Last week, two influential environmental groups warned the Greens not to stymie progress on Australia’s climate policy. In an unusual intervention, Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation urged the Greens to “play a constructive role” with Labor or risk being blamed for holding climate policy back.

The groups want the Greens to back Labor’s policy for a 43% cut in emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050 – then to push for more ambitious targets later. But Greens leader Adam Bandt has described Labor’s policy as “weak” and the party has the numbers to block Labor’s bill in the Senate.

Tensions over strategy in and beyond parliament are a normal part of social movements and the policy process. Plus, it’s just plain hard to broker agreements for ambitious and effective climate policy.

But as my research has shown, Australia’s long-lasting climate wars offer three painful lessons we shouldn’t ignore this time around.

1. We need to find common ground between idealists and realists

It’s easy to dismiss the Greens and their allies in the environment movement as naive idealists. But at this historic moment, what constitutes realism is a matter of both political strategy and science.

The last time the green movement intensely debated carbon targets was in 2008. Then, the Rudd Labor government proposed a carbon pollution reduction scheme with a goal of a 5-15% emissions cut by 2020. The Greens argued it was inadequate and compensated polluters too generously.

In response, established green groups like the ACF and World Wildlife Fund for Nature and union peak bodies formed a coalition that backed Labor’s scheme and publicly disagreed with the stance of the Greens and most smaller green groups (including Greenpeace). By the end of 2009 the environment movement was split.

The big green groups identified as realists. They saw the scheme as imperfect, but were optimistic they could influence and improve it over time.

The grassroots wing of the environment movement, including new groups like Rising Tide and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and GetUp!, was not convinced. They felt the big green groups were closing the window of opportunity too soon by agreeing to Labor’s scheme ahead of parliamentary debate. Given the grave climate threat, they wanted more and faster progress on emissions reduction.

Both the Greens and these newer groups believed Labor’s scheme was, as Greens leader Bob Brown put it at the time, “worse than doing nothing”. In particular, they objected to the weak emissions target, corporate windfalls and loose carbon offset rules.

After Rudd was replaced as party leader, Labor shelved the scheme, drawing criticism from the Greens and green groups of all stripes.

So what’s changed 14 years later? Labor wants the Greens and independent senators to support a bill legislating a symbolic goal (the 2030 target) without much detail about how it will achieve this.

For now, most green groups appear willing to support Labor’s carbon target legislation as long as the target is a genuine “floor” on ambition and there is an effective policy “ratchet” that can be used later. This is a Greens strategy straight from the 2008–09 period. But they are even clearer now that the ratchet should address coal and gas expansions.

2. Carbon markets don’t depoliticise climate policy

The legacy of the Rudd government’s weak carbon trading scheme lived on in the Gillard government’s 2011 carbon farming laws and the Abbott government’s Direct Action Plan. It left our main federal climate policy as a deeply flawed carbon offset scheme tied to incredibly loose caps on Australia’s heavy emitters.


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