Is the Election of the ALP a Big Win for the Environment?

By Andrew Martin

If you are a union member, you most likely will have received several emails celebrating the election of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to the federal government. Trades and Labour Councils around the country are touting the election victory as a big win for the environment. For instance, Luke Hilakari, the Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary, emailed union members notifying them that two bills passed federal parliament, ensuring that “our collective future had a big win today” and that “this is a huge step forward”.

The message from Hilakari does not seek to explain the content of Labor’s bills or how they will deliver action on climate change. A carefully worded message was also sent from Michelle O’Neil, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It was full of the same sort of self-congratulations, but at least O’Neil had the good sense to state “Australian unions know that more work is needed at every level to support workers and communities affected by the changes we are facing in climate, industries and jobs”.

Yes, no doubt more work will be needed to support workers. More work will also be needed to save the environment. Neither union leader explained the limitations of the legislation or why it will be inadequate in addressing the challenges posed by climate change.

Soulless Symbolism

Adam Morton in The Guardian pointed out that the climate bills are primarily symbolic. The legislation sets a target of 43% cuts in emissions from 2005 levels and net zero by 2050. As Morton states “the reality is there is barely anything in it. It includes no mechanism to cut greenhouse gas emissions and no funding to drive change. Anyone flicking through its 16 pages could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about”.

“With the Coalition continuing to absent itself from an adult conversation about climate policy, the centre of debate lies somewhere between the Labor assessment last year of what was politically achievable after years of electoral losses and the science-based positions of the Greens and independents”.

Morton, Adam; Labor’s climate bill is mostly symbolic – the big questions are about what comes next, The Guardian, 1/08/2022

The government has not pledged the same sort of spending that some countries in Europe and even the U.S. have committed to reversing climate change. It has introduced tax cuts for electric cars. Given that the most popular electric car in Australia is the Tesla Model 3, which starts at AU$65,000 before on-road costs and has a waiting period of over six months, this is, in reality, a tax cut for a luxury item that most Australians cannot afford.

Not all the Labor legislation is without merit. The government is spending $20 billion to build transmission links for renewable energy infrastructure. This will help create a more integrated and reliable electricity network on the eastern seaboard – something that is necessary to accommodate new wind and solar farms located away from historic power generation locations, typically near coal mines.

But the ALP has not shifted from supporting the expansion of coal mining or gas projects. Neither do they address the pollution from the export of these commodities. The ALP has promised to examine national environmental laws and revise them, so the environment minister has more oversight. But they have not expressed any sense of urgency in doing so, nor given any guarantees that the new oversight powers are even aimed at significantly curtailing the expansion of fossil fuel production.

They’ve also promised to overhaul Australia’s carbon credit system. According to professor Andrew Macintosh, head of the government’s emissions reduction assurance committee, the whole system is a fraud that has hurt the environment and cost the taxpayer over $1 billion. He stated that all the methods used to create carbon credits had “serious integrity issues, either in their design or the way they are being administered”. It remains to be seen how it will be overhauled, but plans that rely on market forces as a solution, either through carbon credits or emissions trading, are doomed to failure.

Grim Findings

The timing of this legislation comes with the release of two reports that are not just damning but extremely alarming. The sixth national State of the Environment Report 2021 was released on 18 July with some very serious findings. The previous government suppressed the report and delayed its release until after the election. The report found that the environment will reach critical thresholds in many natural systems as climate change continues.

Australia’s environment is deteriorating due to climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction. The number of threatened species has grown by 8% in five years, with Australia having the highest rate of species decline worldwide.

The report is the first to consider the impact on health and well-being from climate change and to consider an indigenous perspective. Every ecosystem on the island continent of Australia is under threat. There are now more invasive plant species than native species in Australia.

At least 19 ecosystems are facing collapse. Between 2000 and 2017, nearly eight million hectares of habitat for native species were cleared or significantly degraded. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered several coral bleaching events, and for the first time, these have happened consecutively, giving the reef no time to recover.

The 2nd report drawing attention to the global emergency of climate change was the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Its summary for policymakers presented several key findings from its multiple working groups.

The report noted several concurrent environmental crises that, combined with climate change, present a picture of biodiversity loss, unsustainable consumption of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, rapid urbanisation and human demographic shifts. Social and economic inequalities and a pandemic have all added to the stresses of dealing with climate change. The Australian government’s focus is not to eliminate climate change but to adapt and increase its resilience.

Most advanced capitalist governments are now including renewable energy projects in their budgets. But even so, the report acknowledges that: “there is at least a greater than 50% likelihood that global warming will reach or exceed 1.5°C in the near-term, even for the very low greenhouse gas emissions scenario.” The report presents a number of scenarios that may take place, with 1.5°C being the best case scenario. The IPCC notes that “there is no single answer to the question of whether it is feasible to limit warming to 1.5°C and adapt to the consequences”.

The report describes situations of “overshoot” where the world reaches 2°C or beyond. These scenarios go beyond tipping points, throwing us all into the unknown – a profoundly disrupted planet with melting ice caps and mass extinctions.

The report noted there was high confidence that “widespread, pervasive impacts to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure have resulted from observed increases in the frequency and intensity of climate and weather extremes, including hot extremes on land and in the ocean, heavy precipitation events, drought and fire weather” and that “climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems”. The report also noted that climate change had threatened food and water security for most developing nations.

In short, the report notes that present ecological stresses are so strong that they threaten to make the earth uninhabitable – the very survival of humanity is at stake. The conclusions from the report are alarming. The Anthropocene, the age of human domination, may have run its course. We are already witnessing large-scale environmental catastrophes, and we have little power to prevent them from reoccurring, even if we take action now.

May 2022 marked a new high of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of 421 parts per million. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), based in the U.S, this means CO₂ emissions are 50% higher than pre-industrial levels. This is placing stresses on the atmosphere not seen in millions of years. According to Rick Spinrad, NOAA Administrator,  “The science is irrefutable: humans are altering our climate in ways that our economy and our infrastructure must adapt to”.

This year has marked brutal heatwaves in Europe, India and Pakistan. India experienced the hottest March since 1901 (when records began) with an early hot season. Numerous weather stations observed temperatures of between 45 to 50°C. Climate scientists say this was made 30 times more likely due to climate change.

This heat wave was also particularly humid, making it difficult to find relief. The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance is becoming more prevalent.

What’s Needed

Business as usual can no longer continue. Whatever state mechanisms that are in place to protect the environment are not being enforced. The whole system of environmental protection has been a failure. Australia is one of the most deforested places on the planet – it is the only developed country on the world’s list of deforestation hotspots.

The environmental crisis poses complex challenges for any government, globally and nationally. Nevertheless, the general tasks in Australia can be easily summarised. The environment movement needs to demand the federal government enact once-in-a-generation emergency reforms. There is already some unity on this. The following demands are broadly in line with what organisations such as the Greens and Friends of the Earth have been pressing for:

  • The cessation of approving any more fossil fuel projects. The impacts of fossil fuel development need to finally be taken into account.
  • Threatened ecosystems must be protected. Degraded land, destroyed through years of bad agricultural practices, must be rehabilitated with native vegetation.
  • Environmental management must be nationally coordinated and not left to the states and territories to squander. 
  • All old-growth forest logging must cease. Regional forest agreements need to be renegotiated to protect what are some of the most critical species habitats in the world. The problem with existing agreements negotiated by state governments is that they are exempt from being scrutinised under the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, meaning commercial interests have always come first.
  • There must also be a rapid expansion of renewable power generation and infrastructure. The potential of renewable energy is not even close to being fully realised. The idea that renewable energy cannot secure our energy needs is either completely dishonest or a failure to see outside of the capitalist market. According to a study by researchers from the ANU, if Australia were to utilise 2% of its landmass for the production of wind and solar energy it could export 27 times its current energy needs. Other studies show the required level of storage is very achievable.

These basic demands begin the process of mitigation. Yet, we must realise that even if they help to avert the worst of climate change, in and of themselves, they are not enough to resolve humanity’s environmental crisis. The environmental crisis demands a total rethink of the way we live.

What is necessary is a revolutionary change at all levels of existence. Production, consumption and energy usage must be completely reorganised. This means the serious hard-headed realism of recognising that capitalism and all its market systems are not capable of meeting the challenges we face. The only political system that can meet this challenge is socialism.

The environment movement can broadly be seen as a continuation of the peace and nuclear disarmament movement. The nuclear arms race remains as much a threat to human survival as it ever did. This existential threat, combined with the threat of global warming, is bearing down hard on the youth of today who yearn for a better world.

This current period is either the biggest turning point in human history or the beginning of its fastest decline. The life-supporting surface of our planet has been held in a delicate equilibrium for millions of years. The complex integrated whole of the ecological systems that support life has received catastrophic shocks. If we still have time, it is running short.

The development of humanity has proceeded exponentially with the technological advancement unleashed by socialising production. But capitalism has produced what Karl Marx termed a “metabolic rift” with the earth. Marx contended that there was an irreparable rift in the interdependent processes of social metabolism. In essence, capitalism has created a near-total ecological crisis unleashing forces it can’t control.

The “Marxian” academic John Bellamy Foster, has popularised the idea of a metabolic rift. For years Marxists have been pointing to the root cause of this planetary crisis, which lies in the basic structure of capitalism itself. The mode of production – the cause of the crisis – is key to resolving it.

The economic problems we face are tied to the ecological crisis. The boom-bust cycle of capitalist production is not just economically unstable but is unstable for the planet. For Marxists, the environmental debt we’ve developed towards the planet is directly linked to modern production and agricultural processes, which are extremely energy intensive and wasteful.

The age of imperialist conquest has accelerated these processes. Many Third World countries, otherwise known as the Global South, completely rely on resource extraction. Imperialism – a global system based on unfettered economic expansion has also greatly accelerated the rate of consumption in advanced capitalist countries.

According to Bellamy Foster, the Summary for Policymakers in the IPCC’s report eliminated a number of statements that highlight the systemic nature of global warming and its correlation with inequality. The wealthiest 10% of the global population is responsible for ten times the greenhouse emissions of the poorest 10%. The top 1% of air-travellers account for 50% of aviation emissions. Tellingly, 40% of emissions from developing countries are linked to export production.

The Revolution Awaits

The processes of capital accumulation into the hands of a tiny elite often seems unstoppable and their right to plunder the earth unassailable. Contemporary ecologists now use the term “exterminism” to define the ideologies of free-market capitalism. It’s a useful term as the logical trajectory of free-market capitalism is towards the total destruction of all industrial and organised society. If it is not stopped, capitalism will devour itself along with the planet.

The struggle for human survival must be linked to the struggle for freedom. Our own emancipation is linked with the survival of the planet. Bellamy-Foster calls for a global revolt led by something he calls an “environmental proletariat”:

“I believe that we can see the emergence around the globe of what can be called an environmental proletariat. This refers in many ways back to the classical proletariat, which was revolutionary in its day insofar as it struggled not just over working conditions and jobs but over community, health, and the environment – all of which were at issue during the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays there is no concealing the effects of the economic and ecological crises at the base of society, where they mutually define the material conditions and everyday life of the great majority.”

However, it is not that a new class of proletariat is emerging; rather, environmental justice is increasingly becoming a working-class issue.

There are many reasons to be hopeful. Environmental consciousness is growing. The beginnings of an ecological revolt may be beginning to take root. Large sections of humanity are beginning to express sympathies with the natural environment – this is increasingly being reflected at the ballot box, in street mobilisations and in the actions ordinary people take in their day-to-day lives.

We cannot simply accept the platitudes of trade union leaders or the Labor Party, who look only to the next election. That means we must increase our level of organisation and unity. What Australia needs now more than ever is a national network to organise climate mass actions.

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