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Rebecca Huntley on what ordinary Australians really think about climate change, and how the fossil fuel lobby has influenced their hearts and minds.

How the fossil fuel industry is gaslighting Australia



Australia has largely fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to action on climate change. Even our closest allies regularly criticise our government’s slow approach to tackling the issue.

While polls show a majority of Australians actually want to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels and move to renewables, there are some who are uncertain on how this future looks.

Today, social researcher Rebecca Huntley on what ordinary Australians really think about climate change, and how the fossil fuel lobby has influenced their hearts and minds.

Guest: Social researcher and contributor to The Monthly, Rebecca Huntley.

Show Transcript

[Theme music starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones - this is 7am.

 

Australia has largely fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to action on climate change. Even our closest allies regularly criticise our government’s slow approach to tackling the issue. While polls show a majority of Australians actually want to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels and move to renewables, there are some who are uncertain on how this future looks.

 

Today - social researcher and contributor to The Monthly,  Rebecca Huntley - on what ordinary Australians really think about climate change, and how the fossil fuel lobby has influenced their hearts and minds.

 

It’s Monday December 13. 

 

[Theme music ends]

 

RUBY:

Rebecca, you spend your time talking to voters - people in swing sweats - about their beliefs on climate change. That's your job, but can you tell me how that works exactly - what it is you do? 

 

REBECCA:

Oh, so I laugh because a friend of mine once said I'm an expert in the views of people who don't know what they're talking about. But basically, I'm a - I understand what public opinion is, and I do that largely through what we call qualitative research, which some people would call focus groups or interviews. But I also work with people who do polling and surveys. And I've been doing that pretty much for 20 years, and in the last three years, my focus has been almost entirely exclusively on understanding how Australians feel about climate change and renewable energy.

 

RUBY:

Right. So how do they feel? What do people tend to say to you? 

 

REBECCA:

Yeah, look the vast majority of Australians are either worried about climate change or supportive of the ways in which we can act on climate change, so renewable energy. However, there are huge reservoirs of frustration. You know, there is also a level of despair and confusion and uncertainty. 

 

Archival Tape – Tim Blakely, interviewee

“It's weird being in the middle, like torn both ways. I'm part of the fossil fuel industry, but I've got another part of me that wants to make a change.”

 

REBECCA:

They're people who are trying to make ends meet, largely accept climate science, but don't know what the plan is.

 

Archival Tape –Tim Blakely, interviewee

“So if it was up to me, I wouldn't be working in the coal mine.”

  

Archival Tape –Ashley Reid, interviewee

“It's very polarising. Being a coal miner, I guess there is a fear in our line of work that one day we're going to be out of work and that's a worrying thing for a lot of people I’d say.”
 

REBECCA:

They actually want to imagine a different future where we can get over this. They just don't know how we're going to get there.

 

Archival Tape – Tim Blakely, interviewee

“The rest of the world is doing it. They’re slowly weaning off coal. Why can't we start that now?”  

 

REBECCA:

What has also happened in the last three years, which has been an extraordinary shift, is people realise we are at the back of the pack globally. Not just on action on climate, but where we should be on renewable energy. They worry about that.

 

Archival Tape – Dan Blakely, interviewee

“I don't think that climate change and the opportunities that renewables will bring… I don't think that has been effectively communicated to people in the regions.”

 

REBECCA:

But more broadly, this is kind of a general sense that we're being called out globally for being laggards or complacent is not something that people feel that comfortable with.

 

RUBY:

So it sounds like views on climate change are shifting - even among people who work in the fossil fuel industry. But I suppose how does that translate to the way these people think about their own jobs - and the mining industry as a whole? 

 

REBECCA:

Well, there are also moments of extraordinary dismay that I have… a particular group that I was doing in the seat of Parkes. This was a group of people, none of whom were involved directly in fossil fuels, all of whom were in things like disability services, childcare, nursing. So really, really important jobs for the health and safety and economic prosperity of that region. And when we were talking about how many jobs there were in fossil fuels versus how many jobs there were in the industries - the combined industries - in which they were all employed, there was this sense of our jobs - we cost the country money. We don't generate wealth. But in fossil fuels, one job in a coal seam gas project or one job in a coal mine, then that creates wealth. 

 

And so it was very disconcerting and was actually kind of a bit depressing that these people who were - who are absolutely critical to the economic and wellbeing of our nation - kind of devalue their own work in the face of a comparison with fossil fuel jobs. As a result of this sense of the primacy of the centrality of fossil fuels in our economy and our society. It sparks a whole lot of anxiety. And I've learnt the hard way that merely putting evidence in front of people about that doesn't always shift them as quickly as we might want.   

   

RUBY:

Right ok - so you’re hearing people essentially devalue their own work, their own jobs. They tend to think mining jobs are more important. Are there other beliefs that people have about the fossil fuel industry that have surprised you? 

 

REBECCA:

Yeah look, the three main areas where people are constantly misled on things like jobs, the numbers of jobs that are directly in fossil fuels. And ‘Climate of the Nation Study’ consistently shows every year that people tend to overestimate the numbers of people who work in the fossil fuel industry, they often put it at kind of nine 10 per cent, but it's actually about one percent. Subsidies, people imagine that the industry isn't subsidised at all, or royalties and profits of the industry vastly outweigh the subsidies. And of course, the other thing that people tend to overestimate is the extent to which the fossil fuel industry will grow in the future. So there are some people that think that it will just continue to do well, mainly because they think that China and India will continue to want it. So people tend to see things like the decline in coal and gas globally as an anomaly rather than as a trend.

 

RUBY:

Ok and so - and I suppose this is the crucial question - what underlies these misconceptions, why do people have these beliefs that seem so far off the reality of the industry? 

 

REBECCA:

Well the fossil fuel industry has spent decades and millions and millions of dollars on public campaigns on top of political donations to really say to the Australian public, “You can't live without us”. It's a kind of toxic relationship where there's this sense, where they realise that it's not good, but they can't imagine an alternative. Without a doubt, all the money that the fossil fuel industry has paid over the decades has worked. They've worked, they've been incredibly effective, and they've created a kind of a vision that throwing mere facts at that vision and at people is not always going to break down those barriers as we've seen.  

 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment  

 

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RUBY:

Rebecca, the views people have about the fossil fuel industry don’t come from a vacuum. They’re influenced by media coverage, PR, and what the industry itself tries to sell. So let's talk about that -  can you tell me a bit more about the fossil fuel industry’s campaigns over the years? 

 

Archival Tape – BP Advertisement

“Australians applaud success in life - in achievement - in sport.” 

 

REBECCA:

So growing up, you know, BP did a whole series of these extraordinary ads. 

 

Archival Tape – BP Advertisement

“It's just one more way that BP is quietly getting on with the job of developing Australia's many different energy resources.”

 

REBECCA:

Some of them showed something from a man from Snowy River, but, you know, in a coal mine. 

 

Archival Tape – BP Advertisement

“BP Australia, the quiet achiever”

 

REBECCA:

And then others were extraordinary. These Australian icons, like the opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland and a whole lot of you know, Olympic swimmers kind of just…smiling into the camera. 

 

Archival Tape – BP Advertisement

“The most important source of energy in Australia lies just below the surface of these Australians.”

 

REBECCA:

I suppose an example of Australian hard work, guts, achievement, ingenuity, you've got to be using those kinds of people who'd excelled in sport and the arts and other things and link them to fossil fuels, which is kind of fascinating. 

 

Archival Tape – BP Advertisement

“By sponsoring and supporting achievers in the community. BP is proud to help develop the energy that really keeps Australia going. BP Australia - the quiet achiever.” 

 

REBECCA:

And there was never really much of a difference between the pitch of an ad that was for beer and mining, right? 

 

Archival Tape – VB Advertisement

“How does it happen, from painting a sign or digging a mine…” 

 

REBECCA:

So It was all about the great Aussie spirit.

 

Archival Tape – VB Advertisement

“A hard earned thirst needs a big cold beer and the best cold beer is Vic.”

 

REBECCA:

Trying hard and working hard and building things and these practical down to earth, but at the same time, majestic energy. And then you would think, how could we possibly live without it? That is really difficult to dislodge, particularly in the absence of effective leadership that posits an alternative vision of the future.  

 

RUBY:

Right so that is the kind of story that the fossil fuel lobby has been selling to the public for years then. But I’m curious about what you think about the relationship between the fossil fuel industry and our political class. Because influencing the public through campaigns is one thing - but isn’t having influence over those who make the decisions the real game here? 

 

REBECCA:

Yeah looks It's all about influence. It's about influencing your colleagues, influencing stakeholders and influencing the public that this is a future that they should sign up for. And a lot of that storytelling around the central role of fossil fuels is doing some heavy lifting for those politicians who are beholden to the fossil fuel industry through donations.

 

Archival Tape – Reporter

“Well Kay, Mr Palmer says that political donations made by QLD Nickel helped the Palmer United Party abolish the carbon tax.

 

REBECCA:

So what those kinds of leaders who are beholden to the fossil fuel industry rely on is because… all of this role of the fossil fuel industry in the imaginary. 

 

Archival Tape – Matt Canavan

“So you can't say Australia is to blame for apparently the planet going to blow up. If we got rid of every coal mine in this country basically it would make no difference to carbon emissions or the coal industry.”

 

REBECCA:

So, you know, Matt Canavan can kind of, you know, keep going on Twitter with coal dust all over his face. They're able to tap into that to use that for their own political ends. And you know, you can have a Prime Minister bring a lump of coal into parliament.

 

Archival Tape – Scott Morrison:

“This is coal, don't be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.”

 

Archival Tape – Speaker: 

“The Treasurer knows the rules.”

 

REBECCA:

I mean, interestingly, Chris Bowen bought a solar panel into Parliament. 

 

Archival Tape – Chris Bowen:

“This is renewable energy. Don't be afraid of it. Don’t run away from it” 

 

Archival Tape –Speaker

“The member for McMahon will put the prop down.” 

 

Archival Tape –Chris Bowen

“Don’t be scared of it, this is renewable energy.”

 

REBECCA:

And waved at the Prime Minister and said, You know, you shouldn't be scared of thisAnd because we don't have these new engaging story because we haven't had a whole lot of our leaders talk about what that looks like, a story where we protect our environment and move towards renewable energy in a way to address climate change, but also to set us up for a more prosperous and safe future because we haven't spun a perfect story, a public narrative around that. The politics of climate change is one more thing that makes action on climate change harder for our political leaders to achieve.   

 

RUBY:

And Rebecca, it seems like a lot of the success of the fossil fuel industry… it really comes down to their ability to to tell stories about who they are and who we are and reframe the way we think our economy works and how much we should be relying on fossil fuels. But I mean, things are changing. Over the last few years, we've seen huge climate movements arise. So do you think that this kind of era is over? Do you think that power might be dwindling at all? 

 

REBECCA:

It is. It's breaking down. And the moment that people start talking about renewable energy in the same kind of terms of value, community support, intergenerational advancement, all of those are the kinds of things that they have attached for so long to the fossil fuel industry and still do the moment they start talking about whether it be in nature based solution to climate change or renewable energy might start talking about that in those terms, then we will have arrived.

 

So much of our effort should be in that direction as important and significant as climate strikes are, as the rising numbers of independents challenging the two political parties. What I'm really looking for is in regional and out of suburban Australia that people, first of all, value their own jobs regardless of where they are versus the fossil fuel industry, see the fact that if they’re a nurse or a teacher or, you know, whatever, that that is still adding value, that's as important as being a coal miner. 

 

But there is also this idea of how we can have a prosperous, safe and secure Australia, where renewable energy, where we're extraordinarily well placed to generate is at the centre, takes the place of fossil fuels in the Australian imaginary. That's what I would love to see happen. 

 

RUBY:

Rebecca, thank you so much for your time. 

 

REBECCA:

Thank you. 

 

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[Theme music starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today, Queensland has reopened its borders to interstate travelers today, after reaching a double vaccination milestone of 80% of the eligible population. However visitors will still be required to test negative to Covid-19 within the previous 72 hours before arriving in the state.

 

And more than 100 people have died in the United States, after a series of powerful tornadoes hit a number of southern states. President Joe Biden described the disaster as an “unimaginable tragedy”.

 

I am Ruby Jones - this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

 

[Theme music ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Rebecca Huntley Social researcher