If you can cast your mind back to last week – you know, before the onset of war and the latest horrendous natural disaster – you might remember a brief moment when the news seemed like it could actually deliver us some pleasant surprises. A couple of stories appeared in the business section that suggested the unending deluge of carbon emissions floating out of our continent could finally be dissipating.
Some of the biggest polluters in our country were characters in these stories. First came the news that Australia’s biggest coal-fired power station (Origin Energy’s Eraring Power Station just north of Newcastle) has had its scheduled close brought forward by seven years to 2025 due to it not being able to financially compete with the boom in renewables investment. Then the announcement that tech billionaire and renewable energy investor Mike Cannon-Brookes with investment company Brookfield was going to attempt to buy out AGL – Australia’s single biggest carbon polluter. His business plan was to bring forward the closure of its two remaining coal power plants and stop the responsibility-dodging demerger of AGL’s coal sector from the rest of the company.
In the end AGL rejected Cannon-Brookes’ bid, though curiously they did seem to leave the door open if he could come up with more money – fossil fuel companies may like to spruik the benefits coal provides to humanity, but there’s always one thing they are more loyal to than the black rock.
There would be few advocates for climate action who didn’t derive a bit of pleasure from these news stories, but it was a bit galling for those of us who have spent years trying to make a moral case for lowering emissions and avoiding climate disaster only to be disappointed and denigrated for our efforts. I guess we should have spent that time wheeling and dealing and trying to become billionaires.
The hypocrisy of conservative politicians and commentators, which even at the best of times hovers just below the surface, was on full display again. After years of dodging government and civil responsibility by saying the market will find solutions to climate change, they were now complaining about the market abandoning coal – Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor said Eraring’s closure was “bitterly disappointing”, while the Morrison government considered vetoing the AGL bid on national security grounds. Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin railed against both in an op-ed where she said “The bottom line is that an essential service such as electricity shouldn’t be hostage to a woke billionaire on a vanity project”.
At this point in the game we’re not really in a position to turn down anyone trying to help our poor old climate. Cannon-Brookes is not alone as a billionaire trying to position themselves as a climate saviour either – Elon Musk has been playing the role for years, and Twiggy Forrest in Australia has been a prominent voice on climate issues in the media since his awakening to the possibilities of green hydrogen. But still, I would suggest there are reasons to be wary of this model for remedying climate change.
One is the dangers that come from having a lot of power in the hands of rich consortiums. Mike Cannon-Brookes and other renewable energy companies seem to have good intentions, but what happens if future environmental concerns mean they should abandon their current projects in favour of more sustainable ones? If Cannon-Brookes and Brookfield have a $8 billion outlay to recoup, is he likely to walk away from it to protect the earth? If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much where we are right now – big companies with capital intensive projects who claim a duty to their employees/shareholders as a justification for destroying the planet. The logic of business works much the same whether you’re digging your power up from the ground or catching it from the sun.
That logic provides few safeguards. Rich people using their wealth to bend companies to their will is nice if you agree with what they want to do, but its very easy to see it going wrong – green companies building up market share then being taken over by ruthless profit chasers is an easy to see negative scenario, but not the only one. When whoever has the most money is able to call the shots, it’s pretty rare that the result works out the best for everyone.
Then of course there’s the question of how do you raise the capital required to compete with big corporations? Ethical billionaires sounds like a useful asset in tackling climate change, but how easy is it really to be an ethical billionaire? Generally there is a significant exploitation of natural and human resources to get to that point. Even the tech industry, not generally thought of as a major source of pollution, has a significant environmental footprint – the internet is responsible for 3.7% of global carbon emissions and climbing. If our model for climate action is to get super-rich, it is quite possibly counter-productive.
Climate change is certainly one of the great moral imperatives of our generation. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only moral concern. It’s been said plenty of times that climate action is not necessarily the same thing as climate justice. And it’s true – climate change has been caused not just by the physical existence of carbon molecules but by the power structures that allow some to keep polluting while others are powerless to do much about it. For real climate justice, we need a fair transition for those who currently rely on carbon-intensive industries to survive, we need to allow less-industrialised nations to have the same opportunities to improve their way of life hat we in Australia take for granted, we need to address the uneven access to resilience and adaptation resources, and we need to address the unequal political and economic power structures that got us here.
Having said that, it’s certainly not helpful to oppose imperfect steps to climate action out of some sense of moral purity. We are low on time and low on effective options, and making political change is a complicated and sometimes messy business. A sense of righteousness won’t be much use in a world hammered by the worst effects of climate change, and it’s not that useful now either.
Financial markets are a tool we need to use for climate action for one because there are opportunities there as we have recently seen. But also because in our current society we have few other avenues for change. Governments have for decades now privatised everything they can, and pushed ideologies of small government and free market. Governments have palmed off responsibility for moral decisions to private businesses, so now that’s often where the actual decisions that affect our lives are made.
So all this to say that I hope the continuing influx of investment in cheap and clean renewable energy forces more power stations to close early, and I hope Mike Cannon-Brookes does manage to find a way to funnel his billions into forcing change for a few carbon-intensive companies. But I doubt this is the best way to create lasting and effective change. For one, the vast majority of people concerned about climate change are not captains of industry and it would be a waste of all their talents and passions to sit back and wait for more eco-friendly billionaires or investment firms. Does anyone really think we would have got to the point where billionaires and big companies want to tackle climate change without a whole movement of patient educators, inspiring visionaries and radical troublemakers? There is a large history and body of knowledge these people draw on of political movements and everyday people creating change. Part of that theory is about how to maximise the usage of every available strategy and resource.
The more people that can be involved in the process of climate action, the better the results should be. That means a need for large decentralised environment movements that can harness a lot of people’s energy and skills, but it also means continuing to try to make the case for everyday people to get on board. The power to simply buy someone out is attractive, but if you rely on it you end up with either a lot of enemies opposing you, or people trying to make change as expensive as possible out of self-interest. We need a climate movement that can make a moral case for change, that can inspire positive visions of the future, and can foster the personal connections that can break through the ideological barriers of fiercely fought culture wars.
All this of course is hard work, but there are people already out trying. The Stop Adani movement, while disappointingly not being able to achieve its ultimate goal of stopping the Carmichael mine, took on a fossil fuel billionaire and went a long way to changing the way the private market treats coal mining. And it did it with a diverse range of participants and tactics, and a structure of local groups of everyday people. Organisations like Hunter Jobs Alliance or Earthworker Co-operative are attempts to get those employed by the fossil fuel industry working with and not against attempts at climate action. Groups like Seed and Pacific Climate Warriors are trying to centre the indigenous voices that are often marginalised, that can be most affected by climate change and that can offer a cultural and spiritual framework for conservation. Even the more confrontational direct action groups like Extinction Rebellion and Frontline Action on Coal use a profoundly democratic view of change – that every person has a physical body and the ability to put it somewhere that lines up with their beliefs. These groups bring personal responsibility into focus by turning moral questions about climate change into tangible realities.
All these groups (and plenty more!) have been working at climate action for a number of years and are developing a range of skills and knowledge. They have managed success too, all in their own ways contributing to the stage we are at now. It can be a lot of hard work for small gains in the face of a huge problem – the path to change can be difficult, slow and at times disappointing. But sadly, we will likely find it even more so if we decide to wait for enough greenie billionaires to buy our way to climate action.
– Andy Paine