Yoga for Climate Change

Dr Ben Heard for Bright New World

Smith Street, Collingwood. Image: Jonathan Brown

Smith Street, Collingwood. Image: Jonathan Brown

I disembark the 86 tram in search of the Grace Darling Hotel, a dark ale, and my older brother. It’s the Monday night after the 2019 Australian Federal election and I’m in the heart of the Federal parliamentary seat of Melbourne. Collingwood, to be exact - the blend of degraded Victorian facades, high end bars and homeless, desperate Australians is an old stomping ground. I lived here and in neighbouring Fitzroy in my twenties. I’ll take my beloved Adelaide any day of the week, but I have a great affection for inner north Melbourne nonetheless. 

Politics is on my mind as it doubtless will be for big-brother, because something interesting just happened. There are plenty of angles from which to dissect a win no one had predicted, plenty of ways to slice that orange. But in an election that was supposedly going to be about climate change? The climate change vote evaporated. We have had close elections and hung parliaments of late, and this was not that. Labor lost, convincingly, and the primary vote for the Greens barely moved. 

Some of the usual excuses just don’t apply. We had just come out of a summer of all-time record-breaking heat. Much of New South Wales has been in appalling, sustained drought. I remain apoplectic as to the ruination that tracts of Australian media bring down on climate change science itself…yet carbon dioxide concentration is now at 415 ppm and the international community seems to be getting back on to the job…and Australians voted, convincingly, to return a government that was confidently promising to do less.

If you believe democracies should be mobilizing to address climate change then something…is going…badly…wrong. 

But what?

As I hone-in on the Grace Darling, a poster catches my attention from the corner of my left eye.

‘Yoga for Climate Change’.

I’m unsure whether or not it is satirical. 

It isn’t. Yoga for climate change.

I used to do yoga nearby at the Ashtanga club on Argyle Street, just a few blocks distant. It does a lot of good. Something it doesn’t and will never do is fix climate change.

You know what might? Forming governments with strong mandates for policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The poster crystallised something that had been nagging me all day about the way the climate change argument is being prosecuted, something that we saw play out in this election. Those who want action are working dilligently making climate change concern deeper, when what we desperately need to do is make it broader. We have to stop convincing ourselves more and start convincing other people…just enough.

As a former resident, I can say a lot of great things about inner-north Melbourne, and I can also say that it has a decidedly insular quality. It’s an identity as much as an address. This seat was won by the Greens MP Adam Bandt with 50.6% of the primary vote. It is the one and only lower-house seat for the Greens, and it is theirs decisively. But Bandt could earn 100% of the primary vote here and it’s still just one seat

If we want bipartisan support for decisive climate change action, we can’t continue activism on the basis of narrow identities and limited postcodes. We need to speak with other people – and especially, we need to listen to them.

Making support deeper is easy because it’s comfortable. We just keep speaking to people who are like us; already mostly agree with us, do the things we do, have the types of jobs we have, live where we live, shop where we shop. It’s a road that leads you to Yoga for Climate Change.

Making support broader? That is uncomfortable. It means talking to people less like us, understanding how they see this issue and the world. It challenges us to really distill what we need for climate change (steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations), and separate it from what else we might desire for the national society, economy and character. We are prone to accusing ‘others’ of not caring about climate change. Really? Perhaps that accusation rests on us – do we care enough to unbundle climate change from the rest of our political identity and get as close to the proximal scientific needs as we can? 

This just isn’t selling it.

This just isn’t selling it.

In the 2019 election, Australian voters were offered a policy bundle from Labor with three major prongs: an investment reform (elimination of negative gearing), a taxation reform (elimination of refunds on franking credits), and a strong climate change policy (sold almost entirely on a promise of 50% renewable electricity by 2030).

That’s two-and-a-half reasons a voter might want to say no, even if that voter thinks climate change needs strong action. Suddenly, for a heck of a lot of voters, the ‘climate change vote’ is an unappealing package. 

If we bundle climate change action with a policy shopping list from the Left, we are guilty of politicizing that which should be above politics. We are going out of our way to exclude whole portions of society from that movement. Then we have the temerity to blame them for not caring.

Broadening means starting with the people who are going to lose from climate change action. Australia is 60% powered by coal for electricity, and coal is one of our biggest exports. There are communities right around the nation who know that strong action on climate change, here and globally, spells the end of the economic world as they have known it for generations – if not immediately, then imminently. These are the people, the ‘others’ with whom we urgently need better engagement. We need to go there with open hearts and minds, and a dose of humility for our own limited life experiences, if not to persuade then at least to properly and respectfully understand, and take what we learn to the rest of the community. 

Modelling of nationwide or even statewide net-benefit to climate change action is not the point in a representative democracy where we form government based on winning a majority of seats. The communities that lose, lose big, while everyone who wins, wins a little. The motivations are wildly uneven and that means seats. 

We need more listening and learning and asking – how does this community work? What might make it feel incrementally safer and more comfortable with us moving away from coal? What might they need to see to support strong commitments on emissions? We need to get to the proximal heart of their concerns.

This election, what did we see instead?

A convoy, from the south to the north, from Tasmania and Melbourne to Queensland, to fundamentally demonise fellow Australians, their livelihood, and their future economic prospects. 

Funnily enough, this didn’t work. It would be difficult to conceive of a piece of activism better-geared to mobilize votes against action on climate change - more deliberately conceived to paint us as two nations instead of one.

To make matters worse, Australia’s climate change movement, across Labor, Greens and activist groups all (with the exception of Bright New World and Nuclear for Climate), leave nuclear technologies completely, in fact aggressively, off the table. These technologies not only fulfil our proximal scientific requirement of massive power supply free of greenhouse gas emissions, they have great appeal to many Australians who hold more conservative views. 

Why is that? What does ‘conservative’ mean in this case? It means a different perspective on departing from the known, a larger weighting of the downside risk of change and this is valid. Conservatism is how we hedge our bets against change. Nuclear technologies would say to more conservative Australian voters, loud and clear, that the change we are seeking is environmentally massive, but otherwise incremental. Centralised power production nodes, using Australian-mined minerals as fuel, with assets that endure in communities across generations. It’s like the coal you know, but it gives you cleaner air. If we will be conservative with you about the solutions, will you be conservative with us about tackling the problem?

Being inclusive of nuclear technologies says we are serious. About climate change, that is…not about remaking the nation for our fellow voters into something they didn’t ask for and don’t yet trust.

In this election, nuclear technologies spent 24 hours in the news. After the Prime Minister gave a reasonably impartial answer to a savvy question, his response was weaponized by Labor’s would-be environment Minister. Recall, it was Labor who tried to occupy to the space of ‘serious about climate change’. This was, and remains, the mother-of-all-mixed-messages. It’s enough to make voters suspicious that whatever this politicking is about, it isn’t climate change. 

I make no pretence to knowing that bringing nuclear into this picture could move the needle – though my decade of outreach in Australia strongly suggests to me it might. But we must surely see how badly this election was prosecuted from a climate change perspective and be open to a change in approach. 

 We must broaden. That means we must listen. And we must change.

Bright New World is a politically inclusive NGO that seeks a brighter future for all: stable climate, rich nature, human prosperity. We need your help to build a better debate. Join Bright New World today.

Ben Heard5 Comments