Jun 26, 2014

Inside Clive’s conversion: how the coal baron met the climate crusader

It was a bromance no one expected. Here's the story on how Clive Palmer came to cross paths with Al Gore.

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

They certainly made an odd couple. Clive Palmer, a businessman made rich by coal, and Al Gore, a global warming missionary, cosied up on stage to announce Palmer's apparent conversion on climate change. Jaws dropped. Journalists panicked. What on earth had happened? And which man had made a fool of the other? The mainstream media has portrayed this in two ways. One: Gore jetted into Canberra, convinced Palmer that climate change was real and caused by humans, so Palmer converted on the spot (cue Fairfax). The other version of events is that Palmer duped Gore into greenwashing his announcement, which actually amounts to an anti-environment hoax (cue Australian). Neither is correct. Here's how the bromance actually came about. Some senior figures in the environment movement have long been nutting out how best to get to Palmer, given his senators will have the final say on the Coalition's climate plans as of next week. This plays into a split among conservationists about whether it's better to work with powerful political figures, to meet and negotiate -- or to take a more aggressive approach and declare war on climate sceptics. The Australian Conservation Foundation has been working out how to get access to Palmer for some time. It was the ACF that brought Gore to Australia this week -- he's here to train 500 people to communicate effectively on climate change. It's been planned for months. That seminar is taking place in Melbourne today, and yes, Gore is there. Crikey went along. It was figures associated with ACF who brokered yesterday's meeting with Palmer. You'll notice Don Henry in this pic from the ABC. Former Greens adviser Ben Oquist, who now works for The Australia Institute, was also hanging around. Why did Palmer agree to meet Gore? Well, the media likes to portray the Palmer United Party as Clive's fiefdom and his three senators as puppets. That might suit Clive, but it's not necessarily that simple. Queensland PUP Senator-elect Glenn Lazarus -- the "brick with eyes" -- has been open to hearing more about climate change and renewable energy (it was Lazarus who introduced Palmer and Gore at their joint press conference last night, and Lazarus is the PUP's Senate leader). And Western Australian PUP Senator-elect Dio Wang has been keen to boost renewable energy. He has made some efforts to shift the PUP's policy towards being more pro-renewables. Add to this the recent and significant shift in position from the United States; President Barack Obama has moved to limit emissions from coal-fired power stations. And PUP senators have just taken a study tour to the US. So there may have been interesting discussions in the PUP party room about whether it was time to think again about the PUP's previous indifference to action on climate change (before yesterday, Palmer had never demonstrated much interest in climate change, and he has long been hostile to the carbon tax). Palmer portrayed yesterday's policy shift as a personal "road to Damascus" moment inspired by Gore. This is what Palmer said:
"Vice-President Gore is a great leader and he has certainly convinced me of the need for the whole world to work together. The world is constantly changing, and our ability to adapt to change and to keep an open mind on issues which affect all of us is what really matters. United States President Barrack Obama has recently shown great leadership on this issue."
And this is what he tweeted: "Thrilled @algore came to Canberra to meet with me & discuss key issues facing the world." But PUP's work to change policy on climate change had begun before that meeting with Gore. Team Gore is well aware of the risk in backing Palmer -- being seen to "sup with the devil". Palmer is an erratic figure, as Bernard Keane writes in Crikey today. He may not stick with what he announced. He may have been using Gore to greenwash himself. Palmer's ETS proposal may go nowhere. Gore knows all this. But some within the conservation movement took the view that the risk was worth it; and if Palmer does follow through on his promise to save the RET, the CEFC and the CCA, those are significant wins for environmentalists. Gore is used to copping flak and tends to crash through it. Gore showed no regrets this morning when he addressed the ACF training session in Melbourne. Greeted with a standing ovation, Gore was every inch the celebrity motivational speaker as he held the floor for hours. The gum-chewing former veep stripped off his shirt jacket as what appeared to be a few bodyguards lurked off to the side. The backdrop to the podium was a wooden wall with hanging plants. Gore emphasised the message that those who want emissions reduced should never give up. He said the political struggle would continue in countries like Australia and the US. "There may not be a single decision point," Gore said, adding that there would however be crucial periods where decisions were made -- and in Australia, "we're in one right now". "Interesting times here in Australia," he said. Referring to climate policy, he said "Australia has been one of the leaders in the world," but these policies "are in flux now". He seemed to take heart from meeting with Palmer with this comment: "The force of conscience ... has been reasserted here." And a "force of conscience" is just how Clive Palmer wants to be seen. Time will tell if Gore comes to rue the day he was lured into a bromance with Clive.

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21 thoughts on “Inside Clive’s conversion: how the coal baron met the climate crusader

  1. Daly

    Thanks for the background on what was a mesmerising moment in Aussie politics yesterday. It remains to be seen what they vote for and against but the PUPs are turning out to be unpredictably interesting! At least this way some of the architecture will be preserved.

  2. Mark Duffett

    Clive Palmer, coal mining magnate, supports retention of the CEFC (which mandates at least 50% of its portfolio to be in renewable energy, specifically precluding any investment in nuclear) and the Renewable Energy Target.

    There’s a lesson in that.

  3. Drew

    You have to remember, as was pointed out in the article, that previously Clive Palmer was dead set against anything to do with mitigating global warming in any sort of meaningful way. I think PUP was always likely to vote to repeal the carbon tax. They went to the last election promising to do so. To not do so would put them in the same ‘broken promises’ position as Abbott and Gillard and that is not a good position to be in if you are playing populist politics.
    If Abbott and Co get their preferred way we are left with absolutely nothing whatsoever. A catastrophic result for future generations. Whilst by no means perfect at least this way we have protected 3 key bodies from extinction and also made the way easier for the way back to cost effective mitigation action in the future.
    Al Gore, Clive Palmer, and the people who brought them together at least deserve our thanks for that. It could have been and was looking to be far, far worse. Roll on the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference.

  4. Chris Hartwell

    Indeed Mark, the lesson being there’s money to be made thus.

  5. John Ryan

    Clive & his party = Carpetbaggers

  6. JohnB

    I still smell a rat.

  7. zut alors

    It beggars belief that Gore was flirting with a coal baron.

  8. James Dean

    This plays into a split among conservationists about whether it’s better to work with powerful political figures, to meet and negotiate — or to take a more aggressive approach and declare war on climate sceptics.

    Please think about this language, here and more generally. Skeptics – people with a healthy dose of cynicism, but willing to listen – have all been convinced by now. The only people left are hardcore denialists, who will never change their minds. Calling them skeptics legitimises their arguments.

  9. Cathy Alexander

    Thank you James – but when I write ‘denialists,’ I get criticism for that also! – and some argue that it unfairly links those who doubt the science on anthropogenic climate change with Holocaust deniers.

    It is an interesting linguistic question.

  10. DiddyWrote

    I wonder if Palmer is trying out Nixon’s old Madman Theory, trying to convince Abbott that he is willing to do anything.

    Abbott and his handlers are likely to be totally wrong footed in any negotiations, unsure which way Palmer would jump next.

    Palmer may well be able to squeeze some really profitable concessions from a flummoxed Abbott. What they will be and how much they will aid the environment waits to be seen

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