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The political cost of progressive climate policy

Image credit: Norbu Gyachung (Creative Commons: Wikimedia Commons)

Public agencies around the world are expressing an increasing level of awareness of the urgency of the growing climate crisis. Last month Guy Debelle, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and MIT PhD scholar, named climate change the greatest threat to the future of the Australian economy. Less than 5 years ago, former president of Kiribati Anote Tong purchased 20 square kilometres of land in Fiji so that the 110,000 inhabitants of the atoll nation have somewhere to go when their home goes underwater. Even the Pentagon has recognised the severity of the problem and its threat to US security. Despite this, climate change remains arguably the riskiest patch of the political playing field, as the political discourse appears not to have progressed as far as the general social discourse. The United States currently has a leader who openly denies its existence, and Australia recently had one who thinks it is a good thing.

How did this happen? Large corporate players, many of whom have vested anti-climate action interests, have a large political and economic sway. The extent of their influence was shown in the recent revelation that coal mining giant Glencore had spent years and millions of dollars running a global campaign to prop up the demand for coal. ‘Project Caesar’, as the campaign was known, utilised a broad range of strategies, from establishing grassroots social media groups to spying on anti-coal advocacy groups. Woodside, Australia’s largest oil and gas company, donated $110,000 to each of the major parties in the 2017-18 year, making themselves one of the largest political donors.

Voter bases have also played their part in keeping climate action controversial. The rise in global populism and nationalism, in combination with Western economies after the global financial crisis, has led climate policy to become a political hot potato - if anybody dares hold it for too long, they get burnt. This has been seen time and time again in Australia, with Julia Gillard’s Labor government butchered after its implementation of a price on carbon and Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull learning the hard way that progressive climate policy is not conducive to political longevity, being dumped from the prime ministership after a vicious debate over his flagship National Energy Guarantee.

This is not isolated to Australia, however. France is in its fifth straight month of anti-government protests from the yellow vests movement. During the early weeks, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Paris, Marseilles and Toulouse. Whilst numbers have cooled since it is remarkable that the protests have continued on any scale for this long. These unprecedented protests have been against a broad sense of inequality felt by many of the working class in France, but particular anger was directed towards a carbon tax proposed by Emmanuel Macron’s government. President Macron has made concessions to the protestors twice during this time, and any carbon tax increases were put on hold in December 2018.

Canada’s Alberta Province, the heartland of the country’s substantial oil industry, recently saw the election of the Conservative Party on the back of a campaign focused on abolishing a provincial carbon tax. A federally legislated carbon tax is currently being legally challenged by the Provincial Governments of Ontario, Sasketchawan and Manitoba. Given that Canada’s Liberal Party only retains Provincial Government in two provinces at the time of writing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be up for a significant fight in legislating any further climate action.

In the United States, up and coming democrat Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has made waves with a proposed ‘Green New Deal’, which illustrates a broad vision on climate action, rather than a specific set of policies, including making the country hit a zero-emissions target, creating millions of high wage jobs and promoting justice and equity. Certainly lofty goals, but hardly a blueprint on how to achieve them. Despite this lack of specific policy goals, and despite being proposed as non-binding, the deal has created and highlighted serious division within the Democratic Party as some lawmakers back it whilst others, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, oppose it. House Republicans have sought to exploit this by pressing for votes on the deal within the government. Republicans, including President Trump, have further mocked the deal, saying it will bring an end to air travel and reliable energy as well as likening it to socialism.

Fuelled by the echo chambers of the internet, the global populace has become more divided and aggressive on issues such as climate change. Fewer governments are spending long and stable terms in office. As governments struggle to appease their divided and angry populations, the crisis grows more urgent and the window to take action reduces. Furthermore, a progressive climate stance stands in the way of political sponsorship and donations from large industry. How and when this balance may shift is a question that should be on many lips.

Liam Rawson is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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