What do you do when you’re working on climate change and the political reality of your country shifts to become indifferent to both the scientific and social need to act on climate change?
Australia’s climate change policies recently took a turn for the worse with the election of a conservative government this September. The new Prime Minister Tony Abbott has publicly said that climate change is “absolute crap” and has been criticised from within his party for having a “direct-action” climate change policy that is “an environmental figleaf to cover a determination to do nothing.”
Along with general despair, responses to this in the climate community in Australia have ranged to feeling that political exile will force climate campaigners to redouble their efforts to claims that if you give the conservatives enough rope, the public will be astounded and angry at their actions. It has already led to the Twitter hashtag #OneTermTony.
Prime Minister Abbott’s first orders of business were to go through and start dismantling all of the climate change policies that were put in place by the Gillard and Rudd governments. The Department of Climate Change was merged into the Department of the Environment, and there are no longer ministers for Climate Change or Science – only Environment and Innovation are left.
The Climate Commission, which was set up by the Gillard Government in 2011 to provide rigorous scientific reporting on the effects of climate change on Australia, was dismantled and the commissioner, science professor Tim Flannery, was sacked. Next on Abbott’s list is to abolish the carbon tax, which was a key part of his election campaign.
So what to do? Not only is the popular carbon tax on the chopping block, but Abbott is likely to want to approve things such as shipping coal in tankers over the Great Barrier Reef – what kind of organizing will fight this kind of onslaught? Because here’s the disconnect; while Abbott’s conservative Liberal Party won enough votes to take office in September, the overwhelming majority of Australians say that climate change is happening and action needs to be taken to address it.
In the third-annual survey of Australian attitudes to climate change published in January 2013 by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO), which is Australia’s chief scientific body, 79% of people agreed that climate change is happening.
CSIRO polling data (from report)
Unfortunately, similar to perceptions in the United States and Canada, the denier framing of a “debate” on the causes of climate change have had an effect in Australia, with an even split between people who believed climate change was due to human forcing vs natural cycles. Interestingly, when asked about other people’s opinions on climate change, all respondents overestimated the number of people who deny climate change.
This overestimation of the vocal minority who deny the existence of climate change has led to an interesting outcome in Australia. With the Climate Commission being abolished by the Abbott Government, there was a public outcry and an immediate response from Professor Flannery and the former commissioners to recreate the Climate Commission as a not-for profit organisation.
The Climate Council was founded the following week as a non-profit non-partisan organisation that will continue to provide the public with cutting edge information about the impacts Australia faces from climate change. Within a week of the Council being formed, more than 20,000 people had signed up to be members and the Council had received more than $1 million in donations to continue their work.
The work of the Climate Council will continue to be essential for Australia, a country which has already experienced many impacts of climate extremes, with last summer being dubbed the “Angry Summer” where 123 weather records were broken over a 90-day period and the Bureau of Meteorology famously had to incorporate a new color onto their heat maps.
Citizen-led crowdsourcing for climate-related research has become increasingly popular as the political polarization around climate change has become more entrenched, and organizations seek ways to circumvent the political deadlock and achieve some action on climate change. The crowdfunding of the Climate Council builds on the work of groups such as GetUp! in Australia that have harnessed the power of social media to change the national debate around issues such as the Great Barrier Reef, independent media and asylum seekers.
While crowdfunding is by no means a solution to the structural changes that will be required to decarbonise the global economy and avoid the worst consequences of climate pollution, in the interim it seems to be a successful way to bridge the gap between the political reality and the lived reality of climate change.
Amy Huva is a research assistant for Climate Access. An environmental chemist, she previously worked for the Australian Federal Government in Canberra on agricultural reform and the Montreal Protocol. She is also founder of the Read the Science blog.