Political Change, Not Climate Change: How Australians Can Overcome Climate Denial

As students across the world prepare to strike in protest of international inaction on climate issues, the urgency and reality of climate change is finally reaching the forefront of community concerns. Adrienne Hunt asks when Australian politicians will catch up.

Sydney, Australia. Thousands of students gather for climate change protests, defying calls by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to stay in school on November 30, 2018. Image via Shutterstock, photo ID: 1244925514

Here in Australia, a recent survey showed that almost sixty percent of New South Wales voters will be swayed by the issue of climate change in the upcoming March 23 state election. Voters identified environmental protection as their second highest concern, following on from management of the state’s finances, yet the nation’s political decision-makers continue to demonstrate an arrogant and bewildering disregard of the scientific and social consensus. There has been no evidence of visionary thinking towards climate action among federal members of parliament, and now, even in the face of extreme weather events linked with global warming, we are haunted by the legacy of a coal-fuelled economy, as reflected in this statement from a previous Australian Prime Minister:

“One fundamental problem, above all else, with the carbon tax was that it said [..] that a commodity which in many years is our biggest single export, somehow should be left in the ground and not sold. Well really and truly, I can think of few things more damaging to our future.”1

The political support for Big Coal which is dispensed to Australians via members of parliament amounts to carefully crafted propaganda, as discussed by Benedetta Brevini and Terry Woronov, of the University of Sydney in Ignoring Climate Change, Celebrating Coal: Propaganda and Australian Debates on the Carmichael Mine.2 Woronov reminds us that Australia has the dubious status of being led by a political party that is beholden to Big Coal and is the only country to have abandoned carbon pricing.3

The ‘proposed’ Adani (Carmichael) coal mine in the Galilee Basin in Queensland has been called “Australia’s ticking carbon bomb”, and at over forty kilometres in length, it would be Australia’s biggest mine and our biggest shame. Under the banner of The Stop Adani Alliance, more than twenty organisations, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, and SEED-Indigenous Youth for Climate Action are cooperating to stop development of the mine and others that would follow. Despite the national scale outrage and opposition, Adani has illegally started working, drilling bore holes into groundwater aquifers and already polluting the Great Barrier Reef, for which they are currently under investigation, although the proposal continues to be pushed forward by the federal government.

These issues are becoming more and more urgent as the realities of climate change begin to set in. The past few months in Australia was reportedly the “warmest summer on record for mean, maximum and minimum temperatures”. To paraphrase philosopher Timothy Morton, with each new day, each one of us is at the beginning of a new history, an entangled future in which we cannot not participate.4

This deep conflict between political propaganda and scientific consensus engenders despair and hopelessness. Indeed, within our culture of individualism, many people do feel isolated and stressed by their concerns. Deep ecologist Joanna Macy has described how we might be being duplicitous to ourselves – leading a double life, by adopting coping strategies such as denial of the problems, because we fear appearing incompetent and pessimistic, or because we fear being branded as emotional, or because we feel powerless.5 Derrick Jensen bravely states the reality that: “no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We’re losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don’t care”.6 There are certainly people who don’t seem to care, perhaps because of their inner denial. But many others are being misled by the propaganda, perpetuating the idea that humans exist separately from nature, and the knowledge to achieve change itself is technical and often inaccessible to those outside academia; political leaders and the wider community alike. Many of us maintain hope that external agencies will produce the changes that we need and want, whereas the reality is that by putting our faith in political leadership, even in a democracy, we remain chained to the system that perpetuates the problems.6 Thus, individually and collectively, we must apply our imagination to forge these changes ourselves. As Jensen says, “when we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work… whatever it takes”. 6

The 2019 federal election, to be held before the end of May, provides Australian citizens with the opportunity for a significant shift towards climate action. However, systemic problems mean that voters must be fully conversant with the stance of the candidates for their electorate and the processes involved. Our federal preferential voting system favours the two major parties and risks the redistribution and misdirection of our ‘democratic’ vote, and often we are unable to hold our elected MP to any promises, due to internal influences and external pressure from powerful interests that often exceed those of the citizens within their electorate. However, this is still one of the best chances we have to begin the changes we so urgently need. By moving from a personal sense of anger and/or dismay to action, leading up to and beyond the Federal election, we can ensure the survival of future generations.

  • Learn about your local members, and communicate directly with electoral candidates. Attend a Candidates Forum in the federal electorate to find out what the candidates stand for and tell them what you value.

  • Talk to people. Talk to your colleagues, friends and family. Write to media outlets, or even present a talk at work or in your community. Help build understanding in the wider community of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and help inspire people who are ambivalent to care about this issue.

  • Join or form a community activism group, campaign to make Climate Action the #1 federal election issue and support your local Stop Adani group. The Carmichael mine is the litmus test of Australia’s future.

  • Vote like your life depends upon it, because it does. The NSW state election is on March 23, and the 2019 federal senate election is on May 18.


1. (Abbott, T. (2014). Address to the Minerals Week, 2014 Annual Minerals Industry Parliamentary Dinner, Canberra.). Source: PM Transcripts; Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia. ID:23528. Abbott, Tony. Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015. https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-23528. Accessed 28 February, 2019.
2. Brevini, B. and Woronov, T. (2018). Ignoring Climate Change, Celebrating Coal: Propaganda and Australian Debates on the Carmichael Mine. In Benedetta Brevini and Justin Lewis (Eds.), Climate Change and the Media, Volume 2, (pp. 25-37). New York: Peter Lang.
3. Terry Woronov (2017): Waging Lawfare: Law, Environment and Depoliticization, in Neoliberal Australia, Capitalism Nature Socialism.
4. Timothy Morton. (2010) The Ecological Thought Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
5. Macy, Joanna. (1995) “Working through Environmental Despair.” In Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen  D. Kanner, 240-59. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
6. Jensen, Derrick. “Beyond Hope.” Orion Magazine, May/June, 2006.

Dr Adrienne Hunt is a Research Affiliate at the Sydney Environment Institute. She completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours, Class I) in Photomedia in 2018 at the Sydney College of the Arts, informed by the environmental humanities and supervised by Anne Elias. Adrienne commenced the BVA with a professional background in clinical and applied health sciences, and in health education, and she is currently an Honorary Research Fellow with the Discipline of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney.