Who Is Fighting For Hearts And Minds?

Gillard and Abbott might be convinced that good climate policy is bad news but, as Fiona Armstrong argues, they’re missing the opportunity to tell the story of the benefits of action on climate change

A week in, there has been very little effort in this federal election campaign to capture the hearts and minds of the electorate, or indeed to engage them much at all. It’s so different to the 2008 US election, for example, when Obama traded so successfully on the ‘audacity of hope’. To say this election lacks hope is an understatement to say the least — one week in, the focus of both the major parties seems mainly to dissociate themselves from bad policies and to promise not to do anything much. This is particularly true in relation to climate, on which the ambitions of the major parties are modest — to say the least. Is it because change is frightening, or at least politicians find it hard to explain the rationale behind hard decisions — or simply because not not getting people’s hopes up is a good way to avoid significant scrutiny?

The offerings of both the major parties in relation to climate are modest. It looks like they are intended to enable the ALP and the Liberals to be able to claim the existence of a policy — not really effective, just a policy. Gillard seems convinced that climate is a bad news story and that if she addresses it at all as a policy issue, she will only raise fear and doubt in the community. Abbott — if he thinks about it at all — seems to think that having a policy, any policy, will do, so long as it doesn’t appear to cost anything and won’t upset any electricity generators.

There is another story that the electorate would like to hear however on climate, and it is one which all the political parties would do well to share more widely. That is the story of the benefits of action on climate change and the opportunities being created for early movers in the emerging green economy. There are substantial political opportunities to be gained from shifting the narrative from the problem of climate change to the benefits of action and the opportunities that are being created through effective policy action. People do want action — remember the slump in the polls when the emissions trading was shelved — and hearing a good news story on the topic might help shift the debate.

One of the main points to be made is that there are significant economic benefits of action and the chance for Australia — if we move quickly — to play a leadership role in the development of services, technologies, and industries that are ‘post-carbon’.

This new green economy is growing very rapidly in other parts of the world — the growth in renewable energy is huge (investment in renewables globally has doubled since 2005); China will spend around A$40 billion on clean energy in 2010; the South Korean government will apparently spend around A$100 billion between 2009 and 2013.). It is simply ludicrous that a country that is blessed with possibly the best natural resources in the world for clean renewable energy is not capitalising on that natural advantage and exporting our knowledge and technologies and new industries to the world.

The economic flip side of course is that if we don’t act to take advantage of this opportunity we will become net importers of intellectual property and industrial capital in order to meet our own needs. We will be faced with increasing high costs associated with unmitigated climate change but none of the benefits of action.

It is not the case that if we ignore climate change it will go away. We know the costs will increase exponentially the longer we wait. Nicholas Stern said back in 2006 (and Ross Garnaut said it again in 2008) that costs will inevitably rise as a proportion of GDP the longer we delay. But there in Australia we are doing nothing to mitigate against those costs nor are we creating the new industries that will assist us in offsetting them. The Garnaut report suggests that the costs of unmitigated climate change will rise to 9 per cent by the end of this century, 25 per cent by 2200 and a staggering 68 per cent by 2300. But even those risks seem far off to most, and people want to hear about what can be done now.

One of the obstacles to change is poor climate literacy. Many people are genuinely uncertain about what to believe on climate change as it is so complex. In a time-poor world, there is only so much cognitive space available to comprehend issues like these. But to build public support for effective policy, it is vital that policy makers communicate the scale and urgency of the need for change to the community. Voters cannot be expected to support policies they don’t understand or comprehend the need for. It is time our political leaders made it clear that we do face grave risks, and that it is therefore necessary to develop policies that reflect the scientific evidence. But it is also important that the benefits of taking action are made clear to ensure there is a sense of optimism about the future and to encourage innovation in the development of solutions. Many people may be unaware that effective mitigation is possible — and entreating the community to join in a national exercise that offers optimism and hope for the future may just be a successful political act.