A one-sided debate? The WA Civil Society Climate Roundtable’s Election 2013: Climate Change Forum

WA Civil Society

Last night I attended the WA Civil Society Climate Roundtable’s Election 2013: Climate Forum at the University of Western Australia.  In theory this was to be a forum giving all three main parties the opportunity to voice their climate change policies in front of a live audience.  In reality it was a left-leaning affair:  Greens senator Scott Ludlam received the majority of the applause, Alannah MacTiernan flew the flag proudly for Labor, and the Liberal candidate, Dennis Jensen, didn’t bother turning up.  Professor Fiona Stanley chaired the forum, which included an opportunity for each panel member to explain their parties’ key climate change platform, four questions to respond to regarding climate change action and attitudes, and a question and answer session.

Opening statements – a world apart

The opening statements couldn’t have been more different – Mr Ludlam provided a concise overview of the Green’s attitudes towards climate change, our need to reduce our emissions, the need to increase education budgets to enable renewables research and development (widely appreciated by the audience), and advice on how the Greens had been instrumental in setting up previous policies, including the Clean Energy Act.  Ms MacTiernan’s speech was, on the other hand, an entirely personal account of what brought her to federal politics: the understanding that more could be done on the important issue of climate change and that she felt that she hadn’t done enough personally to contribute to the cause.

Framework for discussion

The four questions centred around issues of energy, social justice, health and a myriad of other issues that intersect with climate change action, abatement, mitigation or lack thereof.  And while the panel had an opportunity to view the questions beforehand the constant addition or subtraction of points, chastising etc from Professor Stanley (I think she enjoyed her position chairing!) meant both panel members were kept on their toes.

The biggest disappointment from both panel members was the strong preference for rehashing the past rather than talking about the future.  Sadly, the majority of the political discussion revolved around historical bickering – who did or didn’t vote for the CPRS legislation.  Who did or didn’t progress climate legislation as far as they could have.  Who did or didn’t contribute the most to the Clean Energy Act.  What time wasn’t wasted on talking about previous policy debates was spent reinforcing party rhetoric.  The Greens ‘believe’ in more than a 5% reduction in emissions.  Labor ‘intends’ to expand on the current level of renewable energy in Australia.  There was very little discussion of actual policies to be proposed for the election.  Ms MacTiernan at least justified this lack of policy detail by noting that this wasn’t the forum for presentation of policy detail, and that policy detail would be released in due course.  Perhaps this is the case for the Greens as well.

I couldn’t help but feel a slight tremor of concern that the 2013 election campaign may echo that of 2010 – an election strong on rhetoric but light on policy.  I think this is particularly concerning coming from the Greens.  And don’t get me wrong, I support the Greens wholeheartedly in their approach to fighting the good fight for increasing environmental and social justice, but sometimes I wonder if there is much policy there at all.  In a world where they rely on documents showing that a dramatic increase in the penetration of renewable energy is ‘possible’, I wonder if they have given much thought to whether it is ‘economic’, ‘practical’ and ‘realistic’.  It is not enough for a policy to be possible, it must be achievable.  And there is a difference.

Preaching to the converted?

One astute member of the audience noted that the two-party preferred vote is currently fairly even and those present at the forum are likely, by their very nature, to vote for one of the two parties in attendance.  What do you do about climate change and how do you reach those voting for the other side of politics?  The answers were interesting – Ms MacTiernan noted that it was a real possibility that we would have a Coalition Government post September 7 and that there were two potential loopholes of possibility for climate action: the first was that Abbott would be overthrown and Turnbull reinstated; the second that there was an increase in public activism to promote climate as a real and significant issue to the Australian public, resulting in the Government choosing to make decisions with climate action in mind.  Neither of these seems particularly palatable in a world where Tony Abbott may very well be elected Prime Minister, especially given the way the Rudd to Gillard exchange led to political turmoil for the Labor party.

Social media the answer?

Mr Ludlam, and Ms Stanley as chair of the forum, then promoted the idea of accessing social media to educate the ‘other side’ about climate change.  Mr Ludlum asked all those who had Facebook to raise their hands.  He noted that if we all went home and posted on Facebook that we support action on climate change and went to a great forum (blah blah blah) that we would reach approximately 100,000 people.  The audience response was varied: those on Facebook already believe in climate change; will our voices be heard?; that’s amazing! Etc.  Mr Ludlam’s other advice was to no longer support those agents of the media that denounce climate change as a real and serious issue. ‘Just stop buying the Australian.’

Is social media really the answer to overcoming the power of the Murdoch press?  The greatest problem for me in this solution is that it doesn’t solve our biggest problem in changing the Australian population’s perspective on climate change.  It doesn’t solve the issue of authority.  Yes, the Australian is incredibly misguided in its interpretation of the climate change ‘science’.  All you have to do to prove this is read the Quarterly Essay on Murdoch’s empire, or even watch ABC’s Media Watch.  But if you are reading the Quarterly Essay or watching Media Watch than chances are that you’re already left-leaning, and already inclined to believe in climate change.  How then will the voices of those children of the left media, through whatever social media means available, trump the voices of the actual right media?  Perhaps this is a question not of beating the right side of politics over the head with ‘DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE CLIMATE NOW!’ but asking them to seriously reconsider their sources of information.  And in doing this we must also reconsider our own left-of-centre information and biases.

The ‘worry quotient’

Ms MacTiernan very rightly spoke about Australians’ ‘quotient for worry’, and that somehow, between the 2007 election and legislating the CPRS, the worry of the Australian public moved from concern for climate change to concern for the economy.  And yes, this is surely in part as a result of those great events of 2009, the Global Financial Crisis, and an increasing understanding that Australia is vulnerable, economically speaking.  And that our economic vulnerability is potentially more serious and threatening to our current standard of living than climate change is.  So how do we speak to those members of the population?  Those most concerned with keeping things as they are?  And in particular, how do we speak to them in a manner which is complete in its accuracy, comprehensive in its detail, but convincing in its simplicity.  Put simply, how do we change people’s mind? 

A tough fight for the Libs

I cannot blame the Liberal candidate for not turning up to be booed and hissed by an audience so firmly set to the left of politics.  Unfortunately, almost shamefully so.  During the Question and Answer portion of the evening one individual asked the panel about the ‘fear mongering’ tactics employed to prevent any serious discussion of accessing nuclear power as a means for reducing our emissions in Australia.  His question was met with groans from the audience, and even some boos.  What kind of even-handed debate can exist when there is obvious derision for a justified question from a member of the crowd?  Perhaps this is why the Liberal candidate declined, at the last minute, to attend?  While I do not think that nuclear power is the answer to all our climate problems, indeed it would be preferable not to rely on nuclear at all, it is still a weapon in our arsenal against climate change – a clumsy and potentially dangerous instrument, perhaps, something that may backfire on us – but still, it is a tool that should not be forgotten too readily.  And I applaud Alannah MacTiernan for moving against a crowd of obvious renewable-only supporters to suggest that nuclear is something we should, at the very least, consider for our low-carbon future.

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