The “have your cake and eat it” version of climate action was on display in Channel Ten’s Cool Aid “Carbon Test” last night – during the breaks, Bendigo Bank’s ads for offsetting vehicle emissions through tree planting sat comfortably with ads for motor oil and air travel.

The now high-profile campaign to combat climate change often seems to be underpinned by the idea that taking effective action doesn’t have to be a significant lifestyle speed hump. Some fuel switching here, some lights switched off there, some trees planted over there, and life continues pretty much as green-tinged normal.

A lot of the people involved in promoting this version of climate action (Al Gore included) may believe that more significant change is required than they’re letting on – and people like Tim Flannery seem to pull few punches in this sense – but they probably figure that: 1) it’s worth grabbing the low-hanging light-bulbs first, and; 2) talk of more significant changes may, at this early stage, spook the horses.

To the extent that they’re right, it’s difficult to argue with the positives of a program of the type aired by Channel Ten last night. At least as something that gets people moving. Even if it was relatively dull (I clocked out at 10:15 – I just couldn’t take it anymore).

But it’s worth remembering that for the ten years up until last, what little column space or interview time was devoted to the climate change issue was fairly evenly divided between a handful of generally non-scientific contrarians often with dubious industrial affiliations and the mainstream science community, all in the misguided name of journalistic ‘balance’.

Last year the penny finally dropped, to such an extent that now it instead puts bums on seats to turn the issue into an approaching train smash. ‘Our planet is dying!’ screamed the prime time promos for Cool Aid.

So despite trying to make the most of his lightbulb moment a fortnight ago, Malcolm Turnbull never stood a chance last night. They could scarcely have cast him more clearly as the villain of the piece if they’d superimposed the number of the beast on his forehead. Contrast this with the kid gloves treatment of Peter Garrett and Al Gore.

In the context of what may be required to take meaningful action on climate change, it’s worth reflecting on what commercial television is for.

A good part of our environmental quandary relates to our inability to moderate consumption. Depending on your politics, you might argue either that this means we need to consume smarter, or consume less. Number ten on the Cool Aid carbon diet plan, to its credit, is: ‘Waste Not Want Not: Try not to buy things that you don’t need. Recycle all that you can and compost your organic waste if possible.’

There’s a much broader argument to be had – that environmental issues tend to emphasise – about what constitutes ‘need’ with respect to consumption. Some of the most successful commercial products are things we ‘need’ least, and that in many cases actually do us harm.

Whatever the case, doing the right thing by the environment is often going to be defined more by what we don’t buy than what we do. To the extent that this is true, the promotion of environmental aims runs the risk of self-parody when popularised by a medium that relies on commerce for its existence.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey