Australia’s 30 Years of Active Failure on Climate Change

Australia’s 30 Years of Active Failure on Climate Change

Marc Hudson

Whether they have visited or not, everyone I speak to about Australia knows three things: it is big, it has plenty of sunshine and it is exquisitely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. That last point is being made ever more forcefully, with fires in Tasmania threatening ancient forests, drought throughout New South Wales and heatwaves that are forcing the mercury ever higher.

Given those facts, alongside the knowledge that Australian concern about climate change has been present since the mid-80s, you’d be forgiven for expecting that Australia was at the forefront of climate policy and renewable energy technologies.

Australia, is, however, a basket-case, with a recent OECD report warning that its Paris agreement target will be missed unless changes to policy are made, and that threatened species are at risk unless funding increased.

How did it come to this? Why were opportunities to respond to the unfolding climate emergency ignored, resisted, squandered and fumbled?

Globally, social scientists have become ever-more interested in the ongoing resistance to sensible climate policy. Australia is an extreme case – as a settler colony with a “dig it up, chop it down” mentality, the plea for softer energy paths was always going to be hard to sell to policymakers. However, with the need for not just more renewables but the active overthrow of the fossil-fuel incumbents becoming ever more urgent, the case of Australia has a lot to teach the world. My PhD research, recently completed, explored how incumbents in Australia defeated policies for carbon pricing over the critical period from 1989-2011. Here I draw on that plus additional research I’ve conducted to explain how it all went so terribly wrong.

The first great wave of concern about global environmental issues lasted from the late 60s to the early 70s. Concerns over urban air quality,   and water pollution were joined by worries about burgeoning population—the so-called Malthusian moment. Australians became aware of these issues alongside domestic environmental concerns, such as kangaroo culling, and multiple threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia’s legislative response was smaller and later than the US—where the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970—and the UK, which had a Minister for the Environment from the same year and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. In Australia, the environment role was regarded as a sop, and the Federal government was extremely reluctant to impinge on the prerogatives of the individual state governments on issues relating to development, deforestation, water quality and air quality. The existing peak environmental organisation, the Australian Conservation Foundation, founded by conservative figures, was taken over by more radical actors, including some involved in the “green bans”, in which construction unions were refusing to work on environmentally and socially damaging projects. At the end of this period the Australian government did ask the Australian Academy of Science to investigate the possible dangers of climate change—the report, released in 1976, suggested a watching brief. However, by then two key scientists had begun looking in detail at climate change, and Australia’s vulnerability—Barrie Pittock, recently awarded the Order of Australia, and Graeme Pearman. They, and other scientists, kept working, holding conferences and communicating with colleagues around the world, largely away from the public eye. While occasional news stories would appear in the quality press or specialist magazines, public awareness was scant over the next decade.

The second great wave of environmental concern included a far more prominent place for climate change. From the mid-80s there was concern about Amazonian deforestation, extinction and the like. The discovery of the ozone “hole” over the Antarctic concentrated minds and meant that atmospheric scientists had far greater traction in the media and with policymakers. The famous Brundtland Report, published in 1987, included a chapter on climate change. Australia’s Science Minister at the time, the polymath Barry Jones, had succeeded in wresting cash from a reluctant government for a “Commission for the Future.” It combined with the Commonwealth Scientific Research Organisation (including the aforementioned Barrie Pittock and Graeme Pearman) to create “The Greenhouse Project”, which brought together business, industry and civil society. A scientific conference at the end of 1987 was followed by high profile public events a year later.  Aware that the conservative opposition was launching its own ambitious environmental proposals, the Australian Labor Party government started making vague promises of action, hedged with enormous caveats.

Alongside this, it set up an “Ecologically Sustainable Development” policy process, trying to find compromise between big business, environmentalists and unions which mooted .the idea of a carbon tax to fund research and development of renewable energy sources. The response from industry was vigorous – with the creation of a think tank to disseminate reports “proving” this would be disastrous, adverts and other campaigns and invite foreign climate sceptics on speaking tours.  In 1992 Australia was the only OECD country not to have its leader attend the ‘Rio Earth Summit’ —and the carbon tax proposals were shot down in flames.  Two years later the Environment Minister tried to revive it, and this provoked another ferocious battle, involving more reports, adverts, the enlisting of the coal-miners’ union and intense lobbying. Curiously, the incumbents consciously eschewed the climate denial that many of them still harboured.

The following decade is best characterised as one in which advocates of climate action, within business, the Federal government and civil society were constantly outmatched and outmanoeuvred. The dominant business lobby group—the Business Council of Australia—suffered severe internal ructions, and came to a “no position” position on the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. The Prime Minister of the time, John Howard, successfully faced down repeated efforts at taking a stronger stance, including an extraordinary case in 2003 where most of his Cabinet wanted an emissions trading scheme, and he personally vetoed the proposal.

However, that resistance crumbled in the third wave, which saw both the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005. Howard back-flipped, and the Australian Labor Party went into the 2007 election promising an emissions trading scheme. He reflected later:

“In 2006 my government hit a ‘perfect storm’ on the issue. Drought had lingered for several years in many parts of eastern Australia, leading to severe restrictions on the daily use of water; not for the first or last time the bushfire season started early; the report by Sir Nicholas Stern hit the shelves, with the author himself visiting Australia, and lastly the former US vice president Al Gore released his movie An Inconvenient Truth. To put it bluntly ‘doing something’ about global warming gathered strong political momentum in Australia.”

Labor won by a landslide in what has been dubbed ‘the first climate change election’.   The following two years saw complicated and contested policy-making process during which business lobbied for exemptions and delays, which the Labor government led by Kevin Rudd granted. According to Richard Denniss, chief economist for The Australia Institute, Rudd’s strategy seemed

based on the idea that if they gave enough money to the people who hated it, the people who hated it would back off. When in actual fact, the more money they gave to people who hated it, the more those groups realised ‘the harder we kick, the more we get.”

Esteemed Australian economist Ross Garnaut noted “never in the history of Australian public finance has so much been given without public policy purpose, by so many, to so few.”  And argued this was the result of “most expensive, elaborate and sophisticated lobbying pressure on the policy process ever

The byzantine and bloody battles over the Emissions Trading Scheme (later attacked as a “toxic tax based on a lie”) are beyond the scope of this article, but Australia finally did legislate a price on carbon in July 2012, only for it to be repealed two years later by the new government of Tony Abbott. However, the evidence of a changing climate became ever harder to ignore.  Heatwaves and bushfires are becoming ever harder to consider as part of the “normal” costs of living in Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology has had to add a new colour to temperature graphs, and January 2019 was the hottest month ever in Australia. Meanwhile the iconic Great Barrier Reef has suffered repeated catastrophic bleaching, due largely to warming oceans.

In 2018 the Coalition government tried to introduce a “National Energy Guarantee”, but this caused internal ructions and the overthrow of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

A federal election must take place by May.  It appears this will be another “climate change election”, but this time around without both parties vying for the green vote.  Instead, the governing coalition has no emissions reduction policy, unless you count a soon-to-expire renewables policy that they themselves weakened.  And opposition Labor is making the right noises on renewables, but hedging on what it would do about a giant new coal mine proposal to court rural votes in Queensland.

Meanwhile, the mercury keeps climbing, and the forests burn. In the words of one writer “Tasmania is burning. The climate disaster future has arrived while those in power laugh at us.”


Marc Hudson has recently completed a PhD on incumbent resistance to carbon pricing in Australia between 1989 and 2011. He has written frequently for The Conversation, most recently on ‘what next’ for the Climate Strikers. His articles in the journals Environmental Politics, Energy Research & Social Science and Technology in Society have explored Australian climate and energy politics, and ‘aviviocracy’. He is currently teaching and researching at University of Manchester

IMAGE CREDIT: Over 30,000 people marched in Melbourne on 21 September 2014 as part of the global Peoplesclimate protest for action on climate change. John Englart (Takver) licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0