When we think about the word pollution, it conjures up images of black smoke belching from factories or old cars. But for this election it’s a different kind of pollution in the spotlight again – the invisible greenhouse pollution driving global warming.
I suspect climate change both terrifies and dulls Australians. We watch with horror and despair as the coral gardens of the Great Barrier Reef bleach and die. We can’t quite believe the loss of a favourite beach town in an early summer bushfire. And while we look forward to summers, there’s also fear we’ll be hit by another heatwave more ferocious than anything we experienced growing up.
Scratch the surface of Australian attitudes about the future, and deep inside we worry that our kids won’t have it as good as we do. They absorb this bleak prognosis, which perhaps partly explains the resurgence in dystopian films and books for teens.
But we brush these fears aside or bury them within, and collectively devote more of our civic energies and political focus to more local or easily comprehensible issues: public transport, job security, house prices and retirement incomes.
If this federal election is to prove a turning point, both in our emissions but also in finding the political will to solve global warming, we need to tackle at least three types of pollution, each with a different source.
Firstly, there’s the most obvious pollution. Australia’s climate pollution is climbing again after the Coalition’s axing of our carbon laws. Our most polluting coal-burning power stations here in Victoria have increased their pollution since the carbon price was scrapped.
The Coalition has no plan to phase out or limit emissions from power stations like Hazelwood in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. The ALP has a plan for modernising our electricity sector, but does not yet have a clear timetable for phasing out facilities like Hazelwood or Yallourn.
Political parties can propose all sorts of convoluted climate policies, but unless they have a clear plan and time frame for phasing out and replacing coal-burning power stations – and protecting workers and communities in the process – they are not addressing the primary cause of our pollution.
The second type of pollution we need to deal with is the pollution of our politics. For too long in Australia, both sides of politics have avoided the difficult but necessary decisions due to the power of vested interests.
It’s obvious that to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, the first step we need to take is to stop building new fossil fuel projects. And yet the Queensland and federal governments recently approved the construction of a new coal mine of unprecedented size that would operate for the next 60 years.
Neither the Coalition nor the ALP is prepared to concede that the era of new fossil fuel projects is over. Neither party is prepared to end massive fossil fuel subsidies like the $2.5 billion that goes to mining companies each year to pay their diesel bills.
Perhaps they fear a response such as Kevin Rudd saw from the mining industry when he proposed a tax on super profits. Or perhaps the revolving door between industry and politicians is too deeply entrenched. Whatever the cause, the public interest is coming off second best to the corporate interests of the coal, oil and gas industry.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult of all, we need to deal with the mental pollution that clouds our judgment about what is necessary and possible in tackling global warming. The last five years have damaged public trust and confidence in political decision-making. It is difficult to think of a policy domain where public confidence is lower than in climate policy.
Scientists have sounded the alarm on global warming, only to lose their jobs. Hopes have been raised with talk of climate change being “the greatest moral challenge of our time” and then dashed with insipid policy responses. Environment groups, progressive business and the social sector have urged political leadership on the issue, but leadership efforts have been intimidated and outgunned by scare campaigns.
All of this has contributed to a sense of fatigue, disappointment and fear that our politicians are just not up to the task. Prime Minister Turnbull’s underwhelming response has been the final let down – even a man who once crossed the floor of parliament to support a carbon price now opposes it.
Climate change is already hurting communities and damaging prosperity. Even if we stopped polluting today, temperatures will keep rising for decades and globally billions of people will suffer.
If we want to limit the damage to our own and future generations, we need to push aside this mental pollution, rediscover our political agency and overcome fear and fatigue. We can see signs of this already. In a powerful antidote to political inaction, over 1.5 million Australian households have embraced a renewable-powered future by installing solar power on their homes.
But we need to move beyond individual action to societal transformation. If we are ever going to build the necessary momentum to rapidly shift to a pollution-free economy, as citizens we should be measuring our would-be leaders with a simple, clear-headed test: Are they going to throw everything they’ve got at stopping global warming or not?
This blog post first appeared in The Age here >>