Why it is important to work with conservative governments like Australia’s on climate change

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison

Rebecca Byrnes sets out three ways to progress climate action in Australia following the re-election of the centre-right Coalition.

On 18 May, Australia’s conservative Coalition won the Federal election to be returned for a third term in government. The election was widely considered to be a referendum on climate change action in Australia and voters were expected to show their concern for the issue by choosing the Labor opposition, whose climate targets are significantly more ambitious than those of current Government, formed of a long-standing Coalition between the centre-right Liberal and National parties.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who lost his seat after 25 years in Parliament, acknowledged of the Government in his concession speech that “When climate change is a moral issue we do quite badly. When it’s an economic issue, we do very well”. Political commentator Waleed Aly argues that this is exactly how the election played out – in wealthy inner-city suburbs concern about climate change manifested in a swing away from the Coalition (including in Tony Abbott’s electorate of Waringah), while “almost every community that relies on resources smashed Labor”, defying pre-election polls. At least in part this may be due to the Coalition’s successful framing of Labor’s climate policies as a major cost to the economy, including the claim that they would cost 167,000 jobs.

The election result cannot, of course, be attributed entirely to climate policy. The rise of minor conservative parties, including tens of millions of dollars spent on campaigning for the United Australia Party by Clive Palmer, also helped to funnel votes towards the Coalition through Australia’s preferential voting system.

Conservatism does not need to be incompatible with climate action

The Australian Government’s target of reducing emissions by 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 is very low by international standards. And with President Trump pledging to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Brazil’s Bolsonaro reducing protections for the Amazon, and Alberta’s new conservative premier Jason Kenney already moving to repeal the state’s carbon tax, one could be forgiven for concluding that conservative governments have a poor record on climate change.

Under this assumption there is a danger that in Australia people will write off climate action under the re-elected conservative Coalition for the next three years. But Conservativism and climate action need not be mutually exclusive, as the UK’s story shows.

The UK’s ‘world first’ Climate Change Act, passed in 2008, benefited from ‘competitive consensus’ between the Labour government and Conservative opposition, which strengthened rather than weakened the Act’s key provisions. Furthermore, the UK has demonstrated that action on climate change can be a driver for economic growth, having successfully reduced emissions while seeing GDP continue to rise. Even in the midst of the distraction of Brexit, the current centre-right Conservative government asked the independent advisory Committee on Climate Change to provide advice on whether the UK should adopt a target of net-zero emissions by mid-century. The advice came back in the affirmative – and Business Secretary Greg Clark has indicated it is likely the UK government will adopt it.

Three ways to progress climate action under current political conditions

Although the UK’s approach might demonstrate that climate action in Australia does not have to stall during the Coalition’s time in government, a concerted and strategic effort will be required by climate professionals, activists, researchers and sub-national governments. Possible steps are set out below.

1. Engage with government on terms it understands

As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe stated in a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, it is important to learn how to communicate the benefits of climate action in a way that engages the core values of those you wish to influence.

Australia’s Liberal party was born out of a desire to promote individual freedom, free enterprise and social equality, while the National Party has a strong focus on regional Australia, including the agricultural and mining industries. The Coalition’s election platform included little mention of climate change but rather focused more broadly on job creation, reducing national debt and taxes, investing in schools, hospitals and roads, national security and immigration. It is useful to consider how action on climate change might in fact align with these ideologies.

  • Freedom and social equality: The impacts of climate change will reduce economic opportunity as industries decline and communities become uninhabitable. And these impacts will be felt hardest by those who are already vulnerable – such as rural Australian communities already facing rising unemployment, those in lower socio-economic urban areas who are more vulnerable to heatwaves, and Aboriginal communities facing increasingly poor health outcomes.
  • Jobs: As the falling cost of renewable energy starts to make coal the expensive option, a sensible strategy for jobs growth would look to the country’s vast renewable resource potential and possible hydrogen export industry.
  • National security: A 2018 Australian Senate enquiry identified climate change as a ‘current and existential national security risk’ as it can exacerbate existing conflicts, for example over water and other resources, destabilise fragile states in the region, and directly threatens lives and livelihoods in Australia.
  • Reducing national debt: Climate change poses a major threat to financial stability. Reducing the national budget deficit has been a key election issue since the global financial crisis, yet one study has suggested that extreme weather events can cost between 0.23 and 1.1 per cent of GDP, with implications for the Government’s budget and economic growth.
  • Agriculture: The impacts of climate change on rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events will increase challenges for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors already battling drought and warming oceans.
  • Schools, hospitals and roads: Ensuring all investments in new infrastructure for schools, hospitals and roads are low-carbon and climate-resilient will pay dividends through increased durability, efficiency and innovation, while climate change mitigation can reduce the heatwaves and mosquito-borne diseases that would send people to hospital in the first place.
  • Immigration: Immigration and refugee policy is a deeply contentious political, moral and legal issue in Australia and will only become more complex if increasing global temperatures, extreme weather events and rising sea levels serve to displace millions of people in the Asia-Pacific region.

2. Continue to hold government to account through social movements

On election night, Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos, said “When it comes to climate change, the community will be driving this more and more.” While this could be viewed cynically as a statement aimed at shifting the burden from his government to citizens, there is no question that Australians are increasingly concerned about climate change, and more so than the global average. This concern has been boosted by recent social movements, including the School Strikes for Climate protests, which have made their mark in the country, and the increased attribution of extreme heat events, droughts and bushfires to climate change.

Naomi Klein is among those contending that mass social movements may be required for truly transformational action on climate change. Community action can play an important role in holding the Australian Government to account and shifting the dial on the level of climate ambition expected by voters.

3. Push for action in states and cities

While the federal government should not be absolved of responsibility for national-level ambition, much can be achieved by sub-national governments willing to be visionary. The story of California and other US states and cities, which have forged ahead despite a Presidency reluctant to act on climate change, illustrates this well.

In Australia, much of the responsibility for energy policy rests with the states. Several major renewable energy projects have been developed by Liberal state governments, including Tasmania’s ambitious 2.5 gigawatt ‘Battery of the Nation’ pumped hydro energy storage project, and a series of projects to enhance grid capacity and storage technology to support increased renewable energy capacity in New South Wales (such as the Transmission Infrastructure Strategy and Emerging Energy Program). The states of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory have all set mid-century net-zero emissions targets, while Tasmania has already experienced a year of net-zero emissions, in 2015/16, thanks to its predominantly hydro-powered energy system and carbon sequestration by the state’s forests.

At the city level, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney have all made the Carbon Disclosure Project’s ‘A List’ of global cities, based on their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate change and manage water resources.

Avoiding a self-fulfilling prophecy

Nonetheless, in Australia there will be fundamental challenges in engaging a government that has, so far, been reluctant to show ambition on climate change. Not least, the country’s coal lobby is highly influential and has already asked the re-elected government to build new coal-fired power stations – something the Government has not ruled out. The Scott Morrison Government also supports the planned Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. If this mine gets the final go-ahead the country will struggle to meet even its existing, low Paris Agreement targets.

These challenges simply magnify the need for climate change professionals, citizens, businesses and social movements to engage with governments like Australia’s on terms they understand. Assuming that a government is ‘bad on climate change’ and that nothing can be done may well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The views in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Grantham Research Institute.