climate change denialists
2017 flooding in South East Queensland. (Image: AAP/STR)

The tide really is turning. With the country burning, and each summer hotter than the last, a majority of Australians are concerned about the planet’s future and want governments to do more. It isn’t just the bleeding hearts in Greens and Labor strongholds — the spectre of climate change has helped rob the Coalition of blue-ribbon safe seats, and it could cause the Nationals a real headache in the bush.

While there are still holdouts — many on the right remain stubbornly opposed to meaningful climate action, hobbled by the power of denialist voices — there is an increasingly mainstream consensus. Even traditionally conservative and business-focused institutions like banks, energy regulators and insurance companies are acknowledging the climate threat, and starting to change their behaviour. 

We’ve taken a look at who the remaining denialists are, alongside the people who have embraced reality:

The denialists

Tony Abbott: Maybe Australia’s most high-profile climate denier, Abbott infamously referred to the science as “absolute crap” in 2009, and recently likened the push for renewables to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.

Michael McCormack: The Deputy PM and Nationals leader claims he is not a climate change denier, but is instead a “believer that the climate is always changing and it’s been changing since Moses was a boy”. More recently he said Labor was “living in fairyland” for pursuing a 45% reduction in carbon emissions, and claimed it would end night time sport in Australia.

Maurice Newman: The former ABC chair and business adviser to Tony Abbott is a prominent denialist, and once penned a column in The Australian in which he claimed climate action was part of a UN-backed conspiracy to create a new world order.

News Corp: Denialists like Newman and Andrew Bolt regularly argue against the existence of climate change in the pages of News Corp papers. Over on Sky News, Rowan Dean regularly tells us to worry about global cooling. Even the news pages of The Australian often feature alarmist reporting about the costs of renewables, that is frequently debunked.

The Institute of Public Affairs: While climate denialists are ignored by the mainstream scientific community, they’re regularly funded and given a prominent platform by the influential conservative think tank.

The realists

Australian Labor Party: Unlike the Coalition, Labor is not hamstrung by a vocal denialist fringe, and has committed to a 45% emissions reduction target and a 50% renewable energy target by 2030.

The Australian Greens: Unsurprisingly, the Greens believe climate change is the greatest threat to civilisation. Their list of policies includes a commitment to net zero or net negative zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

School students: Since Swedish teen Greta Thunberg walked out of class to protest inaction on climate change last year, thousands of school students across the world have followed suit. This included Australian students last November. Another strike is planned for Friday, and the University of Sydney has told staff and students they will not be penalised for skipping class to attend.

NSW Land and Environment Court: In a landmark decision, the court’s chief judge Brian Preston recently rejected an application for a new coal mine at Rocky Hill, citing the project’s future impact on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It is the first time an Australian court has considered evidence related to climate change in deciding whether to approve a new mine.

Glencore: Just months after rehabilitating old mines, Australia’s biggest coal producer announced it would cap its coal output in response to pressure from investors and shareholders.

Australian Securities Exchange: Newly released ASX guidelines acknowledge the impact climate change will have on businesses, and urge listed companies to acknowledge their climate-related risks. This came on the back of a scathing report from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission last year, which accused companies of slipping on climate disclosure.

APRA: The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has been warning companies about climate change since 2017. It recently announced a survey into climate risk, covering institutions in the banking, superannuation and insurance sectors.

Reserve Bank of Australia: Deputy RBA governor Guy Debelle warned that climate change poses a risk to financial stability and economic management. All three of Australia’s economic regulators now acknowledge the threat of climate change and are urging businesses to act.

The big banks: Since 2015, the four big banks (Commonwealth, ANZ, Westpac and NAB) have shifted away from coal and now all have policies and action plans related to climate change. Last year Commonwealth Bank was the best performer, reducing its coal-mining exposure and increasing investment in renewables.

Shareholder activists: Market Forces, a shareholder activist group, has had success influencing big companies on climate change. It recently pushed mining giant Rio Tinto to improve its climate risk disclosure and, in the past year, has placed similar shareholder pressure on Whitehaven, QBE, Santos, and Origin Energy.

Insurance Council of Australia: The peak body representing Australian insurance companies acknowledges the serious environmental risks set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Property Council of Australia: The RBA’s announcement earlier this week was welcomed by property council chief executive Ken Morrison, who said his organisation supported a shift to a net-zero emissions economy.

Business Council of Australia: Frustrated at the Morrison government’s lack of a coherent plan to reduce emissions, the Business Council of Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Committee — which includes big energy, gas and oil companies — has announced it’s planning its own suite of self-regulated measures to lower emissions.

This piece is part of our dedicated climate change series, Slow Burn. Read the rest here.

There are plenty more we could have mentioned. Let us know who we missed by emailing [email protected].

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey