In the face of an ecological catastrophe as enormous and terrifying as this season’s bushfires, you might think that policy might begin to shift, as those in power face up to the reality of human-induced climate change. But you’d be wrong. Instead, politicians from both parties have recommitted to supporting the logging and fossil fuel industries, insisting that no fundamental change in Australia’s climate policy is on the cards. Why is that?
In a major speech delivered to the Press Club on 29 January, prime minister Scott Morrison argued that “there is no credible energy transition plan, for an economy like Australia in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel”. This is a total lie. The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan produced by Beyond Zero Emissions and the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute back in 2010 shows otherwise. According to that fully costed plan, we could have already had an electricity grid driven by 100% renewables if those in charge had started work just 10 years ago.
The federal government has also just announced a deal with NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian that secured some federal funding for renewable energy. The twist? It will be delivered only if fracking and gas production are substantially expanded. The NSW government also agreed to maintain the Mount Piper coal-fired power station until 2042, in a single stroke undermining the commonly accepted goal of having 100 per cent of electricity generated by renewables by 2030.
These announcements reflect the Liberal Party’s love of the fossil fuel industry; no surprises here. For many climate activists, it is far more shocking and frustrating that the Australian Labor Party basically agrees with them.
Various figures in the ALP have insisted that coal is an important part of Australia’s economic future. Anthony Albanese embarked on a tour of Queensland shortly after being elected party leader, where he backtracked on the inadequate climate policies set by Bill Shorten and promised instead to champion the region’s coal industry. He argued that “the proposal that we immediately stop exporting coal would damage our economy and would not have any environmental benefit”.
So the Australian people are now presented with two coal-loving parties, both of which are committed to policies that will guarantee climate apocalypse.
One explanation for this terrible situation is that the major parties are responding to the backwards attitudes of working class voters, specifically those in Queensland. This argument falls short in many ways. The vast majority of Australians, including working class Australians, oppose the Adani coal mine and support action on climate. Why haven’t their views been reflected? Moreover, a report by the Australia Institute found a full 73 per cent of Queenslanders support the phasing out of the coal industry. Do they not count? In any case, since when do working class voters, especially those in blue collar industries, hold any sway over government policy? Politicians constantly ignore working class opinion when they choose to, whether it’s about social or economic questions.
There is bipartisan support for the fossil fuel industry because it makes money for bosses, lots of it. Those bosses are among the most powerful people in society, and politicians want to serve their interests, not ours.
In 2018-19 coal exports were valued at $67 billion, making Australia the number one exporter of coal on the planet. Last year Australia overtook Qatar to become the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, which was our third largest export commodity.
What about jobs?
Often the defence of the fossil fuel industry is presented as a defence of the workers. For instance, in his Press Club speech, Morrison insisted that he would not “cop lectures” from those who wanted to abolish Australian coal mines “and Australian jobs that go with them”. A number of pro-Labor commentators have argued that the party’s overly ambitious vision for climate action cost Labor the last election, as it was insufficiently sensitive to the concerns of coal miners.
As usual, when Labor swings to the right, it drags the centre-left along. For the many NGOs that believe that only a Labor government can save the planet, the election result has made them determined not to cause controversies that might cost Labor votes. Even the small socialist group Solidarity has on multiple occasions blamed the Stop Adani campaign for Labor’s poor showing, on the basis that it encouraged CFMEU members to back Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. In environmental campaign groups, they have on separate occasions argued against demands to “shut down the fossil fuel industry” and to call for “no coal and gas”.
If accepted, these arguments would be disastrous for the movement. Climate activists cannot take our lead from cynical Labor politicians, conservative union officials or the tiny minority of workers who will be negatively affected by a transition to renewables. Climate change is an issue facing the international working class. Socialists have an obligation to make the demands that are appropriate to meeting the existential challenge it poses.
So just as the left does not make our historic call for the abolition of the nuclear industry contingent on whether workers in uranium mines or nuclear power plants accept it, we should not limit our slogans regarding polluting industries to what workers in those areas will agree to. They are not the sum total of the working class: just 1.3 per cent of workers are employed by the coal industry.
This does not mean we should be insensitive to the concerns of workers in those industries. The left in the climate movement is right not to blame working class people for the climate crisis, and right to demand a just transition for affected communities. Workers in the regions are reeling from decades of neoliberal austerity and class collaborationist approaches to trade unionism. We should actively fight for jobs and funding for these communities as part of any transition.
Any climate policy that does not promise to shut down fossil fuel industries would be a farce. Our movement needs to be unflinching on this question.
That will obviously be a difficult task. We won’t have to confront only fossil fuel capitalists, but the capitalist class as a whole, which won’t allow any big capitalists industry to be challenged by a social movement without fighting back. The centrality of coal and gas to the Australian economy means that fighting for climate justice will necessitate a fight against capitalism as a whole. More and more climate activists are waking up to this radical understanding – and that’s a very good thing.