Whole truths, half-truths, and statistics - welcome to election season!
Dayne Eckermann - General Manager, Bright New World
Australia is currently in the middle of its three-yearly Federal election period. For the past month Australians have been confronted with the colourful blooming of election posters on telegraph poles - or as we call them here in South Australia “Stobie poles” - the appearance of the major party leaders in fluro vests spruiking their latest policy for workers, and the constant commentariat “mine is better than yours, no mine is” contest.
If you’ve detected a cynical tone of this intro, it’s not your imagination, because for the privilege we have in Australia of compulsory free elections, “democracy sausages”, and - for all its mishaps - a functioning government, there is an ever increasing tone of intolerance and partisanship.
For those that have heard it, and if you haven’t you should, in Logan Smith’s excellent podcast “Going Fission”, we chat about the need to communicate and advocate for environmentally sustainable policies carefully and ethically. It is all too often that we see campaigns against a technology or policy that focus on an emotive trigger to garner support to oppose, where that emotive trigger is not the main reason for the opposition in the first place.
As has been pointed out, the main driver for anti-nuclear organisations in the United States to oppose nuclear power was not the imminent threat of a meltdown - as they published - but to prevent access to plentiful low carbon energy. They saw plentiful energy as an evil, not a blessing to humanity. But if you asked any member of the general public for the main reasons were to oppose nuclear technologies, ‘abundant energy’ is not one they would have listed.
It has been the same here in Australia. Two political parties oppose the exploration of a potential offshore oil and gas field in South Australia. The main reason for the opposition is to prevent another greenfield fossil fuel development, to prevent that carbon from being liquidated and emitted as carbon dioxide. That’s a good reason - we need to move beyond our dependence on fossil hydrocarbons as quickly as we can. However, if you go to the campaign pages you’d think the main reason was to prevent an imminent oil spill. That’s because scaring people into thinking their livelihoods are in imminent danger is far more motivating than telling them they shouldn’t have access hydrocarbons because of global warming.
How do I know? I was there, on the other side. When an eNGO presented an emotive reason to oppose, it was not their actual motivation. All you needed to do was dig into the emotive argument to show it was just that – an emotive disguise covering the actual reason.
We have also seen a lot of “build more renewables, it’ll be cheaper” type policies presented. The future of low prices is there on the horizon - 100% renewables will be all the things we need, it will solve the Australian energy “trilemma” - affordable, reliabile and clean. But like the promise of jetpacks, we haven’t seen this borne out in reality.
The reality is, in the state with the highest penetration of variable renewable generation in Australia, South Australia, the retail price of electricity is the highest in the country and the wholesale price has marched steadily upward for the last five years. How does the general public, whose only interaction with the energy market is their electricity bill, reconcile the 50% VRE and the highest retail prices, when they’re told “build more, it’ll be cheaper”?
Over a short term, it’s an appealing , saleable message. It rides well on pent up frustration of Australia doing seemingly nothing at all to address our climate and energy challenge. Over the long term, this muddies the water and builds resentment, as the realities of creating that type of system catch up to the simplistic messaging. The ensuing come down damages the credibility of all environmental organisations who are advocating for a more environmentally sustainable planet.
We need to get back to basic principles.
We need to curtail the amount of carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere.
We need access to plentiful, affordable, clean energy.
We need to rewild our natural environment and avert an extinction crisis.
These are the urgent sustainability challenges of today - right now. The days of ‘our children’s children’ have careened right into our present. For a fighting chance we need all the solutions we have available, pulling in the same direction.
We need to allow nuclear an equal opportunity, or as it’s put in Australia “a fair go”.
But we can’t do any of this if we are divided. Environmentalists can’t be believed if we use short-term emotional tropes as a screen for what we really want and believe. Industrialists can’t be believed and trusted as they call loudly for nuclear technologies, when they used their previous breath to deny the human impact on our climate.
Emotion is important. It connects us to cause and to each other. If you can’t find emotion in an extinction crisis and a rapidly changing climate, it’s time to step back. The result becomes a general public that disengages from an inauthentic conversation.
What can we do? There is hope, there always is.
We are an advocacy organisation. We have opinions. We want change and we have a key issue. There is an election in our base of operations, so it’s time for us to tell Australians who to vote for, right?.
Vote for candidates that are considered and measured in their responses. Vote for people who care. Vote for people who give you the sense we need to come together and do better, disagree with grace, and see our bigger collective picture on climate, environment, biodiversity and human prosperity.
At this election, we don’t care which party those people belong to – because we see them everywhere, and we see no single party getting it absolutely right. We can work with anyone like that on building a better, brighter future…and people like that can work with each other.
We’re all in it together, because divided, we will fail.