The Release From Fear - Climate Action and the Economic Transition
31 October 2018
Firstly, I begin this speech with the most important acknowledgement of all –
that this discussion of the environment is taking place on the land of the
Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.
Their respectful custodianship and care of this place where we meet today is something of which we should all be mindful - in the ongoing discussion of climate action, and sustainability more broadly.
I’ve been asked to speak about climate action and the economic transition; the challenges to be met and the tensions to be managed in a policy setting.
In the spirit of ruthless honesty I’m going to acknowledge from the outset that I do not speak about this subject without an amount of existential fear.
My generation came of age during the Cold War - and weathered a lot of “end-of-the-world” debate in the context of the nuclear age.
So to find ourselves facing the real, environmental catastrophe and the pressing climate emergency is actually terrifying.
Perhaps it is because during the Cold War – especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis – we became convinced that in the midst of human crisis that saner minds amidst our leadership could prevail, and disaster be averted.
But the industry – and I use that word deliberately – of climate denial has emerged in the shadow of advanced American marketing practices, and been exported worldwide, has fought with some effort and extraordinary resources against the instincts of saner minds.
The result is that faith in world leadership to confront the climate crisis has, understandably, eroded. Here in Australia it’s pretty much gone.
It is extraordinary to me that when data is plain, evidence obvious and scientists howling – and howling they are – that the President of the United States has pledged to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords.
It staggers me, too, that in Australia, our minister for the environment was on her feet in parliament only these past weeks arguing AGAINST acting on the urgent findings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A report that pretty much states that we have 12 years to limit greenhouse gas emissions or face a catastrophic and irreversible rise in temperature.
I’ll quote the ABC here:
The Minister, who used to work in the mining sector, suggested the 91 scientists behind the IPCC report had got it wrong.
This – the final straw really in a calamitous recent history of policy failure on climate change.
So it’s understandable that in the context of policy frustration and leadership inaction that incredible fear has grown around the very subject of climate change.
Real anxiety exists as to whether it ever will be confronted with effective legislation,
And if thought will go into what disruptions will be caused by attempts at remedy, and what effects will be felt by communities.
I’ve learned from friends in the media that in this data-driven world, the stats are in and despite the end-of-life-as-we-know-it stakes of the climate emergency, people are no longer reading the articles written about what is happening.
Fear and some fatigue causes audiences and viewers to switch off.
Our modern lives are complex and demanding and it’s little wonder that at the end of a long day, the details of impending climate horror are overwhelming to take on.
Let’s revisit that IPCC report, the one dismissed by Scott Morrison’s Environment Minister – again, this is information from the ABC:
Should we fail to meet the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and instead we limit warming to 2 degrees, the implications are:
- the destruction of 99% of coral reefs worldwide
- the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef
- a collapse in fish stocks
- a significant increase in land species extinctions
- sea level rises of 10 centimetres, obliging the relocation of 10 million people.
- it would double the human population that is subjected to water scarcity.
- it would disrupt food production
- there’d be more extreme weather events – more floods, more droughts, more hot weather
- loss of the Amazon forests
- melting of the permafrost
- loss of ice in West Antarctic and Greenland
… and the concern - from expert scientists like Will Steffen at our own ANU – is that this could be just the beginning.
Is it any wonder what happens on The Bachelor is far more popular media story?
But we need to remind ourselves of the incredible opportunity that the understanding of climate change provides for the imperative, transformative restructuring of our economies and our lives.
I stand committed to the cause of hope made possible by climate action.
Hope for a just world, a fair world and a sustainable planet – in the reshaping of our economies to meet its challenges.
We know that the way that we produce cars, our homes, energy, food - all of our systems of production, distribution and exchange - need to change to meet the climate threat.
We also know that that the neoliberal logic of market solutions is a non-solution for what we face.
The “invisible hand” of the market exists in a 19th century economic fantasy where the frontier and its resources were infinite, and where any negative environmental impacts of manufacturing, transport and production could be overcome by setting up just over the next hill.
It is outrageous for corporations - who amassed their profits with no price paid for their external environmental impact – to insist that avoiding climate disaster is a matter of merely “improving consumer choices”.
There is a moment that comes, often only once in a generation to lead societal, structural change, and as the organised movement of working people – we say that moment is now.
Ours is the chance to deliver jobs and community development on a scale that not only meets the climate challenge - but also that ancient challenge of providing economic justice and security for all.
We know that decent, steady, stable jobs are what communities across the country demand and rely upon governments to provide.
We hear a lot of talk from the present government about “jobs figures” that absolutely do not represent the reality of Australia’s present employment experience.
There is a crisis of underemployment in Australia, and forty percent of working people are in insecure work.
Beyond the cities, youth unemployment gnaws at the edges of regional economies where globalization and the withdrawal of government enterprise and services have devastated the means of entry to reliable jobs.
The so-called “gig economy” is driving a further destabilization of minimum standards, pay and workplace expectations.
And if anyone here has been on the dole – let alone recruited into work-for-the dole or the Community Development Programme - they’d understand the punitive and cruel nature of that experience.
I mention all of this specifically in the context of what history remembers as the “Forest Wars” of the 1990s, where the battles for wilderness protection and the economic needs of regional economies were pitched as a polarity of providing jobs OR protecting the environment.
It was a falsely-premised competition that best served the interests of profiteering corporations - and delivered devastating, immediate wounds to both sides as well as a legacy of mistrust.
Australia is not the only place where this fiction played out, and the challenge before us as activists fighting the climate crisis is to ensure the bitter lessons are not lost, lest we repeat them.
Because around the world, again and again, what we’ve learned is that corporations who profit from environmental destruction weed their way into communities with promises of job creation that turn out to be threadbare.
Good luck relying on corporations to clean up their own mess - when it comes to what they do to local jobs, or to the environment.
Whether it's a toxic spill or a broken community, we know that the obligation of repair is always left to government.
So let’s look at what government can do to not only meet that obligation, but surpass it –
and it’s not just add a bit more regulation here or there, or pay for a
couple more “market” enticements for business to behave better - like a $60 billion tax cut, and fingers crossed for a trickle-down miracle, just one… more… time.
We need government policy to embrace that the fight for good jobs and the fight for climate action can – and should – be precisely the same thing.
And the good news is that the framework for how we can make that project work exists in what I believe is a most powerful policy inheritance of Australia’s labour movement.
The Curtin Labor Government’s White Paper on Full Employment in Australia was a policy framework for structural change that was itself born amidst a terrifying global crisis.
In the Curtin government’s case, that crisis was the Second World War.
Even as armies marched, bombs fell and entire cities were destroyed, the Curtin Labor generation realized their unique opportunity was the imperative to build the structural order of a new economy, one unburdened by the unsustainable inequalities that had provoked the Great Depression, and, with it, war and catastrophe.
The parallels of the white paper to the present are not just confined to the need to seize opportunity from crisis.
It’s in the specific remedies suggested by this document in how to approach inequality in our own economy.
Because while the oceans acidify, the Reef bleaches and the droughts befall us, you will have heard many of us in the public left make mention that inequality is at a 70 year high.
The tension in communities fighting for their every job - and responding to the false promises of polluters that there will be more jobs to come - is rooted in the fact that we have returned to the scale of economic disempowerment and disadvantage for which – 70 years ago - Curtin’s policy was the cure.
What it proposed was informed by the ideas expressed by John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936.
- fluctuations in private demand and investment provoke recessions and depressions, and, with them, unemployment..
… but if governments directly employ surplus labour to build
public works, maintaining full employment, the effect is leveled
… the income generated by employment stimulates demand
for the private sector to supply goods and services.
Curtin made the government responsible for jobs and job creation to meet the full employment target - and at the same time the nation was enriched and modernized by the construction of public infrastructure.
Australian unemployment averaged 2% for 30 years.
The Liberals retained Curtin’s framework for their subsequent 23 years of government, lest they risk the wrath of an electorate which was rather enjoying its effects.
These were the days before neoliberal orthodoxy that took hold in the 1970s redefined “full employment” as “five percent of people unemployed at any time”.
Before the neoliberals walked government away from direct job creation so that business could encourage downward pressure on wages through forcing workers not to bargain for jobs, but compete for them.
Now the “public works” of the past are today’s sustainability initiatives for the collective good.
Markets have never yet delivered them - but governments can and should and must if we are to meet the challenge of the climate crisis.
I want to read out some of the statements from the White Paper, and I ask you to think about them with climate action in mind:
- “To prevent the waste of resources which results from unemployment is the first and greatest step to higher living standards.”
- “Full advantage must be taken of modern methods of production and training in all branches of industry”
- “Full employment has advantages to offer to every section of the community…
-To the worker, it means steady employment, the opportunity to change employment if one wishes, and a secure prospect unmarred by the fear of idleness and the dole.
- To the business or professional person, the manufacturer, the shopkeeper, it means an expanding scope for enterprise, free from the fear of periodic slumps in spending.
- To the primary producer, it means an expanding home market and taking a world-wide view - better and more stable export markets.
- To the people as a whole, it means a better opportunity to obtain all the goods and services which their labour, working with necessary knowledge and equipment, is capable of producing.”
It is extraordinary to me to consider what is demanded from us as a society to meet the climate challenge and know that as I give this speech:
- the proportion of people aged 15 to 24 who are either without work or enough hours of work is now at 31.5 per cent.
- 30% of university graduates are not able to find full-time work within four months of graduating.
- And a recent ACTU study learned that of those presently retrenched from jobs in manufacturing industries, a third move into lower quality jobs, and a third never work again.
These human beings are the resources we are wasting - and it does not have to be this way.
Insisting that it does, that somehow rates of unemployment or underemployment are in any way “natural” or somehow beyond the remit of government policy is just another destructive form of denial.
My former employers, the ACTU, have embraced the language of “Just Transition” in relation to climate policy.
It was the demand of the international union movement included in the Paris Climate Accords, that workers displaced by climate action are provided opportunities for decent and secure jobs in a new, decarbonised economy.
Historically, industry transitions in Australia have engendered painful, largescale economic upheavals.
Workers and their communities bear the brunt of sudden economic hardship, sudden unemployment and social depression.
The present chaos in the energy sector around coal-fired power generation demonstrates the profound cost to communities and to the environment of governments persisting with a failed or failing market over the practical demands of the reality.
Decades of privatising electricity generation, distribution and retail have resulted in their for-profit owners charging outrageous electricity prices.
For profit, they’ve also downsized workforces and made reductions in safety standards and quality.
But giving away democratic control of power assets has diminished the capacity of governments to invest in and develop clean energy infrastructure that could’ve transitioned workers and the economies of their communities without the current panic and disruption.
Other countries have shown us that when governments direct climate transitions that are planned, consultative and apply imagination to problem-solving and empathy to communities, not only are jobs and livelihoods saved but innovation, industrial growth and greater prosperity results.
One great example is Denmark, who transitioned the skills of a workforce formerly employed in constructing North Sea oil and gas rigs into becoming the world’s biggest operator of sea-based wind turbines.
In Canada, transitions out of the oilsands industry gradually relocate electricians into solar power, welders into wind turbine construction and drilling engineers into geothermal projects.
The Australian union movement has been asking – and asking - for similar transition plans for industries.
Regional communities are demanding them.
Like pooled redundancies across multiple employers, early retirement, timely pre-redundancy re-training, local economic diversification and investment, and an independent authority to oversee, plan and fund the transition and Labor is closely looking at all of these.
Climate change denial and dismissal, like that this government is indulging in, is a convenient front, masking a completely ideological inability to deal with let alone lead the climate emergency task.
The conservatives who devoted decades trying to erase the Curtin economic legacy are not the ones with the – ahem – necessary enthusiasm to rebuild it.
How proud I am to appear before you as a Labor member in the state of Victoria, where our local Andrews Labor government is expanding public transport systems with investment in locally built trains, powering the Melbourne tram network from a solar farm, installing battery storage, expanding renewable energy projects and applying climate standards to a massive construction of new public housing in the state. Putting solar panels on our roofs. Building nnouncement electric cars in Morwell
So the “public works” concept of our generation are in rebuilding systems of public transport –how fortunate we happen to have those abandoned Holden factories and thousands of redundant autoworkers in a world that needs electric cars and trucks.
Our “public works” are the tasks ahead for scientists and researchers, carbon monitors and planners, engineers, architects and industrial adapters, designers and redesigners.
They’re solar shipping, retrofitting, community resourced agriculture, relocalised niche electrified manufacturing, environmentally safe housing and construction materials, and industries of human services.
They’re an energy storage boom, and batteries.
Clean tech, retro tech, environmental packaging and the war on waste.
They’re reforestation, experimental textiles, land rehabilitation.
They’re the infrastructure of reuse and mass recycling.
They are jobs, jobs, jobs and so much better fare for the heart, soul, conscience and survival of human society than fear.
In the wake of the Morrison government’s disavowal of that IPCC report, an article appeared in the Fairfax papers a week ago with the headline: “Health experts slam government’s ‘contemptuous’ IPCC report response.”
Two of Australia’s Nobel laureates, and a professor, had published in The Lancet a letter that reminded its readership “Australia was more vulnerable than any other developed nation to climate disruption, much of which would harm health and livelihoods.”
The same article then reported that the new Treasury Secretary, who used to be Scott Morrison’s Chief of Staff before he got the job – admitted in Senate estimates that Treasury had done no modelling of the difference on Australia's economy from a 1.5 degree warming in global temperatures compared with 2 degrees.
He hasn’t read the IPCC report, either. “Unfortunately that’s one I haven’t got to," he said.
It’s sometimes only once in a generation that a moment in time opens itself out just enough that the organised movement of working people can unfurl a banner for structural, societal change, pin the brightness of its cause to its chest and thunder on through.
We have reached the point both of lethal stakes and dire opportunity.
The planet is burning, the sea-levels rising.
We can veer towards change at the greatest speed – or permit this government’s alternative of inaction that’s as inept - and incapable - as it is unconscionable
The times fall to us.
Our only moment… is now.