Mark Butler and the Climate Wars: ‘We have to call out the rubbish’

With his book Climate Wars, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy Mark Butler provides an insight into the political debate surrounding climate change.

The political discussion and media coverage over climate change in this country would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. We’ve had media commentators dismiss the science and label climate change advocates and scientists as ‘warmists’ and ‘alarmists’ while politicians pull ridiculous stunts such as bring coal into Question Time and pick up coral from the wrong part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Butler says he “tried to bust open the rubbish that has come to dominate public discourse with climate change in Australia” and “argue the case for a Labor agenda around climate” with his book.

“On a national and political level, if we can grasp the gravity of this challenge, and the opportunities that can come with it — particularly with a country like us, with our resources — there are huge opportunities, investment and job opportunities, to transition our economy to a much cleaner one,” says Butler, member for Port Adelaide.

In South Australia 50 per cent of our energy is renewable. This has been the subject of much debate and ridicule with the blackouts that happened last year. But, with major projects coming in the form of Tesla’s 100MW battery near Jamestown and the 150MW solar thermal plant in Port Augusta, Butler believes this state is a leader when it comes to renewable energy.

“We’re a leader in storage with the largest battery being installed over the course of this year, not just the largest but the largest by a considerable distance,” Butler says. “The reason why all the global battery leaders piled into that tender that Jay Weatherill put out was because they recognised that the eyes of the world were on South Australia. Now that has it challenges when you’re leading it, but the industry across the world is really interested in how South Australia is able to manage this transition to a high renewables energy sector.”

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Butler believes the critical block in a consensus position on climate change is in the Coalition party room.

“I don’t think that’s me being partisan about it,” the Labor president says. “I think most objective observers recognise that the climate wars are essentially being fought out within the Coalition and have been for ages, most vividly when Abbott knocked over Turnbull in 2009.”

Since this interview, the federal government announced a 30MW battery for the Yorke Peninsula while the Victorian Labor Government’s 40 per cent renewable target will be legislated. In Climate Wars, Butler points to the UK experience of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron pushing for a bipartisan solution.

“When he took over the leadership, he was concerned about the brand of the Tory party being nasty and not future-looking. The climate wars will end when the Coalition really comes to a view… and we’re not going to agree on the level of ambition, there will be a whole number of things we will continue to disagree about and continue to debate. At the moment, when you have the fundamental underpinnings of climate policy being questioned by powerful figures in the Coalition like Tony Abbott, and many others, it is hard for investors to have the confidence to shift their money.

“So, I argue in this book about the need for consensus between the two major parties. But that’s not surrender, that doesn’t mean us surrendering to the Abbott philosophy. We have to continue to fight this; we have to call out the rubbish that too many politicians and media people, in particular, go on about with climate change.”

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Butler believes that the critical change in climate thinking has to come from the business community.

“I think you are seeing that,” he says. “One of the things that has changed most since the height of the fight about the so-called carbon tax five or six years ago, was that then a whole lot of the business community piled into the Abbott agenda, business groups which frankly should have known better. Instead of arguing the detail of our policy, they got themselves wound up into an argument that Abbott led, which said that Australia doesn’t need a climate change policy at all.”

This, according to Butler, created a policy vacuum that resulted in a lack of investment.

“Business groups have recognised that and they’re arguing the case for climate policy. They’re arguing the case for effectively a price on carbon for the electricity sector. A very significant shift from five years ago. They need to continue to make that case. The rest of us need to continue to make that case.

“We’re not going to convince [conservative commentators] Andrew Bolt or Chris Kenny or Alan Jones, but the advocacy of those business groups along with all the other community groups that consistently have been asking for climate action over this past decade, I hope will change the minds of enough members of the Coalition party room. The first litmus test is the clean energy target debate that has to happen, and may well happen in the [Coalition] party room in September or very soon.”

Butler recognises Labor’s faults in the current climate predicament, with respect to the debate around Julia Gillard’s carbon tax and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to drop the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

“The book tries to be honest about the mistakes we made over the last decade, some of them were about the design of our policy, some were about the presentation, like that debate between Juila [Gillard] and Abbott about whether this was a matter of semantics. I think we underestimated that. Kevin’s [Rudd] decision to drop the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in early 2010 was a very deep mistake. He said he thinks it is the biggest mistake he made in his career and I wouldn’t disagree with that.”

Mark Butler, Climate Wars (Melbourne University Press)

Photography: Sia Duff

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