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Judith Brett: The Coal Curse

Faced with the crisis of a global pandemic, for the first time in more than a decade Australia has had evidence-based, bipartisan policy-making. Politicians have listened to the scientists and … put ideology and the protection of vested interests aside and behaved like adults. Can they do the same to commit to fast and effective action to try to save our children’s and grandchildren’s future, to prevent the catastrophic fires and heatwaves the scientists predict, the species extinction and the famines?

Judith Brett

Director of the Centre for Ideas Ann Mossop chats to historian Judith Brett about the unusual history of Australia’s economy and the “resource curse” that has shaped our politics.

To discuss the future of the climate and how we might forge an environment focused path out of our impending economic crisis, Judith and Ann are joined by Philosopher Jeremy Moss, author of "Climate Change and Justice" and "Climate Justice and Non-State Actors". Jeremy is Director of the Practical Justice Initiative and leads the Climate Justice Research program at UNSW as part of the Practical Justice Initiative.


Ann Mossop: At the beginning of 2020, Australia faced devastating bushfires that had the whole country talking about the impact of climate change. At the same time, our political leaders were appearing on the global stage trying to block action on climate change by others. How did we get here? I'm Ann Mossop from the Centre for Ideas at UNSW. And I'm talking to distinguished political historian Judith Brett, about her quarterly essay, The Coal Curse: Resources, Climate and Australia's Future. Judith, you say how notion makes a living tells you a lot. How's our current predicament, the result of how we make our living? 

Judith Brett: Well, it's really because of the very heavy reliance of our export income on exporting minerals. And a component of that is the exporting of fossil fuels, coal and liquid natural gas. So… and in relation to climate change, I mean, they're the two problems that Australia has. I mean, because what I wanted to do in the first part of this essay was give contemporary readers a sense of the long backstory of that. Of why we are where we are with this reliance on fossil fuel. In my mind, being what explains why we're behaving as we are on the international stage, trying to hold back any policies, which would involve the reduction, really serious reduction of the burning of fossil fuels. So the debate in Australia has been, you know, twofold in some ways. Partly, it's been about how we make our energy here. But it's also about the contribution of the fossil fuels that we export to the problem of global warming.

Ann Mossop: Your account of the history of Australia's economy shows that we've always had an economy that depended on exporting a lot of a small number of commodities, with wool exports, taking the same role in the past, as coal and natural gas do now, does this mean that we're comfortable with this kind of economy, that we don't expect it to be any different?

Judith Brett: There's a disconnect between where Australia gets the bulk of its export income from and where we get the bulk of our jobs from. We became very efficient, and profitable exporters of wool, but wool didn't require huge numbers of people. But Australia always wanted a bigger population, and so we early on, particularly in Victoria, which is where I come from, turned to protective tariffs in order to develop our manufacturing. And the manufacturing was really driven by the need for jobs. Initially, for the gold miners that Victoria, in the 1850s, experienced a big increase in popularity. And when gold ran out, something was needed for these people to do and, and you know, many people got the idea, well if they, we had manufacturing here, this would provide the jobs. So it's partly this disconnect that I was interested in showing between, you know, where most of Australians now work, they work in the service industries. They're providing services, if you like, for each other, you know, plus construction, but it's domestically focused work that's being done. But our export… so our exporters don't need very many of us to produce the wealth that they do. So one of the things I was posed, that I wanted to challenge, was the idea that mining actually creates huge numbers of jobs.

Ann Mossop: Since World War Two Australian Governments have tried in different ways to create a manufacturing economy. In parallel with the rise of our current exports, like coal and natural gas, you chronicle the collapse of our manufacturing capacity and ambitions. You quote the Harvard Atlas of economic complexity, which is a way of measuring the sophistication of a nation's manufacturing capacity, what it makes and how complex these things are. Can you tell us where Australia features in this ranking?
Judith Brett: Yes, well, this was an index that looked at the goods that were exported, right? Not the whole of the export profile, but the export of goods. And so we're down way, way down below the other OECD countries, I think at number 97, I think sort of down near Senegal and Pakistan. That is, according to the Harvard Atlas, we've got the profile of a third world economy. Now, that being said, they slightly exaggerate that because they don't include services. And at the time that that Atlas was being compiled, we had built a healthy service industry in international education. COVID, as we know, has put a big question mark over the future of that. But the other thing I would say is that our mining is very sophisticated, and its capital intensive with a lot of intellectual input. 

But what it does reveal is how what a narrow range of commodities, our export income was depending on, you know, basically iron ore, coal, liquid natural gas, and then tourism and, and higher education, they were the top four, five, I should say, iron ore is really is not a problem for us in relationship to climate change. But we don't have any sophisticated manufacturing components. Now to understand where that comes from, we need to go, I suppose, back to the Second World War, because that was at the point where the Australian Federal Government and the State governments really made a huge effort to build Australia's manufacturing capacity. Again, it was linked to the need to build the population. Remember, populate or perish was the slogan that the new migration program that labour introduced after the Second World War, that was its slogan. If we wanted to get more migrants to come here, there had to be jobs for them. Where were the jobs going to come from? They were going to come from a greatly expanded manufacturing capacity. But the key thing, in terms of where we are at the present is, that manufacturing capacity was being built to supply the domestic market, it wasn't being built to provide exports, wasn't going to be export oriented, because at that stage, wool was king, and it was domestically focused. 

Now, that worked for a while, and it provided lots of jobs. And Australia developed a wide ranging and sophisticated manufacturing sector. But it was a manufacturing sector, as I've said, that had no export focus. And that's where the problem lay, behind this tariff war, Australian exporters basically became less and less competitive. The technology fell backwards, you know, they didn't, they didn't have the sort of competitive pressure to innovate. They were, if you like, delivered to the domestic market by the tariffs. And as other exporting manufacturing nations were innovating and becoming more economic and what have you, we were falling behind, and the Australian consumers were paying a lot more for goods, and they would if  they were being imported. But it's not just the Australian consumer. It's also the farmers and the miners. And, you know, any industry that needs to import machinery from abroad was paying more. So in the 1980s, the decision was made to start to wind back these tariffs. But what they hoped was that the tough winds of competition would build a competitive manufacturing sector. And for a couple of decades, it looked like it might have worked. John Button was the Minister for Industry, and he introduced that plan for steel and a plan for cars. But what couldn't be foreseen in the middle of the 1980s and into the 90s, when Labour was pursuing this path was the rise of China as a manufacturing centre and the way it sucked manufacturing capacity, not just out of Australia, but out of a lot of other Western countries. And I think that's the reason, if you like, why that didn't work that that push of Keating’s.

Ann Mossop: And of course, at the same time, with all of those issues playing out, the rise of China, both as a manufacturer and as an economy that needed to import resources, damages manufacturing, but it also means that our commodities are starting to boom, in a way that reinforces the trend.

Judith Brett: That's right. As far as the government was concerned, you know, we were becoming rich again, and as far as a lot of Australians were concerned, but it also meant that, that the higher dollar that was being driven by the resources boom, was also damaging to our manufacturing capacity. This was a boom that brought wealth into the country and the mining industry would claim it helped protect Australia from the global financial crisis. And you know, underpinned the – what did they say? – to the 23 years of growth that we've experienced up until now.

Ann Mossop: So if we go back a little bit into that period, from the 1980s onwards, mining interests have worked very hard to develop a social licence. You've pointed out that mining, in fact, doesn't employ very many people. But they've positioned themselves at the centre of politics and tried to weave the narrative of mining into the narrative of Australian national identity. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and their successful campaign against land rights.

Judith Brett: Mining starts to become really important as an export industry for Australia, from the middle to the late 1960s, and into the 70s. Now, this is the same time that, if you like, the new social movement driven politics is also, you know, on the rise, land rights is starting to become a national issue, and when there's a growing environmental movement. Whitlam established a Royal Commission on Aboriginal land rights, and, and a series of proposals were put forward by Justice Woodward, that would effectively give Aboriginal groups that were given land rights would effectively get a veto over mining. That was legislated by the government in Fraser in the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, the Commonwealth could only control land law in relationship to mining in the territories. Otherwise, this was an issue for the states, this was part of the state's sovereign jurisdiction. 

Now this was legislated in the Northern Territory, and when Labour in 1983, took to that 1983 election, which it won, a proposal for uniform land rights, meaning that they would legislate for land rights across the whole of the nation. And because the Commonwealth legislation will override state legislation in various, you know, in areas, this was a pretty bold plan, and it would include a veto, an effective veto over mining for Aboriginal groups. Now, the mining industry went into, not so much but you know, basically organised itself to fight hard against this. Now, as you said, they don't employ very many people. So what they have to do is they've got to work out a way of aligning their interests with the public interest. Of convincing the public that somehow anything that blocks the actions and activities of mining companies is damaging in some way to the broader public, many of whom don’t live anywhere near where these land, rock disputes are happening. 

And so you get, being developed by the Australian industries mining Council in the period of the 1980s, when they're fighting the proposals for uniform land rights, a campaign which is focused on the argument that Aboriginal people shouldn't have rights that other people don't have. Land rights should not be special rights. The backstory of that is that when you get freehold title in Australia, an ordinary freehold title holder doesn't get any control over mining on their land, the there's the the crown owns the minerals, and the Crown controls the access to those minerals and can grant exploration licences to people to come onto your land. Aboriginal people, groups, were going to be given stronger rights. It was a very clever campaign because it was something that touched a really raw nerve amongst a lot of Australians, that Aboriginal people shouldn't get anything more or different from what everybody else got. And that, people remember, is very much what you know, Pauline Hanson rode into power on that. She, in her initial speeches she made when she was an independent for Ipswich, it wasn't really Asian migration that she was focusing on, it was things like the fact that Aboriginal children got scholarships to go to boarding schools when they lived in remote areas, and that these were more generous or more available to them than they were to non-Aboriginal children. So it was very much this notion of special rights. And that was an extremely effective campaign. In the end, the Labour government under Bob Hawke dropped the proposal for uniform land rights altogether. Now the battle was that they had to fight it again, after the Mabo legislation, which was about Native Title when the High Court found, actually native title might exist and legislation needed to be introduced as to how that was to be managed. And so the Native Title Act also didn't include any special rights for Aboriginal people in relationship to mining. So that showed, if you like, the public relations power of the mining lobby,

Ann Mossop: You see this campaign is a prelude to the public battles about climate change, and the campaign by mining interests to determine the policy settings that various governments put in place, in relation to things like a price on carbon and a resource rent tax. Ultimately, you use the term state capture to talk about the way that resource industry interests have inserted themselves at the heart of successive Australian governments. You give the example of the fate of Malcolm Turnbull. He was the Prime Minister of the country, he knew the dangers of climate change, and he also recognised the opportunities of energy transition. But he was unable to do anything, and was eventually deposed as Prime Minister. Can you explain a little bit what you mean by state capture.

Judith Brett: We have a notion that the government, or the state, should act in a way that is responsive to a wide range of interests, we know that not all interests are going to win. But that it will take into account a broad range of interests in formulating policies and come up with some sort of compromise positions. When you have state capture is when just one interest, one vested interest seems to have much more power over the direction of government policies than other equally legitimate interests. And I think what the fossil fuel lobby was able to do very effectively, really from John Howard's government onwards was to delegitimise the other voices about energy and global warming and the environment that needed to be at the table when these policy decisions about energy were being made. And we can see it again, in some ways, I don't think it's quite as… questions still open about what will happen, but with the COVID Commission, we have two representatives on that, who are very close to the gas industry. We have nobody from the services industry, really, there's nobody from the environment, there's nobody from the university, but fossil fuel representatives seem to have privileged seats at the table. 

Now, in some of this argument, I was drawing on the work of Guy Pearce, who was a young, I think, I think he was an advisor in the office of Robert Hill, who was the Minister for Environment early on in John Howard's government, and who was actually quite committed to environmental goals and was attempting to formulate what Australia's response should be to the Kyoto protocols. And so Guy Pearce watched as fossil fuel advocates and people with links to the fossil fuel industry gradually, if you'd like subverted that process, so that it became, if you like, a sort of taken for granted common sense assumption in the Howard cabinet that actually climate change was crap, as we quote somebody, one of them was saying, and so that's what I mean by state capture that just one one point of view, one set of interests seem to be driving government policy in an area, which is highly contested.

Ann Mossop: You also describe the evolution of the national party since the 1990s, and talk about the national party really having become the party of coal. Could you explain what you mean?

Judith Brett: If we think about what happened to Malcolm Turnbull, it was really yes, there's some people in the, some liberals, but it was very much that the most outspoken proponents of coal were coming from the National Party, I mean, people like Barnaby Joyce and, and George Christensen, and now, Matt Canavan. Somebody like Matt Canavan, when he stepped back from being the Minister for Resources, because he wanted to support Barnaby Joyce in a leadership challenge. He said, I'm very proud to have been representing the resource industry. Now he's actually a National, historically the nationals have represented farmers and agricultural interests. And yes, they've also represented regional Australia, but their heart has been with the farmers. But now there's a lot of conflict between farming and mining interests, and it's actually miners that seemed to be more prominent, certainly amongst the Queensland Nationals, in terms of who they're backing. So I quote, Waleed Aly, asked Michael McCormick on The Project, when there's a conflict between miners and farmers, can you tell me one time when the National Party has backed the farmers against the miners? And Michael McCormack couldn't actually come up with an answer to that. So, I was interested in that, and then I was thinking, why has that happened? What's the explanation for this? As they've been losing seats, really, you know, since since the 60s, as some of the geographically concentrated farming electorates have have changed demographically, like a good example is Richmond, which you know, is now got a lot of retirees and alternative people living in it, and is no longer the sort of agricultural heartland that put three generations of Anthony's into the federal parliament. So they need to find ways of replacing that and what I was saying was, well, actually mining, again, provides you with a geographically concentrated population of voters, and I think that's one of the reasons they've gone after them.

Ann Mossop: So in Australia, we have a situation where these issues are incredibly polarised and politicised. And in other countries, often that's not the case. Your quote economic commentator Alan Kohler, saying that the past 15 years of climate wars have ruined Australia's ability to conduct any kind of sensible discussion about economic policy and to achieve consensus on anything. What is the effect of that been, do you think?

Judith Brett: I think we've had a decade of really very bad government. This polarisation, I think, has its roots in the polarisation around Indigenous policy, that happened in the 80s, and into the 90s. And the way Howard played that, and the very, what was very unfortunate, I think for indigenous people, that they sort of ended up on the Labour side of things. Under Howard, and to some extent, with Keating, we've had very polarised politics and because of mining, climate has ended up very much, you know… commitment to action on climate change has ended up as a sort of progressive position, which, which, as you point out, hasn't happened in other countries. And I think mining helps us understand why. That you can trace a line from their opposition to land rights through their opposition to anything that would restrict the burning and export of fossil fuels. Paradoxically, because we've been living in a mining boom, in a way the government hasn't had to think that hard about economic policy, because things have been ticking along very nicely, thank you. So you know, they could get on with fighting, you know, worrying about identity politics and fighting culture wars, which, you know, there's some issues there that matter, but not much attention was being paid to the economy. And now, with COVID, we're in a position where we're going to have, you know, like the, the fragility of the economy has been exposed, I think, for all to see, so that that's not something that I predicted would happen when I started writing this essay.

Ann Mossop: No, I think you're right about sitting there at the height of the bushfires thinking about these issues. 

Judith Brett: Well, I thought about it, I mean, I pitched it in, you know, September last year was when I sort of, got the agreement with backing to write it. So, you know, I didn't predict the bushfires either then. And so events have in a way made the essay more timely. And I think, you know, one of the things that we've learned from the COVID pandemic, is just how fragile our manufacturing capacity is.

Ann Mossop: So the COVID 19 pandemic has shown us that what was ostensibly a very successful economy was also extremely vulnerable to this kind of shock. We've looked at the history of how we got here, Australia, with an economy addicted to coal exports, politically polarised and sitting on the continent most vulnerable to climate change. Thinking about our economic dependence on the export of fossil fuels, I want to introduce Jeremy Moss. Jeremy is a political philosopher who's the director of the Practical Justice Initiative at UNSW. He leads a program of research on climate justice that explores the moral and ethical questions associated with climate change and the transition to renewable energy. His latest book is, Climate Justice and Non-State Actors. Jeremy, I've been talking to Judith about her take on how these issues have been playing out in politics at a federal level in Australia. But in your book, you're looking at non-state actors, that is, governments at a level below the nation state like city governments and state governments, but also corporations and individuals. And one of the groups that you write about are the Carbon Majors. Who are the Carbon Majors?

Jeremy Moss: Well, the Carbon Majors are Australia's big fossil fuel companies who are responsible for extracting and then selling coal, oil and gas to the rest of the world. And they’re companies such as BHP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Glencore, Whitehaven Coal, and so on. And I focus on them because they make a huge contribution to climate change. And yet their contribution often goes, unfortunately, unrecognised. So to give you an example, Scott Morrison is fond of telling us that Australia only contributes 1.3% of the world's emissions. Well, when you add the exported emissions, that is the emissions that occur when Australia's fossil fuels are burned by other countries. That percentage goes up to around 4%. So our exported emissions are bigger than Germany's domestic economy. And every year we produce fossil fuels that cause emission, of a half of Australia's biggest bushfires each and every year. Now, one of the other things that's really notable about this and this connects with Judith's essay, is that we actually pay them to do this. So we pay anywhere between five and $49 billion a year, that last figure is according to the International Monetary Fund, to subsidise the company's activities in various ways. So I argue that we ought to think about their contribution differently, we ought to include it in how we assess Australia's contribution to climate change. And we also have to ask ourselves the question, is it worth it? Is it worth it to have this industry that is contributing so much to climate change with, unfortunately, our consent, and where we're paying them a lot of money to do so?

Ann Mossop: It's quite extraordinary. And I'm gonna ask you to unpack that question of subsidies a little bit in a minute. But I want to note the fact that we're the world's third largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind only Saudi Arabia, and Russia. And I think even Australians who understand that we are a fossil fuel superpower, wouldn't realise that we're quite that close to the top of the list. When you outline the scale of those subsidies, it really seems amazing to anybody looking at this in a common sense way from the outside. How on earth and why on earth do we pay these companies so much money to do their jobs?

Jeremy Moss: I think some of the reasons, the reasons that Judith has outlined and in her essay, and that is that the fossil fuel industry has been enormously successful in getting governments not just the federal government, but particularly state governments to subsidise their activities, by relying on the narrative that it will bring a lot of economic benefits. And that simply isn't true anymore, or simply not true, to the same extent. I mean, the other terrible thing about this equation, that we have with the Australian fossil fuel industry, is the 10 biggest fossil fuel producers really don't pay tax. So in 2016, and 17, they have revenues of $45 billion, and only one of them paid more than $1,000 in tax. So there certainly is economic, or there certainly are economic benefits from what they do. But they aren't in the form of taxes, and they aren't in the form of direct jobs. And that's a myth. That's a myth that they've been able to perpetuate, by, as Judith points out, capturing the state in various ways.

Ann Mossop: So let's look at that question about the jobs myth. Judith, how important politically is the idea that the fossil fuel industries are an important source of jobs?

Judith Brett: Look, I think it's very important, because when governments talk about the economy, and particularly this has been the case, I think, with the coalition governments, but you know, it's also it's Labour, they talk about jobs. They say, you know, we need to reform penalty rates, because that will create more jobs, and then creating jobs is always the bottom line justification for any economic reforms, not increased equity, for example, or getting the homeless off the street, or, or whatever. And, you know, I think, the figures I give, is the mining industry, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it's responsible for about 2% of the Australian workforce. And it's about 250,000 jobs, I think, full time equivalent. And of that coal is a very small amount, there's 40,000 people employed directly in mining coal. Now what the mining, you know, the mining lobby will always do is add a multiplier on to that and say, the contributions greater, but the thing is, you can do that with all, you know, a whole range of industries. So I think it's better and clearer to look at the actual jobs that can be directly attributed to the activity.

Ann Mossop: Are jobs important politically because they represent votes, or is it more complicated? Jeremy.

Jeremy Moss: The number of jobs in this industry, direct jobs is tiny. What they do have going for them is very powerful lobby groups. And unfortunately, they're not just big business. So there's some sectors of the union movement, for instance, that are very vocal on the jobs that remain in coal. And that has an enormous impact, perhaps not so much on the coalition government, but certainly on the labour opposition and on Labour when it's in power. So it is very significant in that sense, even though I don't think that they command very many actual votes in the community.

Judith Brett: It's probably the people with the actual jobs, how they vote, they've got to convince a lot more people that that's the point, I think, for it to have really effective electoral leverage. And I think the real success in 2019 of the coal industry was being able to turn it into, if you like, a symbol of Queensland regional independents. So in an electorate like Capricornia, which had traditionally been a labour electorate, there was a huge swing to the national party, a member Michelle Landry. And I think a lot of that can be put down to the fact that it became like an inner city versus regional Queensland issue, you know? And I think that the Greens anti-Adani convoy was a very misguided political act because it allowed that sort of, we don't want you people in the south, you inner city people telling us what to do. Because actually, again, there's not that many coal miners. But coal became a symbol of something broader about Queensland's regional identity, that was very politically clever.

Ann Mossop: Indeed. Jeremy, one of the key points you bring up about our fossil fuel export industry is the fact that those emissions are not included in Australia's carbon accounting, you make an argument that we need to take responsibility for these emissions, can you tease out the moral and ethical issues involved in why we need to take responsibility.

Jeremy Moss: Think about how we analyse and accept responsibility for other things we export. So live sheep, for instance, it's not us killing the sheep, they get killed somewhere else in an inhumane way. Medical waste, plastics, uranium, all these things, the harm that those things do are not caused by people in Australia, they're caused by people elsewhere, and yet, we think it's important that we have a responsibility to try and prevent those harms, if we can. And I argue that coal, oil and gas are just like all those other commodities. And we should take responsibility for what happens to our products when they go out to the rest of the world. And in a way, it's easier to do so because sheep don't have to be killed in the way that they're sometimes killed overseas. But we know what coal, oil and gas are going to be used for. It's not a secret. It's not like there are countries making sculptures out of coal. They're only used to generate electricity and make steel. So I think we should take responsibility for those. And that means perhaps counting some of those carbon emissions in our own what's called carbon budget, and certainly also to play our role in trying to address the harms that those exports and their emissions cause. And that is the harms of climate change.

Ann Mossop: The discussion about the harms of climate change, obviously needs to be a global one. What does the international community think of Australia's position on climate change?

Judith Brett: When the bushfires were raging, there was a lot of people looking at Australia and making a connection with our policies on coal, it's been really damaging to our global reputation. What you know, under Gareth Evans, in particular, you know, we're a fairly small country, we're a middle power, but we used to be proud of our international reputation, wanting to make a positive contribution to progress on human rights. So it's pretty shocking, I think, that we're happy to be seen as, as a sort of a, bit of an international pariah in relationship to climate change. You know, there's something quite deep in the history of the coalition government, which has always been a little more suspicious of, certainly, of international fora then Labour has, and, you know, protective of our sovereignty, we don't want something like the UN telling us how to run things. But I think it's fairly shocking, the extent to which the coalition has allowed our international reputation to be damaged in this way. 

Ann Mossop: Jeremy.

Jeremy Moss: Well, I think as Judith points out in the essay, we're used to seeing ourselves as a good global citizen, but in fact, we are a rogue nation. So we should be seen up there with the Saudis and the Russians. And while we're number three on the list of exporters, we're number one in terms of oil. I mean, in terms of coal and gas, we're the largest exporters of coal and gas in the world. And that does make us, in my view, a rogue nation and we need to be honest about that. We need to acknowledge that and then do something about it.

Ann Mossop: So if we look at our situation now, what are the risks to Australia's economy of our dependence on fossil fuels?

Judith Brett: Well, look, there's two big risks. The first is stranded assets, but the coal will stay in the ground but the enormous amount of capital investment in terms of you know, railways and ports and facilities for processing gas into into LNG, but these will just be useless now, you know, so that's a big risk, but the other risk is missed opportunities. Particularly in the development of renewable energies, it's like, you know, we were still relying on horses when the rest of the world is whizzing around in cars. You know that we're missing the opportunities of where the world economy is going, and where there is a lot of potential for growth, and for new jobs and new ways of doing things and for innovation. So I think it's a two fold risk.

Ann Mossop: And, Jeremy, do we also run the risk of an international regime that might punish us?

Jeremy Moss: Well, that's right, I think one of the productive things that the international community could do, was push for something like a Non-Proliferation Treaty on fossil fuel supply. So like the nuclear treaty, we ought to have a regime as part of the COP negotiations, the Conference of Party negotiations on climate that get held every year. We're upon, that we agreed that there must be restrictions not just on demand, but on the supply of fossil fuels. And those countries that don't adhere to those restrictions, would be subject to some sort of punishment or sanction. Because unfortunately, the situation we're in is that we're producing far more fossil fuels than the world can possibly have consumed, if we're going to have even a small chance of avoiding the two degree temperature rise that is often seen as the trigger for really bad climate change. So many people will be familiar with the statistics put out by the International Energy Agency, telling us that we need to leave two thirds of the known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. And that has huge implications for a country like Australia, which has enormous reserves of coal and gas, we need to in fact, make them stranded assets.

Ann Mossop: So we're looking at these issues, flight of capital, stranded assets, even potential sanctions against countries like Australia, politics seem to be paralyzed. But we certainly hear rhetoric from business leaders about the importance of getting to net zero emissions by 2050. Is business ahead of government in Australia?

Judith Brett: Well, in my view it is, there seems to be much more willingness on the part of many business leaders to recognise the reality of the risks that climate change poses, though I'm sure they're also thinking about the risk it poses to their children and grandchildren. And business works on longer time cycles. I mean, it's not locked into three year electoral cycles, it has to make decisions about long term investments and likely risks that might come in the future to those investments. So it does seem to me that they’re much more clear-sighted about some of the future risks that we’re running, then the politicians are and they're starting to become much more outspoken.

Ann Mossop: How is the fossil fuel industry specifically responding, Jeremy?

Jeremy Moss: Well, the fossil fuel industry is responding to this challenge by digging in, it seems. Judith's already mentioned how they're very, very well represented on the government's new COVID commission. So one of the commissioners is in fact a board member of the world's biggest polluter, which is Saudi Aramco. And that's not a good sign, I think. Some of the really big fossil fuel companies, some of the big carbon majors have been very vocal about their plans to go carbon neutral. So BHP, for instance, has a plan, backed by 400 million US dollars to offset in various ways its emissions. But when you think, for instance, that that might sound very good, BHP actually produces from its global operations, more emissions than 25 million Australians. So they're planning to offset those over five years with $400 million, $80 million a year. And unfortunately, many of the big fossil fuel players are doing things in that way. Very slick campaigns, big dollar figures, while at the same time continuing to push for the subsidy extraction and sale of fossil fuels.

Ann Mossop: When you say that, in your view, it's not serious. Are you saying this because those amounts of money are much too small to be meaningful, given the scale of the problem?

Jeremy Moss: Well, so, yes. So, for instance, if BHP’s emissions are as big as Australia’s, if Scott Morrison suddenly said, I'm going to fix our emissions problem, here's $80 million to solve the emissions from 25 million people. No one would take that seriously. That's $3 each, that's not very much money. So it's not serious in that sense, but it's not serious in a more fundamental sense, and that is, you can't still be lobbying for the continued extraction of coal, oil and gas, and then continuing to extract it and sell it, while at the same time claiming to have carbon neutral goals, those two things just don't go together.

Ann Mossop: In this conversation, we've built up a picture of the influence of the extractive industries on federal and state governments, and the way in which, unlike in other countries, climate change has become a very partisan affair. How can we change this? And can you see a way in which the electorate's professed concern about climate change might have more influence on their voting patterns?

Judith Brett: Well, look, people vote on a whole range of things. So Australians are concerned about climate change, but it doesn't mean that that will be the thing which always will determine their vote. I think what there needs to be is an alternative plan that starts to garner widespread public support. And I think the one that's most concrete is really the expansion of renewable energy. That's something that people understand, Australians are very enthusiastic about renewable energies, many of them have paid themselves to put solar panels on their roofs. And we’ll start probably to see more uptake of batteries, battery storage, as prices come down. So I think that  Ross Garnaut proposals in Superpower, where he says that, you know, Australia can continue to, if you like, be an energy exporter, but we're, instead of exporting energy based on fossil fuels, we can export energy based on wind and sun, because we're very rich in those. And we can become a renewable energy superpower. And he says that we can both be an exporter of that. But we can also use that renewable energy, to revive manufacturing, to, for example, provide energy for smelters here, or for steel manufacturing, and a range of other other things. These can be located away from the capital city, so provide employment and regional centres. It seems to me that there's a set of concrete proposals there, which, you know, there's a whole lot of technical issues, which, I'm not an engineer, and I'm not across, and most of the public won't be across. But I think he's got something which you can visualise and see would work. So I think that's the first step. There has to be something there, which the public can grasp and understand. So it seems to me that the push for renewable energies is the way to start to turn this debate around. And the rapid fall in the price of renewable energies is one of the reasons that coal… that he capital is fleeing coal, because coal is becoming uneconomic. In the sense that it's becoming too expensive to make electricity from coal when you can make electricity from renewable energy much more cheaply. So renewable energy is also undermining the market for coal.

Ann Mossop: So Jeremy, do you think a positive plan would be enough to solve that political log jam?

Jeremy Moss: A positive plan is a necessary condition of doing that. And Ross Garnaut's work is one example. You know, the Greens have a Green New Deal proposal, many other groups do as well. I think though, we have to do a couple of other things. One is we have to recognise the scale of the problem. So we can't just think transitioning our own domestic energy consumption, we have to think about stopping what we sell to the world, we need more engagement from unions, for instance, we probably need to, as magnificent as it's been, we have to hope that, you know, students and other groups who are willing to protest and do many other things in favour of renewed climate actions. We have to, I think, hope for a little bit more of that. If more and more people are going to not only see the value of a plan, but change their preferences, because of those plans.

Ann Mossop: The current moment, the COVID 19 pandemic has revealed many things about our government, our economy, and in some ways has the potential to be a moment to look at opportunities for change. One positive thing is that you've seen politicians listening to scientists and all levels of politics working together across partisan divides. Do you think that there are some positive things that can come out of this in Australia in particular?

Judith Brett: Perhaps we'll see the end of the attacks on science and expertise that became… that were really because climate scientists were being – and environmental scientists – were being attacked, but it sort of spread to a general attack on elites and expertise. We may see that being weaker. I think at the moment, it's very hard to tell because we don't really know how long this pandemic’s going to last and what it's and how the economy is going to be reshaped by it. It's becoming clear that there's not going to be some sort of easy snapback and that the loss of jobs is going to be pretty substantial, and that probably… now that does provide, in some ways, the opportunity for governments to do some… be much more proactive about having… perhaps developing an industry policy and helping society rebuild in ways that will provide jobs rather than just getting things out of the way so the market can, can do that, which is tended to be the way the coalition, and to some extent, Labor… you know, but that's been sort of neoliberal orthodoxy for the last couple of decades. So I think it's pretty hard to tell. But I think we're facing more serious economic times, I think, than we as yet realise. And that may mean that government has to step forward and be more active in the way that it was after the Second World War.

Ann Mossop: Jeremy, how do you think this moment in time might change the debate about climate action in Australia?

Jeremy Moss: Well, the comparison with COVID is interesting, because it can go either way. So the COVID crisis has forced us to look at new lifestyles, new ways of doing things and to question what's really essential about what we have, what we do, what we buy, and so on. But the other thing that is more worrying is that when we look to the positives or, how do we get out of the COVID crisis, particularly the economic recession that we're in, governments will reach for their tried and true policies. And we've already seen what the federal government is going to do, it wants a gas led recovery, for instance, that's one of the things that the COVID Commission has been considering. And that's frankly, a disaster, that's just kicking the can down the road. It won't provide jobs, it'll cost us a lot of money. And, and gas is just not competitive anymore in the way that it used to be. So unfortunately, I think that it could go either way, we could become more locked into fossil fuels, or we could not. But unfortunately, I don't have any faith whatsoever in the federal government's ability to see the virtues of a green recovery. If that's going to happen, it will have to come from lower down the political tree from state governments, although not some of them. And indeed, even local governments and other levels of government. That's where I think that the green shoots will come from.

Ann Mossop: Thanks, Jeremy. And thanks, Judith for a great conversation. I'm Ann Mossop from the Centre for Ideas at UNSW. I've been talking to historian Judith Brett and philosopher Jeremy Moss. Like most conversations about climate change, we didn't really end on a tone of wholehearted optimism. But at the very least, green shoots are better than nothing. More conversations with writers and thinkers subscribe to our channel. Thanks for tuning in.

Jeremy Moss

Jeremy Moss

Jeremy Moss is professor of political philosophy at the UNSW Sydney. He is the author of several books on climate change including: Carbon Justice: the Scandal of Australia’s Biggest Contribution to Climate Change; Climate Justice Beyond the State, Climate Change and Justice. He is the recipient of the Eureka Prize for Ethics and the Australasia Association of Philosophy Media Prize. 

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