Polling consistently finds a majority of all Australians want climate action, and new data gathered for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age shows that Australians living in rural and regional areas are just as concerned about climate change as those in cities.
According to research by Resolve, 56 per cent of metropolitan respondents support the adoption of a net zero emissions by 2050 target compared with 55 per cent in rural and regional areas.
In fact, the research suggests opposition to action is, if anything, higher in cities, where 13 per cent oppose, compared with 10 per cent in the regions.
Resolve Strategic’s founder Jim Reed sees little significance in the latter figures but says the findings show that climate concern is basically as high in the regions as it is in our cities.
Out with the old, in with the renewable
By far the most significant climate change action Australia is taking today is the staged replacement of ageing coal-fired power stations with renewables.
It is a process driven by state governments, particularly in NSW, Queensland and Victoria. NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean champions so-called Renewable Energy Zones, five of which have been named across the state. In them, the government supports the fast-tracking of renewable energy projects and links them to the grid with new high-capacity power lines.
This policy will see the zone around Joyce’s seat of New England attract $10.7 billion in investment, including $1.5 billion in lease payments to landholders, over the next two decades, according to NSW government estimates.
The state government estimates the renewable energy boom will create around 830 permanent operational jobs and 1250 construction jobs each year as construction continues.
By all indications, Joyce remains unimpressed. He has commissioned but not published research into whether people in his electorate want renewables at all. Last year in a Facebook post he wrote after a meeting with the independent member for Tony Abbott’s former seat, Zali Steggall – an inner-city conservative MP concerned about climate – he suggested that if she liked wind turbines she should lobby for them in her electorate.
“Climate righteousness comes at a price and should not be booked up on someone else’s account,” wrote Joyce, who did not respond to questions for this story.
He suggested that if city people wanted more turbines in New England for environmental reasons they should be open to returning Sydney Harbour to its natural state, with the removal of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
On Thursday, Liberal senator Warren Entsch lamented this sort of “low-rent discourse” concerning climate in comments to The Age and the Herald.
Charlie Prell, who grazes sheep and cattle under 28 wind turbines on his farm at Crookwell, three hours south-west of Sydney, is similarly frustrated.
“Coal is heavy, you have to burn it close to where you find it.”
Prell, a fourth-generation farmer and chairman of Farmers for Climate Action, believes that the replacement of Australia’s coal energy system with renewables represents an unprecedented potential windfall to regional Australia.
“It is going to be like the postwar wool boom on steroids,” he says.
As he sees it, Joyce and his pro-coal allies – such as Matt Canavan and Pitt – are opposing reforms that would see the decentralisation of the energy sector, which so far has been concentrated in a handful of locations and dominated by a small group of big companies.
The director of Victoria University’s energy policy centre, Professor Bruce Mountain, agrees, saying the nation is on the cusp of transferring energy wealth to the regions.
“Coal is heavy, you have to burn it close to where you find it,” he says of our traditional power system. “You can make electricity where you need it now.”
Prell concedes that the renewable energy boom has already pitted some farmers against their neighbours, but says the Nationals should be shaping the transition rather than opposing it.
“The fights about wind turbines come down to jealousy between those who don’t profit from them and those who do,” he says. “Everyone in the community should benefit.”
Prell says the steady income he receives from hosting turbines on his property has not only allowed him to upgrade his fences and equipment to the benefit of local suppliers but to take on two full-time employees.
Further, his farm is now more climate-efficient. No longer battling debt, Prell is better able to adjust his stock levels and rest his land in drier periods. Healthy soil is rich with fungi and bacteria that deliver better plant growth, which in turn ‘fixes’ more carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.
“You can see it in the land,” Prell says. “It is greener. It is lusher.”
Many see the change Prell detects on his land as another potential income stream. Technology to measure carbon abatement through farming practices is rapidly improving.
Given the comparative economic size of Australia’s agriculture sector and its landmass, the nation has a huge advantage over its peers in agricultural carbon sequestration. Measured, this could be monetised in a carbon trading scheme established to meet a net-zero target.
Agricultural groups such as the National Farmers Federation and the livestock and grains industries have already embraced net zero in order to keep pace with international norms.
“Playing catch-up” when the rest of the world is demanding evidence of decarbonisation will be too hard, says Richard Heath, managing director of the Australian Farm Institute, the nation’s leading agricultural policy institute.
Instead, the sector should already be focused on demonstrating that it is both emitting less carbon in some processes and sequestering more in others.
He says that globally there is a staggering $100 trillion in investment funds ready to be channelled into sustainability.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is already pursuing this treasure, funding a trial of a scheme to build a market for farmers to trade carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation and biodiversity credits.
It would build upon existing and so far unpopular mechanisms to pay landholders for soil carbon sequestration. Farmers could be paid for planting trees and shrubs on unproductive land on gullies and ridges, supporting endangered flora and fauna.
Challenging the Liberal Party
Given these potential benefits to the Nationals’ traditional constituency, what shapes the party’s climate stance under Joyce?
One source with direct knowledge not authorised to speak for the party reckons it is a mistake to focus too much on climate.
The plotters, he says, share a history of climate scepticism, but were effective because they harnessed broader dissatisfaction with deposed Nationals leader Michael McCormack. The job of a Nationals leader is to extract political tribute from a Liberal prime minister, he says. McCormack failed to deliver.
Joyce is unlikely to make that mistake. He’d barely warmed McCormack’s office chair before his team started a parliamentary brawl with Liberals over water policy this week. This attempt at a drastic rewriting of water law would have benefited Nationals seats at the cost of Liberal ones and was quickly smacked down.
But victory wasn’t the point; it was the willingness to fight that counted.
During a breakfast TV interview before the coup, Joyce made his political pragmatism clear.
The next election would be won in the Hunter Valley in NSW, around Gladstone in Queensland and around Darwin, he said. In other words, in coal and gas country.
Marian Wilkinson, the author of The Carbon Club, a book investigating the political and corporate forces opposed to climate action in Australia, describes Joyce as a cunning political operator.
Failure to act on climate might hurt Australia’s reputation, it might cruel trade negotiations and it might even slow some new investment into the regions, but it is to the benefit of some in the resources sector and to the party’s campaign in marginal seats, she says.
In places like the Hunter and around Gladstone it will help attract blue-collar Labor voters and fend off advances made by One Nation and the Shooters.
If it weakens Liberals in the cities, that just adds to the Nationals’ comparative strength within the Coalition.
But in the end, says Wilkinson, it is a negotiating position. Once the tribute is extracted, Joyce and his hardliners may still allow Morrison to announce a net-zero target before crucial United Nations climate talks in Glasgow in November.
At the heart of the negotiations lies the carbon credit scheme Littleproud has already raised this week.
Resolve Strategic pollster Jim Reed, reflecting on the events of the week, says sometimes politicians lead, sometimes they follow. Sometimes they see political advantage not in speaking to the nation but in directing their voice to their own voters, party members or colleagues.
What the voters think
On Wednesday afternoon Ciaran Fallon, a 29-year-old electrician at a Gladstone gas plant, raised a glass to Joyce’s return. Fallon and his mates – a dozen or so welders, fitters and sparkies – were alternating knock-off beers and sambucas at the Central Lane Hotel.
“Money talks, bulls–t walks,” said one of them at the mention of net-zero emissions. “I’ve got three kids at home.”
Gladstone is a hub of Queensland coal and gas exports and for power generation. Energy has been good to Fallon, who owns a home and an investment property and hopes his one-year-old son, Elliot, will follow him into a trade that grants him similar opportunity.
Fallon has a side-project installing solar panels and like many of his friends supports what they see as practical and realistic climate action. Not unreasonably, the meaning and purpose of a net-zero target was unclear to some.
“I think it’s a very vague picture,” says another local, Glo Juice cafe owner Amanda McGrath.
“Tell me what [net zero] looks like? Is it only planting more trees to counter something, or are we producing less emissions? You hear a very vague statement and the average person without a science degree or whatever doesn’t know how to interpret that. I don’t know how to interpret that.”
Jenny Wilson, 71, speaking after a meal of braised beef ribs at the bowls club, says she cast her first-ever vote for Gough Whitlam, to the dismay of her family. She dumped Labor in Mark Latham’s time and has since leant towards the Nationals.
She’s holding her cards close to her chest on the party’s Joyce gamble.
“Who are we to argue? The people in his own party know him best. I accept that,” she explains.
“Though sometimes I’m not right.”