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The public narrative on a carbon price

By Joel Dignam - posted Tuesday, 10 May 2011


The Government's proposed carbon price has seen a raft of responses from environmental groups, varying from outright opposition to vocal support. Some of these groups are apparently pursuing a strategy of opposing the proposal in favour of something stronger or an alternative policy approach. However, an understanding of public opinions of climate change and the shaping influence of narratives makes it clear that the strategy of these groups is unintelligible to the mainstream, and that any groups wanting Australia to address climate change must throw its support behind a price tag on pollution.

On Wednesday April 20th, a story in South Australia's The Advertiser discussed a speech made a month earlier at a climate rally in Adelaide. While the rally featured a range of speakers both for and against a carbon price, the organising group, CLEAN SA, had no explicit stance. Despite this, the event was described inaccurately in the article as a "pro-carbon tax rally".

This represents a degree of laziness on the part of the reporter, given that the event was not a pro-carbon tax rally. It poses the question – what does this mischaracterisation tell us about how we understand action on climate change, and how should this influence the strategy of climate groups?

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General public opinion, debate, the media, the mainstream commentariat all seem to fall into the trap of seeing a rather over-simplified binary - those who support action on climate change also support a carbon price, and those who oppose a price do so solely because they don't think that Australia ought to be acting to reduce pollution.

This binary was on display in The Advertiser article, in which a climate rally calling broadly for action was assumed to be in support of the current proposal. The corollary is the fact that Tony Abbott does his best to argue that the Coalition's policy also can solve climate change, but that notion is far from being part of modern debate. Instead, the Coalition is understood through the narrative that those who oppose this policy do so because they don't think that Australia ought to be acting.

This creates an awkward situation for climate groups, like CLEAN SA, that support action on climate change but not the use of a market mechanism to make businesses responsible for their pollution, as this pairing of views has no place in the public narrative.

I'm not suggesting that CLEAN SA can't hold such a pairing - within the climate movement such views do exist and such discussions can occur. The question is how to represent this pairing in public and how to either work within the narrative or try to change it. Unfortunately, this narrative can't be changed simply by ignoring it and pushing ones' own message.

Personally, I support efforts to secure a safe climate future. Current efforts are not in proportion to the crisis facing us, but supporting them is the only means of moving our country along the path towards a zero-carbon Australia. While the current proposal would help to turn around Australia's rising pollution, my support further arises from understanding this issue in terms of the public narrative. At present, if this policy does not succeed, it is inconceivable that such a result would be seen as a victory for the climate movement. Further, such a result would not be a victory for the climate movement. Nor would it be a victory for the billions of people, free from ideology, who haven't caused this problem but are pretty keen on not having to face the impacts of our radical interference with our planet's atmosphere.

If Gillard's attempt to put a price tag on pollution fails, climate change, which is already a nefarious issue politically, will be seen as a poisoned chalice from which no sane politician could drink. This will undo years of progress.

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If, on the other hand, Gillard's attempt to put a price tag on pollution succeeds, it will not solve the problem in itself and no one is arguing that. It will, however, shift the economics to make pollution-intensive activity less profitable and to reward businesses that act to clean up their act. In addition, it will change the public narrative, making it vastly more possible for further action to happen, for politicians to begin talking about a serious commitment to clean energy, for the public to begin grappling with the reality that we cannot keep burning coal. It is a crucial step in the right direction, without which no other significant action can happen.

The environmental movement has great strength. Masses of Australians want a safe climate, want a healthy environment. As a people, we want a safe future for our children, and we want Australia to do what is right. What hamstrings the environmental movement is its inability to see a potential victory for what it is.

A price tag on pollution is a forest of opportunity for Australia to begin making clean energy cheaper and forcing businesses to take responsibility for the pollution they cause. Any group or individual who wants a safe climate ought to throw their weight behind it. Not only for the value of the policy itself, but simply because, within the dominant public narrative, there is no alternative.

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About the Author

Joel Dignam is South Australian Co-Director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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