Julia Gillard doesn’t get climate change, and those hoping the Labor Government will make a marked policy shift will once more face disappointment.

Over the weekend, the new Prime Minister spoke of her commitment to “build a consensus” before acting. As there’s already strong support across the community for an emissions trading system, it’s not apparent whose consensus she will seek.

If she means climate deniers, their minds are closed. If it’s the fossil fuel corporations, we know they will do only what they are forced to do. It was the Rudd Government’s willingness to obtain their “consensus” with massive cash hand-outs that destroyed the integrity of the CPRS.

It is not consensus that Australia needs on climate policy, but leadership.

The new PM also went out of her way to state: “I believe climate change is real. I believe that it is caused by human activity.”

Why say that? It implies that not believing in human-induced climate change is a legitimate position. And since when did accepting a body of scientific fact become a matter of “belief”?

Gillard’s softness on climate policy can perhaps be understood from her political roots. Since the 60s and 70s, when activists from the new social movements flooded into the ALP aiming to promote change through mainstream politics, Labor has divided into two broad camps, those sympathetic to environmentalism and those indifferent or hostile to it.

Many in the party resented the influx of well-educated activists who, while committed to the party’s principles, did not share its working-class and trade union culture or the political outlook it gives rise to. The rights agenda of the social movements — anti-discrimination, equal pay and so on — was over time integrated into the party’s culture, but environmentalism has never been fully accepted.

There are still those who regard environmentalism as a middle-class indulgence of inner city professionals, and resent the way a trendy preoccupation has taken attention from the real issues of social justice, education and jobs.

Although environmentalism was more readily embraced by the left of the ALP, the divide crosses factional boundaries. There are plenty on the “workerist” left who still regard it as a soft issue that has to be accommodated for electoral reasons only. Some, like Martin Ferguson, are actively hostile, although antagonism more often manifests at a state level. Over the years, Labor Governments in NSW and Tasmania have reserved their most bitter attacks for the Greens rather than the Liberal Party.

Notwithstanding her affiliation with the left, Gillard’s family background and her political associations put her on the side of old Labor. No-one who has any sense of the seriousness of climate change could argue, as Gillard did, for the complete abandonment of the commitment to emissions trading.

And while we now know the NSW right will support someone from the left to take the reins of the country, someone from the left with a strong commitment to environmental protection would probably have been too hard to stomach for the faction that led the charge to kill off the CPRS.

Gillard won her spurs prosecuting the iconic issues of old Labor, industrial relations and education. While undimmed in importance, these concerns are backward-looking, while those who “get” the environment are forward looking.

For perhaps around half of the population, somewhere along the line they experience a little “click” of recognition on climate change, something that says “Hey, this is serious.” It doesn’t turn them into greenies, but it does explain why in surveys a majority always puts environmental protection before economic expansion.

Many in the senior ranks of the ALP have experienced this little click — Bob Hawke, Lindsay Tanner, Bob Carr, Carmen Lawrence, Sharon Burrow, to name only a handful — but many have not — Martin Ferguson, Gary Gray, Simon Crean, Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard and almost all of the NSW right including Mark Arbib and Paul Howes.

There could be no more disturbing portent of the Gillard government’s unwillingness to take global warming seriously than the decision last week to approve the export of brown coal from Victoria.

For pure environmental vandalism, exporting the dirtiest form of energy is matched only by extracting petroleum from oil sands. There could be no clearer sign that, whatever form of window-dressing the Gillard government engages in, it will be business as usual for the coal industry for a long time to come.

Over the last few months many voters alarmed about climate change deserted Labor for the Greens. Polls suggest that over the last few days most have returned to Labor in the hope that Gillard will be more resolute than Rudd. She will do her best to keep them hoping until the election.

In all likelihood the realisation that Labor under Gillard will be as reluctant to act as Labor under Rudd will not take hold before the federal election. But we can be sure they will feel bitterly disappointed in the months that follow the election — unless, with the balance of power in the Senate, the Greens can force the Gillard Government to go much further than it intends.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey