Fighting Abbott’s climate denial: why we shouldn’t defend the carbon tax

Tony Abbott says repealing the carbon tax will be his “first order of business” in the new parliament. Labor and the Greens have said they will oppose its repeal, setting up a stalemate until new Senators take over in July next year.

Abbott wants to put more money into the coffers of the polluters. But keeping the carbon tax would make no impact on Australia’s carbon emissions. Instead we need to fight Abbott for real action by demanding direct government spending on renewable energy.

Defending the carbon tax against Abbott's repeal is no way to fight for action on climate change

Abbott has made his intentions on climate change absolutely clear by abolishing the Climate Commission and ordering the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to stop operating.

Abbott is hostile to climate action because of his commitment to big business and Australia’s emissions-intensive economy. He wants coal companies and business to profit from fossil fuel reserves and the relatively cheap electricity they produce, no matter the risk to life on the planet.

His climate denial is obvious. Before the election Abbott called carbon dioxide an “invisible substance”, a proxy for claiming carbon emissions are not a problem.

Abbott has appointed climate denier Maurice Newman, former head of the Stock Exchange, to be chairman of his Business Advisory Council. Newman has said openly that, “The money spent on [climate] agencies and subsidies pursuing these myths was wasted. Their legacy continues to undermine Australia’s international competitiveness.”

The now abolished Climate Commission backed the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target (RET), which forces power companies to source a percentage of their power from renewables, after a comprehensive review last year. The emissions-intensive electricity industry and heavy industry would like the RET to be diluted or scrapped. New Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane will now find a different body to conduct a fresh review.

The Coalition will also investigate “potential health effects of wind farms” and “establish real time monitoring of wind farm noise emissions [sic] to be made publicly available on the internet”. This signals that like the Baillieu government in Victoria it will try to use fake concerns over “health impacts” of wind turbines to restrict new wind farms.

The Coalition will also scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). The CEFC has funded some minor worthy projects through loans, such as the Taralga wind farm, and 56 MW of solar power generation at Moree. Those projects should be supported, although the CEFC hasn’t kick-started any serious large scale renewable projects. Australia still has no large scale solar power.

The politics of the carbon tax

Despite a campaign by Labor, The Greens and many unions to sell the carbon tax it remains unpopular. That’s why Abbott could so easily make abolishing it a central plank of his election campaign. An Essential poll in October found 47 per cent oppose it with only 39 per cent in support.

But it’s not simply climate denial driving opposition to the tax. Only 36 per cent thought “we are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth’s climate”. Despite talk of “making the polluters pay”, the tax allowed companies to pass on price increases which meant it was working class people who really paid, and voters knew it.

The Coalition sell on the carbon tax was never about action on climate; it was a populist appeal about the cost of living and jobs. Their election policy document begins “Repealing the Carbon Tax will ease cost of living pressures on families, help small business and restore confidence to the economy.”

Labor and The Greens wrongly insisted that the carbon tax would help the environment and could not answer the Coalition over cost of living. Acting Labor leader Chris Bowen simply argues, “climate change is real… we need to do something about it… [and] a market mechanism is the best way to do that”. Labor’s promise of compensation for the tax only reinforced the idea that the tax was indeed going to raise prices. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard even said the point of the tax was to raise prices!
There was no way people were going to accept paying higher prices for a carbon tax that didn’t cut emissions.

Although most of the sharp increase in electricity has not been because of the carbon tax, the Climate Institute estimated that it did add “about $2 and $4 extra per week” to electricity bills.

It shouldn’t take a Coalition policy document to point out that “Electricity is not a luxury—it is an essential part of daily life”. But they have been able to get away with pretending to care about the cost of living because the market mechanism introduced by Labor and The Greens didn’t really make the polluters pay at all.

Demobilising the movement

The carbon tax hasn’t even reduced emissions. The best it might have done is entrench gas, not renewables, as the alternative to coal for power generation. Such a pitiful response to what Rudd called “the greatest moral challenge of our time” has only bred cynicism and climate denial, and demoralised climate activists.

Six years ago there were protests of up to 50,000 demanding climate action, and then several politically sharper Climate Emergency Rallies of around 5000 demanding 100 per cent renewable energy. There were 30 local climate action groups in Victoria alone. The climate emergency has not gone away, but the activism and the mobilisations have all but disappeared. The carbon tax bears much of the blame.

Some still defend the carbon tax as the only thing that was realistically on offer, but with this logic, there can never be a strategy for winning anything beyond what crumbs might fall from the table.
In 2009, The Greens rightly opposed the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as “worse than nothing”, but confronted with a minority Labor government, The Greens settled for something that was just as bad.

Marius Kloppers, head of coal producer BHP, supported a carbon price because he was worried the alternative might be serious regulation. Labor and The Greens expended a huge amount of political energy to fight for the tax, rather than mobilise people in support of policies that would work.

Because Abbott wants to abolish the carbon tax, some will see defending the tax as a way to fight Abbott. But that is a mistake. The carbon tax that helped hand Abbott the election. We should oppose his climate denial and argue for climate policies that actually work—and that are paid for by raising corporate tax, not prices.

Direct action?

Abbott’s “direct action” climate policy is a farce designed to subside big polluters and continue business as usual. Genuine government spending on renewable energy could work and would be popular. Major government-built (and owned) solar power and wind energy projects, like the Snowy Hydro Scheme of yesteryear, would create jobs and seriously reduce emissions.

Spain produced a third of its power from renewable sources last year, including solar thermal power stations that run through the night. NSW Greens research has shown how we could build the first three similar large-scale solar plants here for $5 billion. South Australia is already showing what is possible with wind power, which provided 26 per cent of its power in the last year.

Abbott has chosen to make the carbon tax the centre of his anti-climate agenda, precisely because it’s unpopular. The climate movement won’t beat Abbott by defending a tax that doesn’t work. Building renewable energy, however, remains a vote winner. Abbott isn’t yet confident to scrap the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target.

People who want action on climate change should get behind the fights against the East-West tunnel in Melbourne, the expansion of coal seam gas, and oppose government moves to restrict wind turbines, but to rebuild the climate movement we will need to move beyond the carbon tax, and put public investment in renewables, and public transport, back on the agenda.

By Chris Breen

Further reading: Has the carbon tax cut emissions?

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