1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

This paper develops the concepts of the climate discourse complex, and national climate policy regime, in order to analyse significant patterns in Australian national climate politics over the twenty-five years from 1988 to 2013. Six major discursive fields — scientific, ethical, economic, technological, political/legal, and “everyday life”— contribute to the ensemble of discourses that constitute a climate discourse complex. The climate discourse complex in turn serves to frame and discipline climate debate and the articulation of a national climate policy regime. The composition of Australia's climate discourse complex has been dominated by the economic discursive field. Debates over “old” and “new” economic discourses have been the key drivers of and constraints on the trajectory of Australia's climate policy regime for much of the period under consideration. These debates have diminished and sometimes marginalized the influence of scientific, ethical and other discourses, contributing to Australia's weak mitigation ambition. The paper also suggests that significant changes in Australian climate discourses and Australia's climate discourse complex have largely been initiated by factors external to Australia, with the major shift occurring in the period 2006/2007.

  • 1

    In doing so, it inevitably pays too little attention to sub-national (state and local) and international developments, although these are of critical importance to a full consideration of Australian climate policy.

  • 2

    National greenhouse emissions (minus land use and land use factors, or LULUCF) grew unabated throughout the period 1997–2007. See Summary of GHG emissions for Australia, available at <>.

  • 3

    Although the Australian Greenhouse Office was established in 1998, it failed to have any significant influence on national energy or climate policy and related practice. It was abolished late in 2004.

  • 4

    For instance, Peter Christoff, “Policy Autism or Double-edged Dismissiveness? Australia's Climate Policy under the Howard Government”, Global Change, Peace and Security, Vol. 17 (2005), pp. 2944.

  • 5

    See for instance, Clive Hamilton, Running from the Storm: The Development of Climate Change Policy in Australia (Sydney, 2001), and idem, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change (Melbourne, 2007); Guy Pearse, High and Dry: John Howard, Climate Change, and the Selling of Australia's Future (Camberwell, Vic., 2007); Ross Garnaut, Garnaut Climate Change Review 2008 (Cambridge, 2008) and idem, The Garnaut Review 2011: Australia in the Global Response to Climate Change (Cambridge, 2011); Kate Crowley, “Climate Clever? Kyoto and Australia's Decade of Recalcitrance” in Katherine Harrison and Lisa Sundstrom, eds, Global Commons, Domestic Decisions: The Comparative Politics of Climate Change (Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp.201–228.

  • 6

    Weak when assessed against the recommendations of climate scientific bodies such as the IPCC which suggest that an aggregate emissions reduction for developed countries of −25 to −40 per cent below 1990 level is required to ensure a reasonable chance of keeping global average warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

  • 7

    For instance, like its predecessor under Howard, the Gillard government's recent Energy White Paper envisages and encourages an untrammelled increase in fossil fuel exports. See Securing Australia's Energy Future, Energy White Paper (Canberra, 2004) and Energy White Paper 2012: Australia's Energy Transformation (Canberra, 2012).

  • 8

    Based on 2010 data including LULUCF, see UNFCCC national greenhouse gas profiles.

  • 9

    With the EU27 as one “country”. EDGAR 4.2 (JRC/PBL, 2011); IEA, 2011; USGS, 2012; WSA, 2012; NOAA, 2012. Top 25 CO2-emitting countries in 1990, 2000 and 2011, cited in Jos G.J. Olivier, Greet Janssens-Maenhout, Jeroen A.H.W. Peters, and Julian Wilson, Long-Term Trend in Global CO2 Emissions 2011 Report (The Hague/Bilthoven, 2012), p.12.

  • 10

    UNPD, 2010 (WSS Rev. 2010) CO2 emissions per capita in 1990, 2000 and 2011, in the top 25 CO2-emitting countries, cited in Olivier et al., Long-Term Trend in Global CO2 Emissions 2011, p.13.

  • 11

    Davis and Caldeira claimed China's export-oriented emissions comprised some 22.5 per cent of the total in 2004. Steve J. Davis and Ken Caldeira, “Consumption based accounting of CO2 emissions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (=PNAS), Vol. 107, 2 (2010), pp.5687–92; Glen Peters, Jan Minx, Christopher Weber and Ottmar Edenhofer, “Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008”, PNAS, Vol. 108 (May 2011), pp. 89038908.

  • 12

    Calculation of emissions based on 2011 data on Australian coal export volumes from DFAT, multiplied by 2.6 as an aggregate emissions factor. See Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Composition of Trade Australia 2011, available at <>.

  • 13

    Using trade-adjusted data for carbon flows.

  • 14

    See, for instance, Hamilton, Running from the Storm, and idem, Scorcher; see also Pearse, High and Dry.

  • 15

    Mary Pettenger, “Introduction” in Mary Pettenger, ed., The Social Construction of Climate Change: Power, Knowledge, Norms, Discourses (London, 2007), pp.10–11. Also quoting Sharon M. Livesey, “Global Warming Wars: Rhetorical and Discourse Analytic Approaches to ExxonMobil's Corporate Public Discourse”, Journal of Business Communications, Vol. 39 (2002), pp. 123.

  • 16

    Maarten Hajer and Wytske Versteeg, “Voices of Vulnerability: The Reconfiguration of Policy Discourses” in John S. Dryzek, Richard B. Norgaard and David Schlosberg, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford, 2011), p.83.

  • 17

    See Maarten A. Hajer. The Politics of Environmental Discourse : Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process (Oxford, 1995).

  • 18

    See also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politic (London, 2001).

  • 19

    See also Karen T. Litfin, Ozone Discourse: Science and Politics in Global Environmental Cooperation (New York, 1994); Hajer, The Politics of Environmental Discourse; Lene Hansen. Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (Oxford, 2006).

  • 20

    Kal Raustialia and David Victor, “The Regime Complex for Plant Genetic Resources”, International Organization, Vol. 50 (2004), pp. 277309; Karen J. Alter and Sophie Meunier, “The Politics of International Regime Complexity”, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 7 (2009), pp. 1324.

  • 21

    Robert O. Keohane and David G. Victor, The Regime Complex for Climate Change, Discussion Paper, pp. 10–33; “The Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements”, January 2010, available at <>.

  • 22

    Keohane and Victor, The Regime Complex for Climate Change.

  • 23

    Fairclough, “Critical Discourse Analysis”, p.10; also Norman Fairclough, Language and Globalization (Oxford, 2006), p.148.

  • 24

    This arrangement is more coherent — at least at the national level — than suggested by Dryzek and Stevenson, who argue that “when it comes to climate change there is no ‘nodal discourse, in Fairclough's terms (2006, 39). Instead a plurality of discourses informs different understandings of the problem and appropriate governance measures”; see Hayley Stephenson and John S. Dryzek, “The Discursive Democratization of Global Climate Governance”, Environmental Politics, Vol. 21, 2 (2012), p. 201; also Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience (Harvard, 1974).

  • 25

    Stephen Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables” in Stephen D. Krasner, ed., International Regimes (Ithaca and London, 1983), p.2.

  • 26

    Carter A. Wilson, “Policy Regimes and Policy Change”, Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 20 (2000), pp. 247274. Wilson proposes that such policy regimes are issue-specific arrangements consisting of four dimensions. These include power or the arrangement of power (relating to powerful interest groups supporting the policy regime); the policy paradigm, which shapes the way problems are defined, the types of solutions offered, and the kinds of policies proposed; organization within the state; and the policy itself (i.e. the policy formally embodies the goals of the policy regime).

  • 27

    For example, there is little contest over the veracity of climate science in Europe, while denialist challenges are common in the United States and Australia.

  • 28

    Peter Christoff, “Ecological Modernization, Ecological Modernities”, Environmental Politics, Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 476500.

  • 29

    Socio-technical systems are commonly understood as “a cluster of elements, including technology, regulations, user practices and markets, cultural meanings, infrastructure, maintenance networks and supply networks”. See Frank W. Geels, “From Sectoral Systems of Innovation to Socio-technical Systems: Insights about Dynamics and Change from Sociology and Institutional Theory”, Research Policy, Vol. 33 (September, 2004), pp. 897920.

  • 30

    See Matt McDonald, “Fair Weather Friend? Ethics and Australia's Approach to Global Climate Change”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 51 (2005), pp. 216234, and idem, “Discourses of Climate Security”, Political Geography, Vol. 33 (2013), pp. 4251.

  • 31

    Drawn from sources — including statements about climate change by key political, industry and NGO actors; government publications; climate-related academic studies; and media reportage — in each discursive field.

  • 32

    Defined by the prominence and deployment of key themes and terms in assessed material.

  • 33

    Including widespread Australian media coverage of two national conferences on climate change organized by CSIRO in 1988 and 1989.

  • 34

    In 1990 the Australian government adopted an interim mitigation target to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1988 levels by 2000 and reduce them by 20 per cent by 2005, with the caveat that any abatement measures not have a net adverse economic impact.

  • 35

    See The National Greenhouse Response Strategy (Canberra, 1992).

  • 36

    See John Howard, “BCA Annual Dinner Speech”, 13 November 2006.

  • 37

    John Howard, November 2006.

  • 38

    In The National Interest: Australia's Foreign and Trade Policy, White Paper (Canberra, 1997).

  • 39

    Given the concentration of media ownership in Australia, the amplification of climate denialist views by Fairfax and Murdoch media outlets had a significant influence on public and political opinion.

  • 40

    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007, three volumes on The Physical Science Basis; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; and Mitigation of Climate Change (Cambridge, 2007).

  • 41

    Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge, 2007).

  • 42

    National Emissions Trading Taskforce, Possible Design for a National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme: A Discussion Paper prepared by the National Emissions Trading Taskforce August (Canberra, 2006).

  • 43

    Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading, Report of the Task Group on Final Report, (Canberra, 2007).

  • 44

    Garnaut, The Garnaut Climate Change Review 2008.

  • 45

    Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Working Together for a Clean Energy Future (2012) and the Clean Energy Plan, available at <>.

  • 46

    Kevin Rudd, “Campaign Speech and Advertisement”, August 2007, available at <>.

  • 47

    E.g. Greg Combet, “Addressing the Great Moral Challenge of our Generation”, Speech to the Parliament, 12 August 2009.

  • 48

    Including the establishment of Australia's first climate change department — the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency — in December 2007.

  • 49

    Kevin Rudd, “The First National Security Statement to the National Parliament”, 4 December 2008.

  • 50

    The return of Rudd as Prime Minister late in Labor's second term led to no climate policy changes of note during that term.

  • 51

    See for instance, Julia Gillard, “Channel 10 Interview”, 19 August 2010, available at <>.

  • 52

    Embodied in the Clean Energy Act 2011 (Cth) and the Climate Change Authority Act 2011 (Cth).

  • 53

    Although leading Coalition politicians still proclaim their scepticism, see Jeremy Thompson, “Minchin ups stakes in carbon war” <>.

  • 54

    See for instance the minimal recognition of climate change in the 2013 White Paper, Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia's National Security, which confirms analysis by Matt McDonald in “The Failed Securitization of Climate Change in Australia”, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 47 (2012), pp. 579592.

  • 55

    Fergus Hanson, Australia and the World: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, The Lowy Institute Poll (2012), p.5–6.

  • 56

    See Climate Commission, The Angry Summer (2013); Climate Commission, The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather (2013) and media reporting over January-March 2013.

  • 57

    Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago, 1993).

  • 58

    Fergus Hanson. Australia and the World: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, The Lowy Institute Poll (2008).

  • 59

    See for instance, Peter Christoff, ed., Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World (Oxford and New York, 2013).

  • 60

    The prominent exception has been Friends of the Earth (Australia), which has been a leader among local ENGOs in pursuing the cause of climate justice in Australia and its region.