Jeff Hole reviews Marian Wilkinson’s recent book The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2020
Anyone interested in the question of whether business interests wield too much influence over politicians and policy in Australia should read The Carbon Club. The book is by acclaimed journalist Marian Wilkinson and contributes to debate about the degree of corporate influence on policy making by tracking how a loose network of climate change sceptics, politicians, business leaders and business groups set out to shape community attitudes and influence climate change policy in Australia from the late 1990s to the present. The book adds to a growing literature on corporate influence on Australian politics, alongside the recent book by Lindy Edward, called Corporate Power in Australian Democracy: Do the 1% rule? (Monash University Publishing).
The Carbon Club identifies the members of the Carbon Club and their methods in relation to the fraught debate on Australia’s climate change policy. The Club is not a defined group but rather a loose confederation of individuals and organisations united in scepticism about the scientific consensus on climate change, and in opposition to calls for Australia to take a lead in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Those identified as members of this unofficial club include politicians like Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, Nick Minchin, Andrew Robb and Cory Bernadi; business identities such as Hugh Morgan, Maurice Newman and Gina Reinhart; climate-science sceptics such as Bob Carter, Ian Plimer and Peter Ridd; media identifies such as Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones; and organisations such as the Institute for Public Affairs.
According to Wilkinson, the methods of the Carbon Club were designed to challenge the moral and economic case for taking action to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. It did this, in part, by supporting climate-sceptic scientists. Wilkinson views this support as playing an important role in undermining the moral imperative to act on climate change by creating doubt about the extent of global warming and its causes. She argues this provided a basis to apply the tag ‘climate change alarmists’ to scientists and environmental groups calling for strong action by Australia. It also narrowed the terms of the debate to the economic and employment effects of climate policies. The members of the Club also sought to generate alarm about the economic consequences of strong actions to reduce emissions, particularly in regional communities reliant on fossil fuels and to sow doubt about the global impact of Australian actions to reduce emissions, given both Australia’s small share of global emissions (around 1.5%) and expectations of continued rapid growth in emissions from large developing countries like India and China.
The evolution of the methods of the Carbon Club is traced through major stages in debate about Australia’s climate policy. One early stage involved the development of the Kyoto protocol, which was an early attempt to achieve international agreements on targets to reduce global carbon emissions. Although the protocol was finalised in December 1997 (after Australia argued for and received special treatment), there proceeded a lengthy debate over whether Australia should sign it. John Howard refused to sign the agreement and it was only ratified after a new Prime Minister (Kevin Rudd) was installed in 2007. According to Wilkinson, during this stage in the climate policy debate, the focus of the Carbon Club was predominantly on arguing that the Kyoto protocol would have negative economic effects on investment and employment.
The approach of the Carbon Club broadened during the early 2000s as key members formed links with like-minded activists in the United States and emulated their strategies. Vocal climate-sceptic scientists were deployed in the next stage of the debate in Australia, which was about both the level of ambition of Australia’s emissions reduction targets, and the policy tools to reduce emissions. This debate descended into one of the most bitterly fought and divisive periods of recent Australian political history. It saw several changes of opposition leader and prime minister and, something previously rare in contemporary Australian political history – the repeal of a major policy reform (the Gillard Government’s carbon tax). Although many factors influenced the climate policies of the major parties and the leadership struggles, Wilkinson argues that members of the Carbon Club were highly influential players.
How influential was the Carbon Club? Wilkinson argues that it was more than just a ‘loud chorus’ in the public debate on climate change policy. She argues that these groups ‘scuppered’ attempts to transform Australia into a cleaner economy. This seems to be the view also of Philip Chubb in an important account of the climate policy wars of 2007 to 2013. In Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics Under Rudd and Gillard Chubb he writes:
The failures of Rudd and Gillard, which created the conditions that made the ascension of Tony Abbott and the [climate] sceptics inevitable, make it possible to argue that the Greenhouse Mafia of heavily polluting industries won the climate wars of 2007-13. Their carefully orchestrated campaigns over more than a decade, which were extremely influential in the Howard era, brought handsome victories again. (p.180)
Wilkinson’s book raises incredibly important issues such as what is the role of science in policy debates? As recent experience with COVID has highlighted, science has a vital role to play in dealing with major issues. Wilkinson’s book highlights, however, the challenges facing policy makers in communicating both the implications and limits of science to the community. It also reveals how opponents of worthwhile reforms can exploit scientific uncertainty to undermine community confidence and attack those using scientific findings to advocate for specific policy responses.
Another challenge is that complex issues such as climate change and responding to COVID have multiple dimensions (moral, health, environmental, social, and economic). The role of politics is to synthesise the scientific evidence and other dimensions of ‘wicked’ problems, to arrive at an outcome that is broadly acceptable to the community. However, this becomes more challenging when trust in politicians, political processes and experts is low. As Wilkinson says in the book, ‘one of the driving ideas behind the Carbon Club campaign was to exploit the anger and disaffection among ordinary voters towards politicians’.
The Carbon Club can leave the reader in despair about politics and the future of climate policy in Australia. However, recent domestic and international developments offer cause for hope. All Australian states, including the Liberal Government in NSW have committed to net zero targets. Major Australian companies such as BHP have committed to net zero carbon emissions from operations by 2050. Internationally, major emitters such as China have committed to net zero by 2060 and it is expected that others will make similar commitments at upcoming international climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021. Just recently, the European Union also announced plans to impose carbon tariffs on exports of carbon-intensive steel and other products. The Carbon Club ends on a cautiously optimistic note. ‘The carbon club is breaking up as the climate crisis becomes more urgent. The next decade will determine whether the country and its leaders can rise to the challenge that lies ahead.’
Chubb, P. 2014, Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics Under Rudd and Gillard, Schwartz Publishing Pty. Ltd.
Edwards, L. 2020, Corporate Power in Australian Democracy: Do the 1% rule?, Monash University Publishing.
Wilkinson, M. 2020, The Carbon Club, Allen and Unwin.