Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit

5th Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit

2018 May, 1

Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit

Good evening and thank you to the Institute for this kind invitation for me to talk with you this evening. I'm no technical master of the subject. So, I will talk about philosophy instead. I want to acknowledge the Wurundjeri First Nation of this city and acknowledge my indigenous brothers and sisters from around the country.


I want to first position myself. I hope I speak for the wretched of the Earth but, unlike my own family and countrymen in Cape York, I'm of the middle class and I have all of the interests and motivations of my class. I have a very burning self-interest for my children, like all middle-class people do. So, I always grapple with this struggle because, on the one hand, I think myself a standard bearer for the wretched but, of course, I have my own interests motivating me. I think about class almost every day. You can't talk about the predicament of the wretched in Australia, the most imprisoned people per head of any peoples on planet Earth, the most imprisoned per head of any peoples on planet Earth. So, I think about class everyday and I think about this terrible gridlock of race and class that produces a result like that, worse than the predicament of African Americans in the United States. It cannot be because we are innately criminal that 3% of the population make up to 30% of the prison population. It cannot be because we do not love our children that they are estranged from us in the child protection systems of this nation.


So, I think about the race and class predicament. I don't know if we're ever going to break out of that predicament because we're caught between the Left and Right. The Right oppose us on race and the Left oppose us on class. A whole lot of prescriptions on the Left are good for us. Land rights, human rights, human dignity are all causes that the Left have steadfastly supported us on. However, many of the things we need to do are contrary to the instincts of the Left - for our children to be educated in a certain way, for there to be development, not just environmental stewardship, this assumption that money is alien to indigenous people and wealth should be abjured. So, on a whole lot of fronts that we need to move on, the Left oppose us and the Right, in fact, are our allies. This very day, we are aligned with the political Right in Queensland in relation to restrictions on land clearing on aboriginal land and we will fight until we overturn those laws as far as it applies to our people. We only got our land back these last 28 years. The Mabo decision was in 1992. We just got our land back. And prior to that time, we had dingdong battles with the miners. In this past 10 years, we've been fighting the Greens. All for land rights. Land rights meaning that traditional owners should have the say over their land, be it conservation or development. We're trapped. Racism on the Right and people who see for us being nobly poor, living in noble poverty.


So, let me position myself. I'm for the wretched. I want a better future for those at the bottom of society and particularly this country. Let me say one more thing as preliminary. I don't know if you're familiar with Mike Daisey's campaign against Apple. I share his heartbreak - the American theatrical performer Mike Daisey.  I share his heartbreak that Apple and so many other great new technology companies have turned out to be as rapacious in relation to labour conditions for people who make those fantastically beautiful devices and as rapacious as Exxon ever was in relation to tax avoidance and fair play in the countries in which they sell. What a terrible disappointment these new communications companies are. They should have shown us the new capitalism and they're no different from the dirty industries they displaced. So, I share Mike Daisey’s heartbreak in relation to companies like that and I really strongly urge those of you who work in the fields of carbon markets and saving the planet from its most gravest threats, I firmly urge you to avoid that rapacious version of new capitalism, that broken promise of such recent history.


In 2009, I put forward one way to think of the climate wars. And I have a very desultory diagram to show you. That was my thinking. Still is. The horizontal axis describes where people stand in relation to whether global warming is real. It traverses the spectrum of views ranging from strong climate change believers on the far left to the strong climate change deniers on the far right. The vertical axis describes the relative level of economic security of people. This spectrum ranges from those enjoying strong economic security at the top to those who are most insecure at the bottom. People sit at numerous points along these axes. On the centre left side of the belief spectrum are those who may not be completely convinced of the scientific evidence of global warming but who think that precaution is the right policy. On the centre right side are those who do not completely deny the scientific evidence but who reject the ideological zeal of the believers on the far left. Political affiliations do not completely correspond with the far left/right spectrum between belief and denial. There are individuals who confound this typology because there are political leftists who are deniers and rightists who accept the scientific evidence for man-made global warming. For example, former British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the world's first political leader to take climate change seriously and who was instrumental in establishing the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. It is a measure of how the once politically neutral position of whether climate change with scientifically true has mutated into an increasingly polarised ideological war that the hero of Conservatives worldwide is on the wrong side. If Thatcher were climbing onto the world stage today, I doubt she would be batting for Clive Hamilton and Bob Brown's team. She'd be opening the batting with the Nick Minchin and slogging Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme for sixes into the stands. Once mild sceptics on the centre right are being pushed further right, recoiling from the righteousness and the moral posturing of the zealots on the left. The believers on the left seem oblivious to the extent the religious nature of their fervour alienates potential supporters. The price being paid for the West's progressive classes refinding God in the environment makes many a sceptic yearn for the time people went to church for spiritual succour. Natural revelation has long provenance in Christian theology but the Greens' religious atheism is repellent to many. Conversely, the fact too many on the other side are animated by a wilful obscurantism and see all things through the prism of that old chestnut political correctness excites their opponents on the left into paroxysms of righteous rage. What better accelerant for right-wing fury than Hamilton? What better provocation for leftist apoplexy than Minchin or today Tony Abbott?


But let's now get to the point of my scheme here. Most of Australia's climate change action policy advocates come from the top left-hand box. They believe that climate change is real. We believe climate change is real, it is caused by humans and that urgent and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. We are also economically secure. All of the media and the legions of educated people who believe in global warming fall within this quadrant. Yes, there are also believers who are economically insecure but they are not the heartland of climate change activism. If they also dread climate change, their relative economic insecurity nevertheless affects the kinds of policy responses they may support or reject. Pacific Islanders and other such people who are directly confronted by rising sea levels and believe in climate change causation comprise those in the bottom left quadrant, who are economically insecure but believe in the need for action on climate change. The top right corner is occupied by the economically secure who don't believe in or even care about climate change and they resist action. Wealthy people, whose pursuit of self-interest has transmuted from natural calling to German social theorist Max Weber's iron cage of an endless unfulfilling accumulation and consumption, occupy this corner. There is much scope for cynicism among this mob but it is a toss-up as to what's worse - climate policy activists who want others to pay costs of ameliorative action but who will ensure that any cost they themselves bear will not be a great burden or those archetypal cigar chompers who don't give a damn. One is blatantly selfish and the other more subtlely so. I am on the upper side of the economic security axis, though all my relatives and the people most dear to me are economically insecure and, though I intimately know and work with people in poverty, I must confess this. I have no idea what it would mean for electricity bills to go up by say $100 a month. I think I could afford such a rise and if I were asked to pay this increase in return for saving the planet, then I would probably readily consent. In fact, my altruistic sacrifice number is probably significantly higher. Like many educated middle class professionals who earn a good salary, I have lost a real understanding of what an increase in the cost of living such as this means for lower income people. Growing up in an extremely low-income family as I did does not guarantee this empathy. There's a policy issue here. It is easy for people above the income security line - the yellow line - to devise and advocate climate action policies that allocate costs that are affordable by us but that are a big deal for the percentage of society for whom it may break a family budget or for whom any great scarcity of employment is a life disaster.


There's also a potential political issue here. When economically insecure people realise that climate action advocates are largely economically secure and can afford the cost that will be incurred by the choices they are advocating, they may revolt in the way Tony Abbott hopes they will. Where do you sit in this quadrant? This was my thinking in 2009 and reviewing it almost a decade later, I don't think my analysis has changed much.


I therefore want to talk about the obscurantists - the conservatives who don't want to conserve. I urge upon you the British conservative writer, who wrote the book Green Philosophy, who makes the obvious point that conservatives should be the first conservationists. Our planet and our society and our world is a deal between us and our ancestral dead and our unborn descendants and Roger Scruton's Green Philosophy published in 2012 is a really important contribution to the case for environmental action and, particularly, climate change action. They should be the first supporters of real action. And yet, conservative Australians and conservatives around the world have turned into the worst kind of obscurants in relation to the science of climate change. And then we have the non-market liberals, the liberals who abjure markets. What a strange thing to have taken place, that the people who should be the first advocates of market mechanisms are the greatest objectors to carbon markets today. And part of the dynamic of my scheme here is that I think that those of us who have progressive views in relation to climate change have possibly forced this phenomenon to come about. We are not blameless in how this whole thing has played out over the last ten years.


I also want to talk about the Greens, the class warriors who would keep the world's poor poor. We are in a death struggle in Cape York Peninsula. Our lands are being locked up by Green activists in return for votes in the southeast corner of Queensland and the eastern seaboard. We're desperately trying to preserve our right to decide what development takes place in the future and to leave our development options open but since we got our land back and we did deals with green groups to create millions of hectares of new national parks on aboriginal land, millions of hectares of Cape York, the national parks estate in Cape York has doubled because of the consent of traditional owners, and the end result of all of that has been environmental groups like the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conversation Foundation and the Pew Foundation and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, all of them advocating that not only do we want the half of the land that you've given up for national parks, we want to put wild river restrictions and world heritage restrictions on the other half. We don't want any aquaculture. We don't want any horticultural development. We don't want any mining. So, we're in a death struggle against being perpetually relegated to poverty. I would make myself a more popular figure if I didn't say these things because we lose progressive people when we fight against environmentalism, these restrictions. But Mabo should have been the point when both environmentalists and resource developers should have respected the fact that we finally recognised land rights and the right to self-determination. That should have been the point. Instead, the victory we won in 1992, which was rolled back by the Howard Government in 1998, resulted in aboriginal native title holders around the country, owning many millions of hectares of land under the High Court decision, being deprived of any real participation in the mining boom, the largest mining boom to ever take place on the face of the planet in that 20-year period after Mabo. That mining boom excluded the very people who'd won native title to their traditional homelands 200 years late. I fear we are now entering into a period where our land rights are going to be subjugated by environmental regimes. And my problem with it is that these assets have not even been preserved for traditional owners to trade in an ultimate market and to take advantage in a carbon market. The green groups haven't allowed us to preserve our assets so that we can trade it in the markets that you're trying to bring about. Instead, they have pre-emptively locked up our land through their control over governments and the exchange of lousy votes every three years in Brisbane. So, there may be remnant opportunities in relation to carbon on aboriginal lands but in Cape York Peninsula there are significantly less than what we had ten years ago because the zeal of the environmental groups has led to Labor governments in Brisbane locking up our land without our consent.


So, I'm in favour of the radical centrists for whom the environment is too important to leave to the environmentalists. And the radical centre people have got to be as concerned about poverty as much as they are concerned about sustainability. Humans have to live in nature. We have to find solutions for sustainable life in nature. Not a wilderness. Cape York was never a wilderness. Cape York has not been a wilderness for 65,000 years. Humans have possessed that land. Those humans and their descendants live today. It must count for something. So, we've got to solve poverty and sustainability. And we're determined to do that and we will fight against those tree-clearing laws, as justified as they are, because we have to preserve our land rights. And they may win this time around but in another three years or six years, we will fight the government of the day for a return of freedom in relation to our land, the freedom to make our own decisions about our land. Radical centrists must fight for human rights and land rights as much as for the future of the planet.


I hope that the carbon markets that all of you hope to bring about in the future, I hope that you succeed. I hope that you have regard to what I've said here tonight. This can't just be another business opportunity. This can't just be another opportunity for the middle class to accumulate more advantage at the expense of the wretched. This has got to be the one industry that doesn't break the promise. I look forward to the day when every incentive, every price signal, every default, every nudge leads to sustainable choice and I commend you all for your endeavours in that direction.


Thank you.