Early this week, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, making headlines around the world. While confirming much of what is already known about human causes of climate change, media coverage has focused on the IPCC’s modelling that even with strong, immediate global action, global warming will almost certainly increase to 1.5 degrees by 2040. The goal, the report states, must be to limit change to that level, avoiding more extreme increases to reduce the overall level of destruction and harm.
While for many this report has proved shocking, it is important to consider the report as an urgent call to action, rather than despair – especially in Australia, where successive Coalition Federal governments have resisted the increasingly obvious need to reduce emissions and to support transition the growth of low and zero carbon industries.
In responding to the report, Morrison doubled down on his government’s refusal to engage seriously with emission cuts through the approach he describes as “technology over taxes.” This, of course, ignores the Morrison Government’s active hostility towards existing technologies that are already cutting emissions- electric cars, solar and wind power, instead preferring future, not-yet-commercial technologies.
It also shows that the Morrison government sees “technology” as something which cannot be reconciled with public investment. It confirms that Morrison sees the role of government not as being to actively govern and lead; but rather, sees fit to abandon the climate response to the private sector. In practice, this means holding workers, the Australian economy, and even global emissions targets, hostage to the whims of big corporations.
In defending this position, Morrison set up another false binary, between public funding, which he described as “handing over blank cheques”, or making sure that the “burden” of change is fairly distributed across the community. This response ignores the obvious fact that the most timely and effective way to evenly distribute the burden is to actively direct the market, to fund and incentivise the swiftest possible transition. This is not done by “handing over blank cheques”, as the Morrison government currently does in providing massive tax breaks and subsidies to big business, but rather, by actively planning to transition industry expertise, to retrain, recruit and redirect skills in the energy sector towards more sustainable and efficient sources.
While Australia is lagging behind global standards on emissions, there is vast potential for a more proactive policy approach to begin to close that gap. There have been many important missed opportunities: for example, as Michele O’Neil recently commented to the National Press Club, Australia’s COVID recovery could very well have incorporated “climate-aligned” investment and funding to create stable and secure jobs in a crucial growth area, but instead, this was almost entirely overlooked.
In the absence of federal-level vision, some smaller scale projects at state level illustrate the potential for government coordination to facilitate the kind of economic transition the IPCC report demands – such as the Victorian State Government renewable energy hub based in Geelong, housed in the former Ford Factory. This recruited workers from closed factories in the area, allowing them to redeploy their skills towards cleaner energy production in secure jobs.
There is much greater potential for this kind of joined-up economic transition strategy to be expanded – as a recent report has demonstrated, for example, Australia is uniquely positioned to draw on offshore wind energy, as many key sites are close to existing substations and transmission grids. This presents a clear opportunity, as MUA secretary Paddy Crumlin has said, to allow workers “to transition into the important work of delivering Australia’s clean energy future.”
The question, however, is one of political will. Rather than exploring practical policy dimensions, however, the Morrison government has attempted to distract Australians by presenting manipulative, dubious statistics which deliberately misrepresented and downplayed the extent of Australia’s net emissions.
The IPCC report makes it clear that the time for action is short. The Morrison Government is choosing to spend that limited time engaging in selective spin and doubling down on its commitment to a high emissions economic model, which will not survive much longer.
Against this backdrop of cruel indifference, it is all the more important to draw from the legacy of the late NSWBLF secretary Jack Mundey, who passed away last year. Mundey saw environmentalism as a collective civic responsibility and fought for the right of workers to ensure their labour was not contributing to greater harm. Writing in 1972, Mundey argued that “we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment.” That spirit of environmental solidarity will be a crucial ingredient in meeting the challenge of this IPCC report now and into the future.