The 3rd Degree, Frontline in Australia’s climate war

The 3rd Degree, Frontline in Australia’s climate war

Murray Hogarth, 2007

The 3rd Degree, Frontline in Australia’s climate war

Murray Hogarth
2007
Pluto Press Australia, ‘Australia Now’ Series
RRP $17.95

Review by Cam Walker
National liaison officer, Friends of the Earth, Australia.

The 3rd Degree looks at climate politics in Australia. It is written by Murray Hogarth, a former ABC and Sydney Morning Herald journalist now with the Ecos Corporation where, Pluto Press tells us, he “has been helping major companies to understand and respond to their social and environmental challenges since 1999”.

The book annoyed me in a number of ways, from its ‘I met someone important and they told me this’ story-telling approach to his naive ‘let’s move beyond ideology and do what is required’ analysis. The solution he offers makes me think of Francis Fukuyama’s claims about ‘the end of history’. He offers the solution of a benevolent green capitalism, where the markets will drive innovation and deliver us from global warming.

Ostensibly the focal point of the book is what would happen once we get past a 3oC overall warming and what we can do to avoid this level of warming. It is full of one-dimensional analysis and platitudes. One that stood out was his intention not to spend any time ‘blaming’ greenhouse culprits, as revenge is ‘not my thing’. Instead he argues for the need to concentrate on solutions and moving forward together. Given the role of corporations in driving global warming this is a bit like talking about the threat of bushfires but not wanting to chase the arsonists lighting the fires in case it is considered a form of revenge.

In many ways this book is just an update of the ‘business will save the planet’ analysis popular a half decade ago (sometimes called natural capitalism), but updated to include climate change. I think Murray is right to say the issue of climate change has moved beyond the environment movement – something that many within the movement have been working towards for years. But I disagree with his analysis that business must become the centre-piece of our attempts to deal with climate change.

There is a nasty undertone to this corporate friendly (and corporate aligned) form of environmentalism which Murray completely ignores. He talks in neutral terms about nuclear power as a solution for global warming and describes the political space that could be taken up by a conservative party, which would focus on issues like ‘border control’ given the fact that many environmental refugees will be seeking refuge throughout our region in coming years. This is exactly the same as Tim Flannery raising the spectre of Australia refusing to accept more immigrants on the basis of the country being ‘full’, without overtly spelling out his personal position on this.

Murray takes up a lot of space talking about markets and how wonderful they are and especially the benefits of emissions trading. Admittedly he at least starts by saying we need to establish a cap on greenhouse emissions before we can trade, but he is incredibly optimistic about the ability of the market to deliver results once we price carbon. He is especially fond of the company Easy Being Green which started operations in Victoria and then moved to NSW to take advantage of the carbon trading market in that state, only to crash badly as that market collapsed. I’m sure Murray’s response to this would be ‘we are learning as we go’, yet for me it shows the dangers on relying on the market to deliver environmental outcomes. In discussions within the green movement, for instance at the Mittagong Forums, where peak green groups gather, I have often been amazed at the lack of analysis within some parts of the movement of the pitfalls of market-based initiatives. This overly optimistic approach to market-based solutions is consistent with a movement that has placed a lot of emphasis on engaging with corporates, often for very limited tangible outcomes and sometimes at a real cost to other forms of environmental campaigning.

The 3rd Degree has some strange analysis in the chapter which critiques the green movement. Hogarth says that the movement is ‘terrified’ of actually succeeding. His argument is similar to that of the first environment minister in the Howard government, Robert Hill, who said that ‘we are all environmentalists now’, meaning ‘business, with all of its resources and innovation and marketing skills is simply better at driving future action than traditional activists’. Just because someone has resources doesn’t make them right and certainly, while business has to be a part of the required solutions, suggesting it should be the driving force (where ultimately profit motives will rule) is very similar to the proverbial fox in charge of the chickens because by definition businesses will only do what is profitable. Hogarth writes about the failures of the movement and the claim that it is too idealistic, yet he goes on to talk about companies in such glowing terms that it is hard to believe he really is from the ‘raw and aggressive’ world of journalism (his words). BP is his favourite beacon of sustainability, yet no where does he even list any of the widely-available critiques of this company. BP is the world’s third largest oil and gas company and one of the largest polluters on the globe. In recent years it has been involved in the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, amongst many other clearly unsustainable projects.

Another element of the book that just didn’t work is the ‘war’ analogy – the suggestion that we are at war with global warming (and consumers will be the battalions in the war, etc). This doesn’t work on many levels (for the ‘enemy’ after all, is us, as Murray acknowledges). We are certainly way past a ‘business as usual with a green twinge’ stage in our collective history and this requires a profound change in how we do everything. But I think that the idea of a climate or sustainability emergency and the need to recalibrate our societies and economies accordingly works far better for our current problems than a war analogy.

There will be many elements at the core of a meaningful response to global warming. The first step must be our recognition that the rich world has an enormous historical and contemporary carbon debt to the rest of the planet. Secondly, if we are to keep warming to a manageable level, we need to accept that there is already too much carbon in the atmosphere and we need to take radical action to not only greatly reduce emissions but also pull carbon out of the air. We cannot, however, throw ideology or ethics out in our mad scramble for solutions. This means we need to be as careful as ever when it comes to looking for solutions, especially those being sold by people who stand to make a lot of cash from the uptake of their ideas. Once we accept the need to reign in our emissions, we will need to determine what would constitute a sustainable level of greenhouse emissions each person could produce, then allocate this at the national level as an annual carbon budget we would need to live within.

Then and only then will emissions trading actually be able to deliver serious outcomes, as will a range of other market-based options. But these approaches are only one element of a response. Behavioural change is another but these first two options are the current darlings of many environmental thinkers such as Murray who neglect the other key element of an equitable response – robust and enforceable policy regimes which set the framework for business to operate in. No wonder this voluntary, ‘opt in’ approach is so loved by business – it is exactly the self regulation that many industrial sectors have been arguing for decades. In the past, environmentalists were their opponents in this argument, now, many of us are effectively part of their cheer squad. His assumption that we need to place a price on carbon in order to drive innovation into low carbon futures makes sense but unless we place social dimensions at the core of this, then it will lead to more people suffering (low income families not able to pay power bills, coal workers thrown on the unemployment scrapheap, etc).

One of the things that annoyed me the most was Murray’s assertion about the nature of the problem of global warming. He says (rightly) that it is not primarily an environmental or economic problem. But he posits it as a personal problem, ultimately being about whether we want to create a sustainable future. I would argue that at its core it is about human rights and social justice, as some parts of the human population have been driving global warming for generations while other elements – the majority world – are suffering from it, despite having contributed very little to the carbon that is currently in the atmosphere. To miss this pivotal understanding, beyond mentioning it in passing, means it is easy to slip into a mind-set where a benevolent and sustainable capitalism seems possible. While he does mention the need for good policy which will make it easier for consumers to do the right thing, such as laws on deposits on beverage containers, he is silent on the fact that industry is almost totally committed to voluntary measures. For example, where are the companies demanding legislated levels of minimum behaviour around extended producer responsibility? It’s a very short list, and this omission alone shows an enormous gap in Murray’s overly kind analysis of how business operates.

After his relentlessly positive spin on corporates through most of the book, he does vent a bit of outrage at the end at the failure of the Howard government, the Business Council of Australia, the ALP, the media, the environment movement, consumers, and everyone else who has been either dragging the chain or completely ignoring climate change.

He briefly addresses a lot of interesting turf for such a brief book – from the fact that wilderness is a fallacy, the question of the role of green consumerism in bringing about change (no mention of the class dimensions here), about the need to reach out beyond the Anglo middle-class heartland of the traditional movement, discussion on the idea that we will need to ‘farm’ nature if we are to maintain ecosystems at a functioning level, the evolution from ‘environmentalism’ to concepts of sustainability, the priorities of the movement (which long favoured forest protection over climate campaigning), and more.

The audience, I assume, is people in the business sector, presumably who will respond to the historical role being presented to them by global warming, whereupon they will adopt the mantle of saving the planet, helped by us consumers who will take the decisions and drive the opinion polling that will force the government over its own ‘tipping point’. That sounds about as convincing as saying there should be a conservative political party taking on the task of ‘future proofing’ Australia against climate change, as Murray suggests. Regardless of whatever contribution this book might make to the broader discussion about future societies, I know I don’t want to live in either of these two Australia’s outlined above.

We do live in a remarkable time, where the terrain is shifting profoundly as all sections of our society begin to grapple with the realities of climate change. This offers immense opportunities for forging new movements and alliances. We must not lose sight of the fact that all of this will be driven by enormous ecological, economic and human rights imperatives. If we do believe what climate science is telling us, we must move beyond business as usual in the shortest time humanly possible, which means defining a new role for corporations, not simply expecting them to lead the way. A few years ago there was a t-shirt doing the rounds with the message that ‘green is the new black’. If this is true, then climate change is clearly the new green. But in looking for a solution to the onslaught of climate change, we should remember that not everyone looks good in that colour. As growing numbers of companies pull on the green t-shirt, we need to be more wary than ever about their intentions and their ability to actually bring about meaningful change.

Published in Chain Reaction magazine, issue #102,
April 2008

 

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