The Australian Labor Party’s Climate Bill Is Empty Symbolism

Labor’s climate bill is little more than symbolism. With escalating climate disasters and soaring inflation, it’s bad policy and even worse politics.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese looks on during Question Time at Parliament House, July 28, 2022. (Martin Ollman / Getty Images)

Last week, the Australian government introduced their controversial climate change bill into Parliament. Even though the bill’s passage through a contested Senate is still anything but certain, Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese used the opportunity to declare an end to the “climate wars.” This, however, is wishful thinking. There is simply no way to paper over the conflict between fossil fuel capital and the biosphere that civilization relies on.

As climate disasters increase in frequency and severity, the stakes are literally life and death. Consequently, the severity of political conflict over the climate crisis is only going to intensify. Labor is trying to convince its voters that it is taking the climate crisis seriously while reassuring fossil fuel capital that it doesn’t pose a threat. Sooner or later, the contradictions will come to a head, and for the sake of our future, Labor needs to cut its ties to fossil fuel capital before it’s too late.

The Illusion of Action

Despite the fanfare, Labor’s climate bill will do almost nothing to reduce emissions. The emission reduction target of 43 percent by 2030 is barely better than the status quo. Before the election, Australia was already on track to reduce emissions by 30 to 38 percent, due to action from states, households, and businesses. And with the cost of coal, oil, and gas rising and the cost of renewables continuing to fall, it is likely that Labor’s target will be met without any intervention from the government.

Ultimately, however, that’s beside the point. The real problem is that 43 percent is nowhere near enough. To avoid catastrophic climate impacts, emissions need to peak in 2025 and be halved before the decade is out, and according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change statement from April, it’s “now or never.” Further analysis from the Climate Council found that to contribute our share toward this outcome, Australia must reduce emissions by 75 percent before 2030. Faster is better because every fraction of a degree will have devastating consequences — every ton of greenhouse gas kept out of the atmosphere is important.

Australia’s fossil fuel export industry is the nation’s biggest contributor to the global climate crisis. Despite this, Anthony Albanese has joined the previous government in parroting the fossil fuel lobby’s lies about the cleanliness of Australian coal. Worse, Labor is refusing to back away from its support for new coal and gas projects, such as opening up the Beetaloo Basin for fracking and the Scarborough gas project in Western Australia. According to a Renew Economy report, if these go ahead, the resulting emissions will wipe out any domestic climate gains many times over.

Environment minister Tanya Plibersek defended Labor’s support for new coal and gas projects by claiming that Australia isn’t responsible for our exports. But in a global emergency like this one, passing the buck just doesn’t cut it. We have a moral duty to use every lever of power at our disposal to keep fossil fuels in the ground and out of the atmosphere.

While Labor continues to make statements about the need to “urgently step up the pace of action” and keep “1.5 degrees within reach,” its bill simply doesn’t match the rhetoric. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) wants credit for taking more action than the previous government, but without the political inconvenience of taking on fossil fuel capital. It’s an impossible circle to square.

The Climate Wars

Albanese claims that Labor wants to put an end to the “climate wars.” This, however, is simply impossible. The only way the climate wars will end is with victory — either for the planet or for a handful of fossil fuel companies. The far more important question is, which side will the ALP fight for?

There’s little wonder as to why the ALP would rather that the debate over climate policy goes away — they are caught between irreconcilable interests. On the one hand, the party has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the fossil fuel industry. Many of its MPs have benefited from the revolving door between the ALP and the fossil fuel industry, guaranteeing them long and lucrative careers. On the other hand, Labor voters overwhelmingly want climate action, and are increasingly deserting the party in favor of the Greens and climate-focused “teal” independents.

This explains Labor’s so-called consensus, which is nothing but a carefully choreographed dance to placate voters with promises of action while delivering continued expansion for fossil fuel capital. It’s a dangerous political game. Labor should know by now that business is a fickle ally. If Labor wants to build a stable and long-term governing coalition, the party needs to place its hopes elsewhere.

Indeed, by placing a bet each way, the ALP is doing just enough to rile up culture warriors and climate deniers while alienating a growing climate movement. We know from experience that the fossil fuel lobby will seize on rising costs of living to argue for blocking and delaying climate action. And Labor’s climate bill plays right into this trap. By focusing solely on targets, Albanese is missing the opportunity to reassure working-class voters that climate action will improve our lives.

The Senate Debate

Labor will need the Greens’ votes in the Senate to pass the climate bill, and so far, much of the media commentary has focused on negotiations between the two parties.

The Greens argue for a target of 75 percent and a moratorium on all new coal and gas projects. Beyond this, they took a full package of climate policies to the election, including publicly owned electricity; a just transition for coal, oil, and gas workers and their communities; and a commitment to build a million new homes. These are policies that would materially improve the lives of working-class people; they could be inspiring, popular, and transformational. Moreover, the Greens have repeatedly indicated they want to work with Labor to address the climate crisis. Despite this, Labor has remained focused on denying the Greens a victory, which is both self-defeating and shortsighted.

The ALP’s intransigence toward the Greens is motivated in large part by fears that making concessions will bolster the Greens at their expense. After all, at the last election, Labor’s primary vote fell to its lowest since the Great Depression. This result wasn’t an anomaly but a part of a long-term trend.

It’s true that Greens have benefited from Labor’s decline, with many voters changing parties over the ALP’s failure on climate. This is likely to continue, and if it does, no matter how intransigent Labor is, they will be more reliant on Greens support, both to form government and to pass legislation.

For the Greens’ part, they have signaled a willingness to pass a climate bill well short of what is necessary. After a decade of climate vandalism from the previous government, it’s understandable they would want to avoid standing in the way of even minor progress. At the same time, the Greens are facing significant pressure from the media, and even some parts of the environmental movement, to back down.

However, better than nothing won’t be good enough. Nearly 2 million people voted for the Greens for faster and more meaningful climate action. And given that Labor’s 2030 targets aren’t an improvement on the current trajectory, there is little to be lost by standing firm. This is why the Greens are right to use whatever leverage they have to push Labor to act in the interests of workers and the planet. The climate movement outside of Parliament should be backing them to do this, and Labor would be smart to work with the Greens to deliver a popular climate agenda.

We Need to Win the Climate Wars

As inflation soars, real wages continue to shrink, and the housing crisis worsens, calls for economic relief are growing louder and more popular. The solutions to these crises overlap with the solutions to the climate crisis. Addressing the climate crisis isn’t optional, and ultimately, there will be no way to bolster living standards and take climate action without challenging the power of capital. Of course, the corporations — and fossil fuel capital in particular — are going to fight any genuine attempts at reform.

We could guarantee a good job to everyone who wants one, undertaking the meaningful and dignified work of decarbonizing our economy, building public housing, and providing essential public services. This is a popular agenda that unions, the climate, and anti-poverty movements could unite around. Labor could choose to bring this coalition together. Without Labor, a broad coalition of social movements, unions, and political parties is the only way we can win the fight against fossil fuel capital.

If Labor does decide to double down on its support for fossil fuel capital, affiliated unions are going to face a difficult choice too. Labor’s best hopes for a long term in government lie with the people, not fossil fuel billionaires. The sooner they realize this, the better our chances of surviving this crisis become.