This year’s annual Climate Summit, a decision-making conference of Australian climate activists, was split 50/50 over whether to support a carbon price.

The final session was dominated by a debate over whether to endorse the statement “the summit supports a carbon price” as part of the Summit’s decisions. After much dissent, the phrase was removed and replaced with “Summit participants agreed a carbon price would be a useful measure but it was not supported if it resulted in: the roll out of fossil fuels, particularly gas; or put the cost burden on the poor and working. Also, a carbon price alone will be insufficient to deliver 100 per cent renewable energy and poses a risk that gas power stations will be built.”

The outcome reflects the lack of enthusiasm for a carbon price. Support has ebbed away since last year, when the Summit voted overwhelmingly to campaign for a tax.

At a discussion about the carbon price, Friends of the Earth (FoE) member James Goodman argued it was “climate policy which is unpopular, vulnerable to attacks from sceptics, unlikely to be effective and open to capture from big business.”

Patrick Hearps from Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) urged campaigners not to “let liberal economic rationalist discussion distract us—the most important thing for us is not the value of the carbon price but what additional measures will be alongside it.” BZE has released modelling that shows anything below a $70 a tonne carbon price will result in a transition to gas power—meaning that an incrementally rising carbon price would result in a massive waste of investment into more fossil fuels, not renewables.

Fighting Abbott

But around half the attendees of the summit were determined to stick by Labor’s carbon price. Their main reason? Tony Abbott.

Abbott’s call for an anti-tax “people’s revolt” and his declaration that he will fight the tax “every minute of every day of every month” is an appeal to climate change deniers. Abbott addressed an anti-tax demonstration in Canberra strewn with placards such as “CRAP: C02 Really Ain’t Pollution” and “the polar bears are fine!”

Climate activists are rightly concerned about stopping Abbott, but some can’t see any way to do that other than supporting Labor’s policy. Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt expressed the feeling when he said, “constantly on my mind and in my ears [is that] Tony Abbott is one seat away from being Prime Minister.” At the summit Bandt called for “tens of thousands of people marching down the street” for a high carbon price of $70 or more. But you will never see tens of thousands of people demanding higher prices.

What the climate movement and The Greens have not faced is the reality that Abbott is appealing to a real sentiment about rising electricity, petrol and food prices. Of course living standards are not a genuine concern of the party that introduced the GST—but they are for the mass of working people. That is why Abbott is winning some traction with his anti-carbon price campaign.

There is a real danger here that action on climate change will come to be associated with lower living standards, undermining support for the climate movement. Many activists argue that if the carbon price doesn’t go through, Abbott will be the next Prime Minister. But there is just as much likelihood that a carbon price will go through and Abbott will win the next election on the basis of an anti-tax backlash, which wouldn’t put the movement in a better position to win real climate action.

Defending a carbon price only gives more oxygen to Abbott in the long term. When (and if) the tax comes in and the cost of living rises, there will be no corresponding expansion of renewable energy or a reduction in emissions. The experience of carbon taxes in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland has shown this. This reality will only vindicate Abbott’s position.

Progressive policy

Many businesses, such as electricity retailer AGL and oil giant BP, are supporting the carbon price because they don’t see it as a threat to business-as-usual. The CEO of Australia’s largest investment and superannuation fund says a carbon price will have a minimal impact on company earnings. AMP Capital Investor chief executive Stephen Dunne said companies would lose a profit of “on average two per cent and we don’t expect any one company to have greater than five per cent impact.” And this doesn’t even take into account the billions worth of handouts Gillard intends to give polluting industries.

The Climate Summit demonstrated campaigners are finding it harder and harder to defend the carbon price. Union officials also commented at their lack of success in selling the scheme to their members (see opposite page).

To fight Abbott the climate movement has to go on the front foot, fighting for action that can win mass popular support, like government investment in renewable energy and green jobs. We don’t have to choose between Gillard’s dud policy and Abbott’s climate denialism. We must fight one to fight the other. Laying the groundwork now for a progressive climate policy that taxes the rich, not the poor, will be essential in the year to come.

By Erima Dall

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