Kevin Rudd once called climate change “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”. Despite the fiery rhetoric, support for climate change action declined during his tenure. So, how do we make sense of this?
Rudd’s return as prime minister is an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of his previous tenure as leader.
Climate change has been a common theme of these reflections, in particular the gap between his stated commitments to act on climate change, and his inability to secure an emissions trading scheme.
This gap between climate change rhetoric and action is a particular paradox. Strong claims by political leaders should build support and marginalise alternative policy.
The power of security-speak?
Rudd attempted to justify climate action in Australia in a range of ways. He pointed to the economic cost of climate change and the moral imperative of Australia doing its part to confront a global and long-term problem.
A less well-reported but potentially important justification, however, was that climate change was a security threat. This is particularly significant for theorists of 'securitisation'.
For these theorists, language is central to the process through which issues become security issues. An issue is securitised when important actors, such as political leaders, persuade a relevant audience that an issue is a threat and that urgent action is needed to defend against it. If the audience is convinced, this in turn enables enables emergency or extraordinary measures to deal with it.
Australia’s approach to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat from 2001 is a classic example of securitisation. The Howard government suggested that the 'unauthorised' arrival of 'boatpeople' undermined Australian sovereignty. It also argued that asylum seekers’ alleged willingness to jump queues or throw their children into the sea demonstrated that they threatened the values and beliefs of Australians.
Whatever the accuracy of these claims, the Howard government’s stance on asylum was certainly supported by the Australian population. And deploying troops to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers, excising territory from Australia’s migration zone and processing asylum-seekers offshore might all be seen as 'extraordinary' measures following securitisation.
The failed securitisation of climate change?
For many, this view of asylum seekers has continued under subsequent governments. But the Rudd government suggested that a wider range of issues also constituted security threats. Central here was climate change.
In 2009 Rudd defined climate change as the “greatest long-term threat to us all.” In his 2008 National Security Statement to Parliament he suggested that climate change represented “a most fundamental national security challenge for the long term future.” This claim was repeated over time and by a range of other ministers.
Broadly speaking, Rudd’s claim that climate change was a security threat found support among the Australian population. Opinion polling indicated that Australians still accepted that climate change was happening and were concerned about its effects. What did not find support, however, were the measures that Rudd attempted to justify through the language of security.
Here, support for the emissions trading scheme declined steadily. This reflected the success of opponents in mobilising against that legislation. Abbott’s elevation to the leadership of the Coalition, the campaign by fossil fuel industry groups against the emissions trading scheme and the activism of conservative media outlets and commentators were important here. So too was the failure of Copenhagen talks in 2009.
For securitisation theorists, however, public acceptance of the reality of the climate threat should still enable emergency responses to it. Yet even relatively mainstream policies, such as pricing carbon emissions, proved too difficult for Rudd to implement.
Consequences of failed securitisation
This case challenges the assumptions of securitisation theory, but of course the challenges for climate policy are more important. Few issues in Australian politics have been as volatile as climate change, and politicians have struggled to find effective narratives to promote climate action.
The discussion of the international security implications of climate change in the UN Security Council in 2007 and 2011 also revealed similar disagreements between countries. These focussed on who needs to respond to climate change, and how and when action should be taken.
In Australia, a Labor victory in the 2013 federal election might be enough to secure the carbon tax and help underscore the idea that climate change does indeed represent a security threat requiring far-reaching policy responses.
Would a Coalition victory mean the end of the attempt to define climate change in security terms? Possibly not. But if there is any attempt to link climate change and security, it is more likely that an Abbott-led Coalition government would define climate action as a threat to Australia’s short-term economic security.
Such an approach would clearly make necessary climate action in Australia difficult to imagine in the near future.
Matt McDonald is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Queensland.