An inconvenient debate: how climate politics has changed

A pro-carbon tax rally in Melbourne on World Environment Day in 2011. Picture:  Takver/Flickr.


By JACKSON PECK,
environment editor

In light of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, environmental experts have criticised the lack of progress made on climate change in the 11 years since the original documentary woke the world up to global warming’s escalation.

An Inconvenient Sequel bookends a dramatic, politically deadly, and yet unsolved debate on national climate policy that has raged since An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006.

Despite the high support among the public and politicians for action on climate change then and now, Australian climate policy hasn’t progressed much, Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie says.

“In the last three to four years climate science in particular has been decimated, the government have censored UNESCO reports, thrown lumps of coal around … and emissions have increased,” Ms McKenzie says.

“The Federal Government is not taking sufficient action on climate change, and are relying on states, territories and local communities to take up the fight,” she says.

Taking a trip back to 2006

At the time of release of An Inconvenient Truth, then-prime minister John Howard was already feeling the heat on climate change policy.

Australia was one of only two developed countries that had not ratified the 1997 global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, Mr Howard vetoed a proposal for increased action on climate change brought to him by his colleagues.

Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute executive committee member Professor Robyn Eckersley says concern for climate change peaked at this time.

Prime minister Kevin Rudd and climate change minister Penny Wong at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. Picture: Australian Science Media Centre/Flickr.

“We’d had a long drought, a lot of people had seen An Inconvenient Truth and there was a bit of publicity around the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report which had come out,” Prof Eckersley says.

In response to the Australian public’s desire for action, Mr Howard adopted an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) policy to bring their party line closer to opponent Kevin Rudd’s stance on the issue ahead of the 2007 election.

The twilight years

Despite the promise of climate change action after Kevin Rudd’s thumping 2007 election win, this was not to be.

In the years between the two Al Gore movies, Australia has had five different prime ministers and nearly as many national climate policies.

Australia was one of the first countries to introduce a national carbon tax and just two years later, it became the first country ever to repeal a carbon price.

“Australian politics has been in a twilight zone on climate change for many years,” Australia Institute researcher Tom Swann says.

“Emissions are still going up and climate impacts are only getting worse. Ice sheets are breaking up, the Great Barrier Reef has experienced extensive coral death and we’re seeing increasing heatwaves,” he says.

What’s actually changed in the past 11 years?

Fellow at the Climate and Environmental Governance Network Dr Christian Downie says climate change science has “only got worse” in the decade since An Inconvenient Truth came out.

Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott at a carbon tax forum in Queensland in 2011. Picture: David Jackmanson/Flickr.

“While we knew there was a problem then, now we have a much greater understanding of how severe the problem will be. Increasingly because global emissions are tracking along what was back then considered the worst case scenarios,” says Dr Downie, who wrote The Politics of Climate Change Negotiations.

Prof Eckersley says the public’s desire for climate action has changed since its peak not long after An Inconvenient Truth’s release.

“It hit rock bottom about the time of Abbott’s anti-carbon tax campaign and it’s gradually started to pick up again,” she says.

But as the science has progressed and the effects and predictions have become more acute over the past 11 years, so have the feasibility of the solutions.

“The economics have swung in favour of green energy,” Prof Eckersley says.

The famous scene in the original documentary where Al Gore used a cherry picker to illustrate the increase in global temperatures is replicated in the sequel, but this time it was to illustrate Chile’s significant investment in renewable energy.

“The original movie covered a lot of territory on climate impacts – eg hurricanes, drought, floods – while this recent movie focused on both the climate impacts and the solutions – eg solar, wind, storage – which is important,” Ms McKenzie says. 

 

Al Gore’s new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel, is a call to arms.

Where are we now?

Al Gore’s new documentary comes at a crucial moment in global and Australian climate action.

In June, US President Donald Trump controversially pulled out of the landmark climate agreement signed in Paris in 2015, which was seen as one of the last opportunities to curb dangerous climate change. But other countries, states and cities are stepping up in the US’ absence.

Domestically, the Australian Federal Government has delayed a decision on the clean energy target as the divisive issue splits the Coalition.

This context permeates An Inconvenient Sequel, which is more a call to arms on climate change than a piece of science communication.

“He [Al Gore] was tapping into the best of the civil rights movement and it definitely gave hope. His other film actually didn’t, it was kind of despairing. For people who were already concerned about it, it just felt overwhelming. Whereas this one is ‘we can do this’,” Prof Eckersley says.