Bill McKibben
The links between big polluters and politicians

This week, 193 world governments will begin putting pen to paper on the world’s first agreement to keep global warming below 2 degrees. This agreement is a huge symbolic blow to the fossil fuel industry, but it will remain symbolic unless politicians cut their ties with the culprits behind this climate crisis – the fossil fuel industry.

Right now, the impacts the Paris accord is designed to stop are unfolding at a terrifying rate. Record-breaking temperatures robbed the Arctic of its winter. The Great Barrier Reef is perishing in front of our eyes. February was the hottest month recorded to date. Last year, bushfires in Western Australia raged so fiercely that they created their very own weather system.

We always knew this would happen if we didn’t wean ourselves off fossil fuels. It was always assumed we had more time – that the impacts of climate change would be felt in a hypothetical future. But recent evidence shows we’re out of time – the planet is now entering uncharted territory. Much of what will happen next is already out of our hands.

Despite the crisis unfolding around it, the current Australian government seems determined to ignore the role it has to play in preventing the planet from cooking. 

Six months ago, Australia agreed to the Paris deal. Yet, since then, Australia has reapproved one of the world’s largest coalmines, opened a new research centre for the fossil fuel industry, cut funding for renewable energy, cut funding for climate research. The bewildering list goes on and on.

There is a certain cognitive dissonance going on here. The Australian government knows it needs to act on climate change, yet every action it takes only makes the problem worse. The answer as to why is actually pretty simple.

Like the politicians in my home country of America, many of Australia’s politicians have allowed themselves to be captured by the fossil fuel industry. 

I empathise with you. In the States, Big Oil has an enormous seat in congress. The industry literally writes laws for senior politicians, which are passed in order to block climate action and feed the US fossil fuel habit. They hand over millions in donations to those conservative politicians who propagate their favourite brand of climate denial. And they coax regulators to turn a blind eye to their reckless behaviour. 

Exxon is a perfect example. It has known about the science of climate change since the 1980s. But instead of doing anything to stop it, it has lobbied congress for decades to give the company a free ride to set the world ablaze.

Australia’s political system is not quite at this level of farce, but it’s becoming more and more American with each new donation. Until recently you had a prime minister who, between mouthfuls of onion, told the world that coal was good for humanity. 

Granted, Malcolm Turnbull is no Tony Abbott. But Turnbull is also friendly with the fossil fuel industry. Just this week in Perth, he attended a dinner with the CEOs of Shell, Chevron and Woodside. Blocked by radical conservatives and wined and dined by the fossil fuel industry, Australia is now left adrift with a laughable climate strategy.

As the planet burns, Australia continues to dig up more fossil fuels. But it’s no surprise when you look at the amount of cash changing hands between your politicians and the big polluters. 

In fact, for every $1 the fossil fuel industry has donated to Australia’s major political parties since your most recent federal election, they will be handsomely rewarded with $2000 worth of handouts in the upcoming federal budget. We have a similar crisis in the US. The more donations the industry gives to congress, the more they get back in subsidies. Recent research shows members of the US house of representatives who voted in favour of the Keystone Pipeline got 13 times more in donations from Big Oil than those who voted against. All up, five key refinery companies spent $58.8 million lobbying.

Like the US, the companies that donate most in Australia are those that have the most to lose from your government taking action on climate. They’re companies such as Australia’s biggest carbon polluter, AGL; or Origin, whose existence depends on throwing a wrecking ball through the solar and wind sector; and Chevron, from the same family of companies as Exxon, which knew about the climate damage we were setting ourselves up for yet pushed its dangerous product onto the world.

And then there’s the revolving door between your government and the mining industry. One of your chief negotiators on the Kyoto Protocol left public service to become the head of the Australian Coal Association. Australia’s former climate change minister is now an adviser to AGL and Santos. The deputy prime minister to John Howard left parliament to sit on the board of Whitehaven Coal. Heck, one of your richest coal barons is a sitting parliamentarian. And this is just the tip of the melting iceberg: it doesn’t consider the many staffers and unelected individuals who walk back and forth between parliament and the fossil fuel industry. This is why Prime Minister Turnbull has no climate plan. His government is full of climate deniers and fossil fuel fanatics whose political life depends upon blocking climate action. 

I am speaking to you now as an American, and I want to warn you not to go down the path we have. In the US at the moment we have a situation where it is impossible to become the presidential candidate of the Republican Party if you acknowledge that humans are impacting the climate. 

This is what billions of dollars from fossil fuel companies, propagating lies and doubt, can do to a political system. Australians overwhelmingly want to see action on climate change, and the only thing frustrating this action is political leaders who are pandering to their donors rather than their people. 

The tide must turn. In the past few weeks, Scotland and Belgium have closed down their last coal power stations. Countless other countries are following suit. In a country blessed by sunshine, it shouldn’t be a difficult task. I know already that Australians love renewables. You have the highest uptake of rooftop solar in the world.

But what is lacking is vision from your politicians. I would love to see Australia transition from a world pariah on climate action to a world leader. This starts by simply naming and shaming the people who are perpetuating this reckless denial. The good news is that their tactics are not nuanced; they brazenly blur the lines between parliament and polluters for everyone to see.

Parliamentarians such as Cory Bernardi, who has spent his time in Canberra questioning the weather bureau and running “grassroots” campaigns to axe the carbon price. Or Angus Taylor, who describes human-induced climate change as “religion” devoid of facts. People such as former oil and gas executive, now senator, Gary Gray, who helped found one of the world’s most notorious climate denialist think tanks.

Ultimately, the unhealthy relationship between the fossil fuel industry and your politicians has to be broken. Until this happens, neither of your major parties will be able to enact the transition that is needed to stop the planet from cooking. 

There needs to be more space between the big polluters and our parliament. It may seem like a hopeless task, but it can be done and has been done with other industries. Neither of the major political parties in Australia takes donations from tobacco companies, despite the donations they stood to gain. 

Many of Australia’s states have a cooling off period between people working in the public service and them being allowed to work as lobbyists. There are many sectors in the budget such as health and education that stand to gain from ending fossil fuel subsidies. Local government organisations across the country have been swearing off their financial connections with fossil fuels. 

It is time for the federal government to catch up. This change will not happen overnight, and it is not going to happen without community voices speaking out and demanding it.

The incoming federal election means politicians currently have their ear to the ground. Right now is a perfect opportunity to begin calling for an end to polluter handouts and donations – and real action on climate change. 

It will take a movement to break the link between Australia’s politicians and the big polluters. But the foundations for a pollution-free politics, here in Australia and around the world, are building by the day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2016 as "Polluting the body politic".

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