IPA Today

The Climate Chicken Littles Haven’t Won. We’ve Been Here Before

Written by
19 October 2021
Originally appeared in The Spectator Australia

Yes, I know things look bad now. Everyone from the News Corp mastheads to the Queen of England and two heirs presumptive are falling in behind ‘net zero’. Scott Morrison is trudging off to Glasgow. The world has lost its collective mind.  

I know, I know. But relax. We’ve been here before, and we turned out fine. Let me explain.  

The year was 2009. Kevin Rudd was, according to Newspoll, the most popular prime minister in recorded history. Barack Obama could just about walk on water (if he wasn’t single-handedly turning it back as ‘the planet began to heal’). John Brumby was breaking ground on a brand new, Tim Flannery-inspired desalination plant, which would cost the state of Victoria $2 million per day, every day, for 30 years, and produce little, if any, actual water. It was an optimistic time.  

Yes, ‘climate change’ had reached the pinnacle of its inexplicable climb up our national – and, in fact, global – priority list. Everyone was talking about ‘going green’, and adopting little feel-good gestures, like swearing off their electric blanket and stoically enduring the noxious fumes of rotting compost emanating from the great mounds in their backyard. The frenzied evangelism triggered by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth three years earlier had overwhelmed us for good.  

As you’d expect, the climate pageantry was at its most idiotic at our universities. I was about halfway through my degree at the time, attending the occasional class in between causing mischief in the hard-boiled world of student politics. We in the Melbourne Uni Liberal Club found ways to have fun with the new ‘green’ fad, like campaigning for campus elections on a platform of drilling for oil in the basement of the student union building.  

(Or the time we invited the late, great climate sceptic Ray Evans to give a public lecture, then handed out flyers [with, I confess, somewhat deceptive branding] advertising an ‘important climate change forum’. Ray was in on the joke, and I think quite enjoyed entertaining us by patiently addressing questions from students who came expecting a very different lecture.) 

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you all this is because following the news these days is giving me a haunting sense of déjà vu. We’ve come full circle. ‘Climate’ is omnipresent in the public debate, and mainstream commentary has settled on some confected urgency. Tired refrains like ‘The rest of the world is acting’ and ‘The time for debate is over’ are getting louder, more insistent.

And once again, everything is being framed around a big, international talkfest – pages upon pages of useless commentary over Glasgow, what will happen there, what it all means. And most obnoxiously, the way in which Australia must not only ‘do its part’ but ‘lead the world’ in deindustrialising itself in the interest of some ill-defined climate doomsday scenario.  

Twelve years ago, we climate sceptics endured precisely the same exhausting, asinine debate. Back then, as you might recall, the world was veering towards a similar grand, decisive climate showdown, and for the chattering classes the big question was what Australia would ‘take to Copenhagen’. 

And so the stage was set for the chaotic but ultimately miraculous series of events that culminated in the first victory in what would become known as Australia’s ‘climate wars’. In one corner, we had Kevin Rudd, determined to become the hero of Copenhagen with this ‘emissions trading scheme’ already in place. And in the other corner, another loathsome (and, ultimately, oft-defeated) climate villain, Malcolm Turnbull, who was of course naturally sympathetic what Kevin Rudd was trying to do, and in any event just wanted the issue settled so that the national debate could move onto other issues that were more ‘winnable’ for the Coalition.  

So with both sides of politics drinking the climate Kool-Aid, the big question wasn’t if, but how. An emissions trading scheme, in some form, was a political fait accompli. The only ‘debate’ when it came to climate was how exactly the whole monstrosity was supposed to actually work.  

We were bombarded – bamboozled – with a flood of useless detail that only a government led by Kevin Rudd could generate. Endless speculation of who was in, who was out, who was exempt, and who would have to cop it. What it meant for families, pensioners, farmers, manufacturers, motorists, recreational fishermen, the charcoal chicken place down the road. What it meant for so-called ‘trade-exposed industries’ – whatever that meant. The logic, if any, behind why the government was proposing to exempt, say, aluminium smelters and not concrete producers – and then the next week vice versa. We were consumed by the bureaucratic minutiae, the swarm of trivialities, that came with the absurd task of regulating an element of the periodic table.   

What the media wasn’t telling us, though, was the fear and loathing that was brewing among the Australian mainstream, rightly worried about what ‘carbon pricing’ would do to the country. I had a part-time job in a senator’s office, answering phones and handling constituent ‘corro’, as it’s called. Every day, I would carry a great pile of letters, emails and records of phone calls to the archives at the back of the office, adding to the giant repository of anti-ETS correspondence like the final warehouse scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark

I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but it was my first real-life experience of the utter disconnect between the ‘respectable’ debate playing itself out in the media, and the growing opposition of mainstream Australians. And if I was noticing the groundswell of opposition to Rudd’s ETS, so was every other electorate officer in the country. Throughout the party room, nervous MPs were all too aware that Australia’s silent majority was starting to scream.   

Then came a truly remarkable couple of weeks. Coalition MPs started speaking out. Frontbenchers resigned en-masse. And Malcolm Turnbull prophetically declared: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to taking action on climate change as I am.”

And the rest, you know. Tony Abbott vanquished Malcolm Turnbull in the party room, withdrew Coalition support for the ETS, and came back in the new year campaigning against Labor’s ‘great big new tax on everything’. Six months later, Kevin Rudd was gone and soon after that, his successor Julia Gillard had a near-death experience and was forced to govern in the minority. Three years after that, Abbott won in a landslide and dismantled Labor’s ‘climate action’ apparatus for good. 

The night Tony Abbott became leader of the opposition, me and my buddies in the Liberal Club converged on the city for an impromptu celebration that went long into the night and to this day I can’t quite remember. But for all our youthful bravado, we knew that what had happened was profound, and important. This was no ordinary change of leadership, this was a change to the fabric of the Liberal Party itself – what it meant, what it stood for, and most importantly who it stood for. It was ours again. 

And ‘climate’, as a political issue, was in remission. We went on to find other issues to have fun with, like running for campus elections in 2010 promising to ‘stop the boats’ through ‘direct action measures like abolishing the rowing club’. Later that year, Liberal delegates to the annual National Union of Students conference wore t-shirts saying: “Budgie Smugglers, Not People Smugglers”.  

So there you have it, all is not lost. Whatever globalist monstrosity they’re cooking in Glasgow is not ‘inevitable’, it can be stopped. But as in 2009, it falls to us to let our politicians know that ‘net zero emissions’ means net zero votes for them. We must once again be living proof that when the usual suspects arrogantly proclaim that ‘Australians want urgent action on climate change’, they are wrong. And if Scott Morrison goes the way of Malcolm Turnbull, then so be it. 

I’m ready to speak up. How about you?

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Gideon Rozner

Gideon Rozner is the Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs

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