Robert Manne on climate

In an excellent article published in The Guardian on 16 July 2014, Robert Manne neatly sets out the current state of play here in Australia around climate policy (or lack of policy). While he has the luxury of being able to shout loudly about this (he is, after all, one of the top public writers and intellectuals in Australia, and recent retired from La Trobe University), there is a lot of sense here.

Reading Manne’s article reminded me that people from my corner of Europe often ask me why I moved to Australia. They hear about exuberant and unsustainable resource extraction, anti-environmentalism and the ripping up of environmental policies, the poor treatment of asylum seekers, and such matters. This happened when I left a tenure-track job at a top US university in 2004 for the Antipodes, to move to a city that many Americans actually thought was a small town in Florida (Melbourne) and many British thought was too far away (and clearly wasn’t Sydney, the favourite destination for British emigration to Australia). The fact that Melbourne actually has 4m people and has a university in the world top 40, did not seem to cut it.

When I arrived in Melbourne, within weeks I realised the rather desperate state of national politics – a Howard-driven parochialism, coupled to a belief in the absolute necessity of economic growth  had already gutted many of the policies of previous administrations. Attending a ‘not happy John’ rally downtown eased my pain – locally, Federal policies were seemingly not popular at all. The ease of existence my wife had experienced in Australia back in the 1980s , with excellent support to its citizens and progressive policies on gender equality, workplaces, health, education and retirement,  seemed a distant memory. But state politics in 2004 in Victoria showed more concern with redressing inequalities and environmental degradation (two of the things I teach about and care about) than the Feds did. I also met more interesting people in a short space of time than would have been possible where I was based in the US, some great university students, and the ‘liveability’ of Melbourne rubbed off on the family.  The country then experienced a mining boom, more embarrassing Federal refugee and asylum seeker policies, and eventually the election of a Labor government in 2007 that seemed to offer some better global accountability on climate change, if not on immigration. This was not to last.

Manne, in his article,  refers to the current political era, where national politics has again shifted to extreme right-wing denialism on environmental issues, an austerity budget following the end of the economic boom, and the end of the innovative carbon tax. Efforts  are being made to rescind the  tax on mining, too.   Following a change in State government we also have a local ‘roads’ obsession’ with a multi-billion dollar un-necessary project going in near where I live, largely to supply easy access for trucks.The money would be better spent of trains of course, as most other cities of this size have already realised.

Much of what is going on politically represents an absence of knowledge among the majority of voters that decide the election. I do not have to go far to enter the Australian suburbs, where most of Australians live and voting patterns are really split between Labor and Liberal – currently biased towards the latter. Suburban preoccupations are quite often the Australian vision of the ‘good life’ – people support policies that bring ample services, decent jobs except in recession, home ownership, an affordable  meat-rich diet, sports facilities and schools, and a generally comfortable existence from which to view the world and its quite distant problems. Environmental worries are not high on the agenda for many people, outside the stalwart activists and in certain professions. Says Manne: “… it is hardly surprising that over the past decade climate change denialism quickly sunk deep roots here.” But, often, it is also a lack of knowledge.

In the  (increasingly less edgy these days) inner city the political dynamic is a bit different, despite its increasing affluence. Where I live the minority Green party, favouring concerted emissions reductions,  polls over 25% of the vote, despite having far less history and policy coherence than the Liberals or Labor – but this is still a small group of people. We have urban gardens, ‘transition towns’, progressive local councils, sustainability policies, etc. But this does not disturb Federal policies very much.

Manne paints Australian policy on climate change as an international embarrassment, and letting down future generations. “History will condemn the climate change denialists, here and elsewhere, for their contribution to the coming catastrophe that their cupidity, their arrogance, their myopia and their selfishness have bequeathed to the young and the generations still unborn.”  Indeed.  Not that other countries have necessarily risen to the challenge much better, but here we seem to specialise in avoidance of fundamental scientific truths. The reason I stay here is that millions in Australia actually think differently, and higher education offers one locale for supporting this.

But sometimes I wonder.

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