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Say Yes… to better climate policy?

Climate blogger Leigh Ewbank writes: At the weekend, a coalition of environment groups and unions launched a television advertisement featuring the award-winning actress Cate Blanchett that urges the public to support the government’s carbon price policy.

It didn’t take long for conservative politicians and commentators to attack the messenger.

Conservative critics have attempted turn Cate Blanchett’s presence in the ad into a weakness for the ‘Say Yes’ campaign. Emphasising Blanchett’s personal wealth, conservative critics have sought to present the carbon price as just another elite cause — one that is out of touch with concerns and interests of ‘everyday Australians’. This narrative will appeal to some, but as many people have noted on the twittersphere, it smacks of hypocrisy. Where were the conservative critiques when billionaire-mining magnates Gina Rhinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest used their personal wealth to sink the Rudd government’s proposal to tax the industry’s exorbitant profits?

Mark Textor, the political strategist and former pollster to PM John Howard, commented on the debate, tweeting: “One indication of #adfailure? When there’s more conversation about the tactics and execution of it rather than about its core subject matter.” By this measure, there’s no doubt that opponents to the carbon price have blunted the pro-carbon price message by stirring up class resentment. The Say Yes advertisement might have avoided this by modeling the advertisement on those used in the successful ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign. Several of these ads used, dare I say it, ‘everyday Australians’ to make the case for fair industrial relations laws.

Looking beyond the fuss over Blanchett, the Say Yes campaign reveals just how low the bar has been set on national climate policy.

As someone that supports effective responses to climate change, what I find most interesting about the ‘Say Yes’ advertisement is the timing. The ad was launched as the government is still in negotiation with Green and independent members of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee over crucial details of the carbon tax: What the starting price of the carbon tax will be; how the remaining share of carbon price revenue will be allocated; what additional policies will support the carbon price; and whether the inadequate five percent carbon reduction target by 2020 will be increased. Notwithstanding the uncertainty on these critically important issues, the decision was made to launch a media campaign in support the government’s carbon price.

On the matter of increasing Australia’s 2020 emissions reduction target, it’s worth noting that if the carbon budget approach—the framework contained in the Climate Commission’s recent report—was applied to Australia, it would require the nation to be completely decarbonised by 2020. ‘We are in deep carbon deficit heading towards bankruptcy,’ David Spratt wrote in Crikey last week, ‘and at the present rate of emissions, Australia would run out of its carbon budget to 2050 within five years.’

In the current push for climate change action, it seems the groups behind the Say Yes campaign are willing to accept even the most incrementalist policy. They appear so desperate that even the smallest price on carbon will be considered a ‘win.’ Perhaps a better approach would be to run a campaign that asks the government to reflect the increasingly grim state of climate science in its policy response… but that’s just a thought.

This post first appeared at The Real Ewbank. Leigh Ewbank is director of online communications for Beyond Zero Emissions, but these opinions are his own

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  • 1
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Great piece, Leigh.

    I think the issue of incrementalism is the key to the problem here, because it reflects a desperate desire to placate the very wealthy and powerful vested interests who want things to be business as usual. Yet every concession to “realism” gets us further from where we need to be, and emboldens the forces of inaction to rant ever more hysterically and get away with it.

    The desire to keep big business happy also means that climate advocates have tried to select a policy that fits roughly within the dominant discourse of economic policy; a neoliberal framework in which profitability reigns supreme. In order to meet this criterion, both Garnaut’s ETS and the interim carbon tax are inherently regressive. This therefore (a) leads governments to promise compensation to correct this, but also (b) risks destroying the still broad but increasingly fragile popular consensus on the need for action — precisely because it seems like the latest in a long line of attacks on the living standards of ordinary Australians (and yet again by an ALP government!).

    Unfortunately, while they are important, I don’t think that appeals to climate science are the key to changing this scenario. That is because while the science is compelling and the kinds of changes we need have been set out lucidly by Beyond Zero Emissions, the question of how they are going to be implemented is a purely political question. The current climate movement orthodoxy is some form of indirect manipulation of markets through “price signals”, an approach for which there is no real-world evidence — because of the scale of economic transition that will be needed. There is real world evidence that economic reorganisation can occur on a mass scale through direct state intervention (e.g the US shift to a war economy in 1941). Yet that would be upsetting the elite applecart too much.

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    JamesH
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Of course, if anyone had dared to mention how filthy rich the miners were getting by torpedoing tax reform, the Murdoch press would scream “Class Warfare!”. In fact, I think they did.

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