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A new direction for climate campaigning

By Leigh Ewbank - posted Monday, 21 September 2009

The Senate’s rejection of the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in August presents the Australian climate community with the opportunity to reassess and recalibrate their messaging and advance an effective policy agenda. Regardless of whether the Senate approves the bill when it is reintroduced this November, the climate movement must be prepared for the next stage of climate and energy advocacy - one that will focus on renewable energy deployment.

A new and improved policy agenda must do several things: it must unite the nation's climate movement that has been split by Labor’s flawed CRPS; it must be politically palatable for both the government and the public; it must exclude powerful fossil fuel interests intent on thwarting progress; it must be politically feasible to pass the senate; and all importantly, it must have a positive climate impact.

Creating a strategy that meets these criteria is certainly beyond one person alone and I don’t claim to have all the answers here. Indeed, an effective strategy will require additional input and withstand rigorous debate before it is adopted by a progressive coalition. Nonetheless, I will outline several ideas that have potential to reshape the landscape of climate policy in a way that benefits progress, and spark debate within the climate movement about the direction of our advocacy.


An effective climate policy agenda will present concrete steps for achieving reduced emissions and increased use of renewable energy. In contrast to the “wonkish” discourse that dominates the emissions trading debate, the new agenda will be communicated effectively through a narrative capable of being understood - and supported - by the public. With this in mind, the climate agenda will be centered on public investment to deploy renewable energy and draw on Australia’s nation-building mythology. This approach has great potential - both practically and politically. Let me explain.

In June, Friends of the Earth and state conservation groups released “Plan B” (PDF 1.06MB): a comprehensive plan for action, including measures to increase the nation’s energy efficiency, use of renewable energy and redesign our cities. While the “Plan B” report released is a laudable attempt to shift the national climate policy agenda, it lacks the coherent narrative needed to capture the public’s imagination.

A new nation-building project on the scale of the Snowy Mountains Scheme to drive Australia’s transition towards a clean economy can advance the policies outlined in “Plan B”. The backbone of a national renewable energy scheme will build new transmission lines that connect Australia’s population centres with our abundant renewable energy resources that are currently untapped. The construction of a renewable electricity grid will create jobs, open up new regions to sustainable development, attract private investment for new energy production, and provide invaluable support for Australia’s emerging clean energy industry.

This agenda has several advantages. It taps into Australia’s nation-building mythology and provides a simple narrative that is easy to communicate and sell to Labor. The Rudd Government wants to establish itself as a nation-building government - it has already used this rhetoric to roll out its high-speed internet project. Through evoking the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme that was spearheaded by Labor PM Chifley, the approach will appeal to Labor’s political heritage.

A focus on renewable energy will keep the fossil fuel lobby out of the game. Any policy that punishes polluters rather than builds the new energy economy will attract the opposition of the powerful fossil fuel lobby who exploit fears that carbon pricing will destroy our national economy. The fossil fuel lobby has a history of weakening climate policies through backroom deals with government and leading efforts to discredit them in the public discourse. An investment-centred approach avoids this unnecessary opposition.

Fossil fuel lobbyists will have a tough time arguing against a nation-building agenda for clean renewable energy. The fossil fuel industry’s messaging machine will be hamstrung: If they attempt to argue against renewable energy they will be positioned as opposing job creation, critically important infrastructure, and climate change adaptation measures.


Additionally, through policies that support the Australian renewable energy industry the climate movement and government will build a new constituency that benefits from sustainable development. Imagine the emergence of a clean energy lobby capable of counteracting entrenched fossil fueled interests. Strengthening the CPRS - assuming it passes - will be much easier with the support of commercial interests who benefit from strong climate and clean energy policies.

So what about the political feasibility of this alternative approach? How would it fare in the Senate? There is a high probability the nation-building agenda will win the support of Greens and independent senators, which leaves the Opposition as the main roadblock. Predictably, the Opposition will oppose deficit spending and public investment in nation-building projects because of their adherence to neoliberal economic philosophy. But this philosophy is weakened as governments around the globe invest public money in programs to stimulate their economies - using the commonwealth for the common good. Voting in favour of the Rudd Government’s renewable energy target sets a precedent for supporting renewable energy. The Coalition will be open to attack for being inconsistent if they “flip flop” on the issue.

Lastly, the approach discussed here will require climate advocates letting go of long-held positions. We must overcome resistance within our ranks to adopting a pro-development agenda and the false perception that “strong” reduction targets guarantee emissions reductions. On the contrary, because an effective response to climate change requires building the enabling infrastructure for a clean energy economy, the Snowy Mountains Scheme is a better model than one that emphasizes polluters, targets and trading.
There is no magic bullet for a challenge as complex as climate change and Australia will require additional policies to the CPRS. Now is the time for Australia’s climate change advocates to embrace the power of nation-building narratives to advance renewable energy.

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About the Author

Leigh Ewbank is a graduate of RMIT University's Bachelor of Social Science Environment degree and was a summer fellow at the progressive think-tank the Breakthrough Institute. Leigh currently reports for and consults on framing and messaging.

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