What did the climate rallies reveal?

The size, and enthusiasm, of Sunday's climate change rallies took most observers by surprise. It's worth asking whether events since the election have changed the politics of climate change, again, in Australia?

The size and enthusiasm of the weekend’s crowds demanding the government takes stronger action on climate change suggests the political winds in Australia may be shifting again.

Tens of thousands gave up their Sundays and descended on parks in Melbourne and Sydney, Brisbane drew 5000, Adelaide more than 1000 while 130 regional cities and towns also took part, with places like Bathurst, Albury and Lismore all attracting hundreds of citizens concerned with Australia's contribution to the global effort.

"It was inspiring. It was a sight for sore eyes," says Adam Bandt, deputy Greens leader, who was at the 30,000-strong Melbourne event in the city's Treasury Gardens.

"It gave me hope that there will be enough people in this country to shake the government out of its denial, and preserve action on global warming."

In a stark contrast to the nation’s climate apathy of recent years, the mood at the events was festive and urgent. In Melbourne, the event was particularly electric.

Signs reading “Aim higher on climate”, “Abbott government: climate criminals” and “Don’t axe the tax. Axe the maniacs!” littered the park.

When Tim Flannery took the stage, the Climate 'councillor' was greeted like a rock star with cheering, wolf-whistles and screams.

“The simple truth is this: that we cannot leave a matter as important as climate change to the fickleness and whim of Australian politicians,” Flannery said.

“We must stand up and be counted [and take] every effort to speed the uptake of renewable energy.”

Just the fact that Flannery's Climate Council has been born out of the ashes of the ditched Climate Commission on the back of more than $1 million in donations, in just on two months, suggests there is a new assertiveness in the electorate.

The question is whether the 60,000 who attended the protests – organised by activist groups GetUp, Youth Climate Coalition and Conservation Foundation, and focusing on the retention of carbon pricing – represent more than just the one spectrum of politics.

It's certainly true that there is plenty of doubt beyond left-wingers about the Liberal-National coalition's climate change policy – a scheme in which companies pay for the right to pollute. 

Under Direct Action, the government would pay an ‘abatement price’ per tonne of carbon emissions-decreased through its emissions reductions fund. At present the budget allocated suggests the government could only reach its target if participating businesses were to offer genuine additional abatement at a price of around $10 to $15 per tonne of carbon saved 

A vast majority of analysts say it is less efficient than the carbon price scheme, costs more, and that it is more likely to increase the country’s emissions in 2020 than to meet the current target of a 5 per cent reduction in emissions from 2000 levels.

And these doubts about Australia's policy have being crystallised by a series of events since the federal election. Since September we've seen the NSW bushfires, the massive typhoon in the Philippines, Australia’s cast as a climate bad boy at UN climate talks in Poland and the increasing certainty of human's role in global warming from the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report.

Bandt, speaking to Climate Spectator on Monday, thinks the mood in Australia is turning, with more and more people are "connecting the dots" which scientists have been joining for years.

"I think the increasing weight of the science, its persistence, and the growing consensus around [it] is having an impact," he said.

"The plea from the Philippines government to the rest of the world (at the UN climate talks) to stop the climate madness was heartfelt, and resonated with many people, I think."

And Bandt says the government's signals on the issue don't match the rhetoric.

"People also understand that we can't on the one hand refuse to act unless the rest of the world does, and on the other hand not even send a minister to the place where the rest of the world is meeting," he said.

Bandt says the suite of changes that the government has implemented may have gone to far a lot of people; describing winding back the carbon price along with abandoning the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, cutting funding to the Australian renewable energy agency and getting rid of the Climate Change Authority as "madness", saying the government is in the pocket of sceptics and big business.

“The coalition has this belief that we can plant enough trees that we don’t need to cut pollution," he says.

The protests have made it clear that many Australians don’t want the carbon price scheme to go. But the make-up of the Senate means the big political changes on climate probably won't take place until mid-next year.

So we might not know for some time whether Sunday's crowds represent a change in the national mood.

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