Don’t preach to the converted on carbon tax: it’s the money vote that matters



Braying climate naysayers are annoying; but so are all those well-intentioned carbon tax advocates who fail to address the core problems and make the same mistakes time and time again.

If we’re going to build the political momentum we need to price carbon in Australia, we need to think seriously about why we are doing it and who we’re talking to.

Make no mistake: the first people we have to nurse through adaptation to climate change are our brave men and women in pinstripe suits.

The current Say Yes campaign in support of a carbon tax – backed by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Climate Institute among others – is laudable.

It’s important for the future of this country and the planet that we support a carbon price. It’s important that we support those people arguing for such a price.

But as a piece of political campaigning it is naïve, and in fact might be self-defeating.

It’s great to hear positive voices arguing for “a price on pollution, and a future powered by renewable energy”. It’s nice to hear these things over an optimistic piano riff (see video above).

It’s gratifying to hear things from like-minded people so we can all congratulate each other on how much we care about the future and the environment and so on.

But if your goal is to actually convert the unconverted on a carbon price, to turn the dismal polling numbers around, then you need to step out of your box.

Lining up spokespeople from Australia’s progressive and environmental organisations will do nothing to convince the conservative, the business-minded or the stereotypical Liberal-National Party voters. If they won’t listen to one of you, why would they listen to 30? Or 300? Or 3,000?

Indeed, campaigns like this (if it turns out to be as noisy as the Say Yes organisers might hope) might even backfire. Such campaigns may reinforce the naysayer position that there’s a noisy minority of people “not like us” who are trying to subvert the way we live and make us poorer.

To really support a carbon tax, you need to talk about climate change in ways that make sense to the millions of Australians who are not in the Conservation Foundation or Getup or Greenpeace, and you need to use arguments that resonate with them.

Framing the carbon price

Consider these questions:

1) Why do we need to price carbon throughout the world? 2) Why do we need to price carbon in Australia?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the answers to these questions are very different. They strike at the heart of the political debate, and they go like this:

1) We need to price carbon throughout the world for the long-term security of human life and existing biodiversity on our planet. Put simply, we need to make sure the world is a place in which human civilisations – and the ecosystems supporting them – can continue.

We don’t know about you, but we’re certainly not keen to live in some crazy version of The Road, pushing a shopping trolley around in a nightmarish world of total ecosystem collapse.

2) We need to price carbon in Australia for the above, of course, but more specifically, and urgently, for economic reasons.

We need to price carbon in Australia so that business owners have a clearer picture of their operating environment. They need a clear regulatory and taxation framework to operate effectively, and more sensible businesses (BHP-Billiton, for example) have been working under the assumption for some years now that a carbon price is coming.

While the final pricing system remains up in the air, our businesses muddle on in darkness. It is odd that the Liberal party – the traditional allies of business in Australia – have abandoned the core needs of this constituency in favour of the rent-seeking and muckraking of noisy voices such as Ian Plimer, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt.

We need to price carbon in Australia so that Australians have a legitimate seat at the table in framing the global carbon price.

Do we want to be the victims of global negotiations or sit with the agenda-setters?

Do we want to leave global carbon-pricing mechanisms to others, playing in the backyard until the grown-ups have made the decisions for us?

Do we want to keep our heads in the sand and cross our fingers hoping that things won’t hurt us, or actually step up and try and shape them?

Finally, we need to price carbon in Australia so we can begin shifting our economy towards things that will do well in a low-carbon world.

Right now, the muckrakers in politics seem to want Australia to be the last pushers of high carbon energy, like the drug dealers still trying to get people to buy their dodgy gear after the rest of the neighbourhood has been cleaned up.

Yes, coal is making us loads of money right now. But our booming, mining-fueled economy will not last forever. Would you pump your money into coal-only power companies? Would you take the bet that coal will be central to the world’s economy in 50 years time? We wouldn’t.

So why don’t we start shifting our economy, before it’s shifted for us?

Old tricks

It’s important to remember that seeking certainty about the future of the climate is a chimera.

Make no mistake, the evidence is overwhelming that we are affecting our climate dramatically and negatively. But science never offers 100% certainty. About anything.

But these critical notions of scientific skepticism and uncertainty have been reframed by naysayers to mean “don’t believe anything you don’t want to believe”, and “uncertainty means scientists don’t know anything”.


We make financial decisions all the time based on the best evidence available to us, not based on certainty.

We take out mortgages and buy houses based on our best guess about whether that house will be nice to live in, and that interest rate rises won’t make payments impossible.

There can be no certain information about the market, but we look at the best available evidence and follow that.

We make medical decisions, such as whether to risk undergoing a general anaesthetic, based on weighing up the risks and benefits as we see them, and also, critically, calling on the advice of experts.

Certainty is not the goal of science; nor is it a practical basis for decision making. We do, and once more must, decide using the best information at hand. If we always waited for certainty, we would never leave the house.

Get this, and get it good

A global carbon price will come, whether we want it or not. And our economy will be affected by it. It’s really that simple.

We’ve already missed our shot at taking the lead – the UK, Europe and even New Zealand are streets ahead of us now – but does this mean we should aim for last?

Coming last in this race will damage our economy for decades.

We’d like to see campaigns telling the people who still need to hear it the real carbon story: that we need a carbon price, and we need it today.

Ironically, the only certainty in this whole mess is that doing nothing is the worst possible course not just environmentally but economically.

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