There is no doubt that Western Australia is in a league of its own when it comes to damaging the climate. For starters, it is the only Australian state where carbon pollution is rapidly rising. Here it can be difficult to identify where government starts and multinational oil and gas companies end, in a place where pollution levels are higher and growing faster than almost anywhere else in the world.
But right now, if you know where to look, there are some inspiring signs of hope. Entrenched dynamics that have held back our potential as a clean state for far too long may be finally beginning to shift.
Here is a list of seven positive signs towards climate action in the West:
1. The public overwhelmingly supports action
Recent polling shows that 85% of Western Australians support stronger climate action. One in five believes the issue should be treated as an emergency, demanding an emergency-like response. Just 11% are undecided on the issue, and a minuscule 4% deny that climate change is an issue at all.
Until recently this broad consensus may not have been obvious. It was certainly not evident in the letters pages of the state’s daily newspaper, which seem to be carefully curated to serve the news outlet’s own undisclosed interests in the oil and gas industry.
But that all changed on September 20 when incredible images and footage of Perth’s school strike for climate spread onto social media feeds and television screens around the globe. In a state that is known for its laid-back attitude this incredible event was not only the largest mobilisation on climate change Perth has ever seen, but was one of the largest protest gatherings to ever take place on any issue.
When the crowd swelled to well over 13,000 bursting the seams of Forrest Place, a different and more tangible kind of social proof became evident. History shows that when people mobilise at this scale, change happens. Those who try and resist this change get left behind.
2. Young people have found their voice on climate change
Young people have a unique and powerful mandate to speak about the future that will uniquely affect them. Whether motivated by the phenomenon that is Greta Thunberg, or the harsh reality that climate damage holds for their future, the voice of young people on this issue cannot be ignored.
For those who have enjoyed a safe and stable climate for most of their lives, it can be difficult to imagine what it is like for a young person facing a very different and uncertain future due to a damaged climate. But no amount of reprimanding letters or carping opinion pieces about how students should stay in school can diminish the legitimacy that young people have on this issue. The deniers and the complainers only serve to amplify the power and resonance of young people’s growing demands for action.
3. Those committed to action are powerfully united behind a common understanding of the problem
For years, climate action in WA has been hijacked by corporate spin and the politics of convenience, but there are signs that an important breakthrough has been reached – at least among those most engaged with the issue. A defining feature of the Perth climate strike was that almost every speaker directly called out WA’s state’s biggest polluters, Chevron and Woodside, with a newfound sense of clarity and urgency.
At the same time, a serious discussion is beginning to emerge about toxic sponsorship of community events like the Chevron City to Surf and the Woodside Perth Fringe Festival. There is a dawning realisation that the arts and culture we love should not be used as a cheap advertising billboard for corporations whose business model involves wrecking the climate we rely on.
Admitting we have a problem is the first step towards fixing it, and these are just some of the hopeful signs that the reality here in our own backyard can now be spoken about openly and honestly. This makes the movement for climate action here in WA much more powerful, because it is more united than ever behind a common understanding of the problem that must be overcome.
4. False solutions from WA’s biggest polluters are losing traction
In the lead up to the climate rally, Western Australia’s daily newspaper proudly carried its own pre-emptive strike against climate action. An extensive editorial from the peak lobby group for the oil and gas industry repeated familiar lines, boldly claiming that WA’s fossil gas exports are part of the solution.
Governments of both persuasions have also promoted this message at various times as an excuse for allowing pollution from WA’s gas industry to rise out of control in breach of Australia’s international commitments.
Despite this, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we can’t burn our way out of climate change. More and more science is showing how critically damaging gas production is for the climate. At the same time countries all around the world are rapidly turning to renewable energy as a sustainable and cost-effective solution.
The fossil fuel backers won’t stop telling the fairy tale they are so fond of, but their attempts to frame the climate problem in ways that serve the interests of big polluters are no longer seen as credible by many of the general public.
5. New voices are joining the call for climate action and understanding the benefits it would bring
Consultation done by the WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) on its greenhouse gas policy reveals an incredible depth and diversity of support for climate action. Nearly seven thousand submissions were received by the EPA – unheard of in response to a technical guidance document – with over 98% calling for the EPA to reinstate the policy it was forced to withdraw under pressure from the LNG industry and the West Australian. Many of the submissions are not from the usual voices. Churches, foresters, farmers, doctors, business leaders, academics and a who’s who of our state’s top scientists all made strong contributions.
Many of these voices were inspired by the opportunity that climate action could bring. Independent research commissioned by the Conservation Council shows that requirements for WA’s biggest polluters to offset their climate damage will bring thousands of new jobs and opportunities for communities and businesses across the state. Over 4000 jobs would be created (more than the total workforce of WA’s LNG production facilities) in diverse sectors including transport, technology, renewable energy, tree planting and land management.
6. Inspiring action is occurring in unlikely places
Where governments are failing to lead, other ways are being found to tackle the problem. Limiting the sources of finance for climate-damaging fossil fuel developments is one example– and WA is a leader in this space, with the highest proportion of Local Governments having disinvested from fossil fuels of anywhere in the country.
As of September, volunteer-led campaigns under the banner of 350.org and others have helped to motivate 17 separate councils, as well as the WA Local Government Association itself to shift their funds and managed investments out of any coal, oil, or gas developments and the banks that support them.
Such action has powerful symbolic value. It leads to conversations around boardrooms, council chambers and kitchen tables that begin to question the social license of corporations whose business model involves damaging the climate.
But the impact is more than symbolic, with fossil fuel companies now regularly citing divestment, and the resulting lack of access to cheap finance as a key barrier to their expansion plans.
7. Workers in climate-damaging industries understand that change is coming
While our politicians and business leaders continue to promote a false sense of security about the future of WA’s biggest polluters, the workers in these industries themselves know that change is coming. In Collie, this vacuum of leadership from government has led to dialogue within the community about how coal workers and their families might transition into new forms of employment and promote other forms of economic activity. This conversation is being led by the Australian Manufacturers Workers Union.
At the climate strike rally, Danny Cain from the Maritime Union reminded us that his organisation represented thousands of workers in the oil and gas industry, then immediately acknowledged that those jobs cannot continue. The future he said, must lie in renewable energy and clean industries that provide livelihoods for families and workers without wrecking the climate.
Out of this kind of honesty, a new form of hope can emerge for workers and communities. Rather than denying there is a problem, honest leadership can provide a new and fertile ground for a managed transition that leaves nobody behind in addressing the most powerfully uniting issue of our time.
Director, Conservation Council of Western Australia