intensive power interests look increasingly doomed.

That Australia will have its Kodak moment on renewables is an economic certainty. It is only being held up by the dwindling short-term political inertia that the self-isolating Abbott government is managing to apply.

Industry minister Ian Macfarlane and environment minister Greg Hunt are now considered moderates on renewables. Prime minister Tony Abbott has taken the decision on the RET into his own office, where he has been accused of lying about RET, ignoring the polls on public concern about global warming, and attempting to suppress the science of climate change.

Abbott not only has a tin ear on the science but he doesn’t even seem to be listening to Christian groups, who are urging him to listen to the science.

The outcome of the RET review, chaired by known climate deniers and fossil-fuel industrialists, may be irrelevant if the PUP shows unity in its opposition to repeal. But even if the PUP was to support this measure, leaving coal to carry Australia’s energy needs, the coal industry itself is looking extremely fragile globally. At UN climate negotiations in Bonn last month, an unprecedented 60 countries called for a cessation of fossil fuel use by 2050.

At the end of the day, it is the economic arguments about the RET which have caught the government in its own criteria-trap. It has been revealed that the modeling the government commissioned itself by ACL Allen has presented findings showing household power bills will begin to freefall from 2020 onwards as the result of RET target provisions.

Another problem for the government is that they can’t accuse the PUP of supporting the RET on ideological grounds. Palmer himself has explained he back the scheme because it is good for the economy and “employs thousands of Australians”.

While the short term future of the RET maybe in doubt, a very positive development is that the “debate” has shifted on climate. Where there was once a pseudo-debate about the science, now the papers are arguing about whether carbon abatement or renewables is the answer.

The Australia Institute’s Ben Oquist also noted of the Gore-Palmer presser:

We have avoided a big step backwards … [it] also reframed the debate about carbon pricing – it’s hard to suggest carbon pricing is some form of left-wing, economy-wrecking conspiracy when a billionaire mining magnate supports it.

But more importantly, it brings climate policy into the orbit of a populist domain of issue-attention. This is at a time when voters dissatisfied with the major parties are looking for an alternative.

This is actually a real seachange in the mainstream reporting of climate. It is going to be very hard to bring back the Great Denial that News Corp had campaigned so long and hard for.