Environmentalism with a business face

‘It’s rubbish.’

That’s Andrew Bolt’s response to News Corps’ Mission Zero campaign. As he says, the sudden enthusiasm expressed for renewables by the Daily Telegraph, the Herald-Sun and other Murdoch tabloids amounts to an insistence that their readers ‘forget all that stuff we used to say.’

In the 1930s and the 1940s, the Comintern required sudden shifts by propagandists commanded, almost overnight, to denounce yesterday’s admirable Popular Frontists as today’s craven liquidationists. Bolt now finds himself in a similarly awkward position, forced to look on as his employer pushes a glossy pamphlet lauding Margaret Thatcher for calling for climate action back in 1990—which was, of course, round about the same time that Bolt began arguing the opposite.

What will happen to the Earl Browder of News Corp? Nothing very much.

The Murdoch leadership, recognising how the campaign will put in-house denialists in an awkward position, has already said that they can continue their in-house denialism. Unless Bolt deliberately chooses martyrdom (which is not impossible, given his propensity for playing the victim), he’ll probably live to fulminate another day.

That’s because News Corp’s repositioning isn’t nearly as dramatic as the headlines suggest.

The Canadian writer Naomi Klein encapsulated the incompatibility of climate action with capitalist business-as-usual in a book entitled This Changes Everything. The Murdoch equivalent would be called This Changes Nothing. The Mission Zero booklet presents its goal as requiring neither economic nor social disruption. Australian corporations can, we are told, simply capitalise on advances in green technology, making us all richer than Croesus as they transition seamlessly from extractivism to renewables.

In fact, the word ‘transition’ probably overstates the case, since, as Ketan Joshi notes, ‘Mission Zero’ fudges the necessity of, say, closing down power stations and coal mines, while boasting the job-creating potential of green hydrogen and solar panels.

To put that in context, we should remember that the big polluters have always been more ambivalent about overt climate denialism than many far-right ideologues. Yes, the corporates pumped trillions of dollars into denialists think tanks and pro-coal institutes and fossil-friendly scientists. But that was invariably their Plan B, a strategy embraced only after initial attempts at greenwashing faltered. Ever since the early 1990s, they’ve oscillated between attacking environmentalism and presenting themselves as environmentalists—sometimes doing both simultaneously.

The enthusiasm of big business for Mission Zero thus represents more of the same—a calculation that targets for 2050 provide the best opportunity to kick the can further down the road. The Business Council of Australia might laud Net Zero but only on the basis that it rests on carbon capture and storage (a technology that doesn’t exist and probably never will), offsets (essentially, a system that licences wealthy polluters) and an ongoing commitment to gas, with a grab-bag of phony policies offered as an alternative to real action now.

As the Australian’s Paul Kelly explains, the intervention by the Murdoch tabloids—alongside the new rhetoric from the BCA—matters most as an opportunity for Scott Morrison to recalibrate. The PM can attend COP20, declare himself a friend of the Earth, and help Australia shed its climate pariah status. A Net Zero target will, aside from anything else, help Morrison cosy up to Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, as Australia tries to forge an anti-China alliance in the Pacific.

Yet Bolt can probably rest easy, cognisant that—if anything—these manoeuvres from the top will do more to build his audience than to diminish it.

The Comintern could carry out its political zig-zags because of the tremendous loyalty it commanded from its adherents. The Murdoch tabloids simply don’t exert the same kind of influence. That’s the great secret of Australian politics: most normal people who read the Daily Telegraph and its stablemates skip over the politics and go straight to the sport.

Contrary to what many progressives imagine, the Murdoch press lacks the authority to tell its readers what to think. Every election, the tabloids back the Liberals. Every election, their blue-collar readership overwhelmingly votes Labor, with surveys consistently showing the Telegraph to be the least trusted media outlet in the country.

Joe Stalin could lay down a line and expect obedience. Joe Hildebrand, not so much.

Again, though, Mission Zero isn’t aimed at ordinary people: it’s about providing cover for conservative politicians as they engage in what Kelly calls ‘a historic repositioning for the Coalition side’.

We’ve seen in the past how these rhetorical shifts play out. Corporate environmentalism aims not to curtail the blind expansion of capital but to intensify it, driving GDP to grow year after year after year in a fashion that’s flatly incompatible with a healthy environment. Precisely because the centrist nostrums touted by CEOs and politicians don’t make any palpable difference to the climate, they foster cynicism from a public that’s never been more cynical about the establishment.  

Mission Zero seeks a popular base for a business-friendly environmentalism by talking up the amazing employment opportunities generated by renewables. ‘The transition to net zero will create hundreds of thousands of jobs,’ gushes one expert. ‘No matter what your skill level or where you live, there will be new jobs in farming, factories, transport and information technology.’

Except, of course, new jobs aren’t necessarily good jobs. The coal industry doesn’t provide decent wages because of some innate quality inherent in fossil carbon. On the contrary. Historically, coal miners earned next to nothing for performing extraordinarily tasks. If mining’s now associated with good salaries and secure work, that’s because of the intense union struggles fought by mining communities over generations.

By contrast, the sudden corporate enthusiasm for renewables reflects, at least in part, a recognition that greenfield projects provide perfect opportunities to impose the most exploitative labour conditions. As the ACTU notes,

in large part the union movement’s experience has been that many new renewable energy jobs have been short-term, insecure and poorly paid, compared with the permanent, secure, well-paid and unionised jobs in coal, oil and gas that often underpin regional economies.

That’s not an argument to continue digging coal. It’s a reminder that renewables don’t provide a magical answer solution to global warming and that, like any other technology, they can be weaponised by the rich against the poor. Any genuine campaign for environmental action must, then, foreground climate justice, so as to build a popular constituency for real change.

Precisely because it doesn’t do that, one can already see the backlash Mission Zero will engender.

‘You should worry,’ Bolt told Sky News, ‘when big business, big media, big government, they all get into bed like this.’

A top-down greenwash touted by celebrities and politicians yet delivering no palpable outcomes simply provides grist to the mill of right-wing populists, who will intensify on climate the same kind of culture war they’re currently fighting over Covid. Again, most readers will ignore them—but some won’t.

In 2012, the Daily Telegraph devoted a front page to its Stop the Trolls campaign—and then, more-or-less immediately, went back to trolling. Today, Bolt might be discomforted by Mission Zero. Tomorrow, he will be busier than ever.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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