December 2021 – January 2022


The fossil-fuel industry’s grip on Australian hearts and minds

By Rebecca Huntley
Image of coal for export, Newcastle, NSW

Coal for export, Newcastle, New South Wales. © Airphoto Australia / Getty Images

Is there hope that public misconceptions of the importance of coal and gas can be overcome?

In April 2020, as the lockdowns across Australia started to bite, the Minerals Council of Australia – the fossil-fuel industry’s most powerful peak body – launched a national campaign “showing Australians how the resources sector is protecting workers, families and communities from COVID-19”. The campaign, voiced by a diverse range of workers, told of how the mining industry was implementing social distancing and health checks on sites, and, more importantly, keeping our economy strong.

Why a peak body would want to spend its members’ dollars telling the Australian community all about health measures that by then were de rigueur for any workplace is one thing. Linking its efforts to supporting jobs and economic stability is something we have heard so many times – it’s like a television jingle you can recall in an instant. But this campaign went a step further, highlighting that the sector provides royalties to fund hospitals, nurses, doctors, police, and other essential government services and infrastructure. It’s the kind of front I wish would be shown by other industries arguably more important than mining to Australia’s economic prosperity, such as education and, indeed, health. The ad campaign rolled out around the time the National COVID-19 Commission was considering what policy levers government needed to push to boost the economy during the pandemic. The group of business leaders hand-picked by the prime minister to head the commission was led by former Fortescue chief executive Neville Power. Their main recommendation? A gas-led recovery.

In his book Full Circle, former Greens senator Scott Ludlam writes about the concept of “state capture”. This is where there is a stranglehold on key democratic institutions that amounts to something “more than corruption, but something less than oligarchy”. Where private interests dominate state decision-making processes for their own advantage rather than for the public good. In Australia, Ludlam told an interviewer, the fossil-fuel industry has an almost inescapable influence on politics and government: “Wherever your preferences fall through to one of the major parties or another, the gas and coal industries are still going to be able to form a majority in [the federal parliament].”

This might seem to be an extreme diagnosis of the power of the fossil-fuel lobby, but then again, we’ve had a steady stream of books exposing the extent of its vice-like hold over politics in this country, from commentators such as Guy Pearse, Judith Brett and Marian Wilkinson. Their work forms a clear picture of what happens when politicians or public servants seriously – or even marginally – threaten the interests of mining generally, and fossil-fuel companies in particular.

Before I had read any of these books, I got a short, sharp lesson about the influence of the sector. Some time ago, I was asked to be part of a group gathered in the Fairfax boardroom to nominate the most powerful people in Australia. The discussion turned to a chief executive of a particular fossil-fuel company. A Liberal powerbroker opined about why this man should not be included in the list. The influence of coal and gas on politicians is always overblown by those on the left for their own agenda, he argued. His Labor counterpart in the room, a retired politician, chuckled, looked across the table and said, “Let’s face it, both of us always picked up the phone when they called.”

Of course, the mining and fossil-fuel industries are not the same beasts, although they are often positioned as such in ways that suit the agenda of the latter rather than the former. Unless you are dealing with a particularly knowledgeable group of people on this topic, usually those living in mining communities, Australians tend to assume a shift away from fossil fuels means an end to mining, and a massive loss of prosperity, jobs and export opportunities. But is it possible that a shift towards renewable energy might mean more mining jobs in Australia rather than less? This is a question I often ask in public opinion research groups. And I am met, in the main, with blank stares. A few people mention lithium as a mineral that we have in Australia that is needed to make batteries. The reality is, renewable energy has two big benefits for the mining sector: the use of renewables on sites cuts costs, and local and global demand for renewables will also mean increased demand for our natural resources such as nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt.

Ludlam’s notion of “state capture” was still a new concept to me when I read his book. But the idea led me to think about the ways in which public attitudes and perceptions have been “captured” by a story about the irreplaceability of fossil fuels in our economy and our society.

Three years ago, I started researching attitudes to energy and climate change almost exclusively. Over that period, we have witnessed some extraordinary events related to climate in both the natural world and the global economy: catastrophic fires, floods, droughts, melting ice and regular new temperature records; the election of a new administration in the United States that is attempting to act seriously on climate; continuing improvements in the economics of renewable energy and shifts in financial support for fossil fuels; and a global decline in coal-based electricity generation. For many countries the meaningful target for action on climate has moved from 2050 to 2030. Here in Australia, we’ve seen the rise of climate-focused independent candidates, state governments making serious investments in renewables, and mining magnate Andrew Forrest spruiking Renewable Energy Industrial Precincts and the power of green hydrogen. Thirty per cent of all our energy now comes from renewables, with 50 per cent in sight despite decades of political turmoil on climate and no coherent federal energy policy. The Australian Energy Market Operator projects the closure of most of Australia’s 19 remaining coal-fired power stations by 2036. Nearly all of Australia’s banks and insurers have committed to exiting thermal coal by 2035.

Perhaps this is why, despite the stresses and strains of a pandemic, Australians’ concern about climate change has actually increased rather than flatlined. The Australia Talks National Survey 2021, conducted by the ABC, Vox Pop Labs and the University of Melbourne, revealed that 64 per cent of Australians say climate change is a serious problem that requires immediate action, compared to 60 per cent in the corresponding 2019 survey. The Lowy Institute Climate Poll 2021 also found a 4-point rise since 2020 in the number of Australians who say “global warming is a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs”, up from 56 per cent to 60 per cent. All the trusted surveys on attitudes to climate find that Australians who are doubtful or dismissive of the science and the need for action make up less than 20 per cent of the population. Australians who can be genuinely described as denialists are less than 10 per cent. For Australians aged between 16 and 25, it’s around 1 per cent.

It’s in this rapidly changing economic and social environment that I have continued to conduct my own public opinion research as well as advised, observed and commented on the work of others. Public opinion is never as fast-moving as the economics and technology, but on the whole the Australian public moves faster than the politics, especially at the federal level.

Five years ago, if I’d asked people in focus groups where Australia sits globally on action on climate change, the general consensus would have been that we do okay, not as good as some, but better than others. Safely somewhere in the middle of the pack, doing our bit, but not leaders. (Aussie pride aside, Australians, particularly those who decide elections, get nervous when faced with talk about us being world leaders in anything that requires advanced technology and far-sighted government decision-making.) Now, in groups across the country, for Australians from all kinds of backgrounds, the predominant feeling is that we are woefully behind, at the back of the pack, in a global minority of laggard countries like Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India. And that’s not something that Australians with even a modest concern about the climate feel comfortable about. (A recent poll from Guardian Essential found that 59 per cent of respondents felt that Australia needs to follow other countries’ lead and make climate change a priority, or risk being left behind.)

If there is state capture by the fossil-fuel companies, I have also observed a kind of parallel and obviously interconnected phenomenon in public opinion. A kind of culture capture. A hold on the Australian psyche that makes it extraordinarily hard for many to imagine a prosperous and secure future without fossil fuels centre stage. It’s apparent no matter what trusted evidence is presented, and I’ve presented plenty. It’s not that Australians don’t want that kind of future: an Australia that has mostly replaced fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, and where we have left the toxic politics of climate behind us. There is an almost universal desire for it. It’s just we can’t imagine the path there. Even talking about what the path looks like causes anxiety. This is the net result of decades of politicians lauding fossil fuels and trashing the capacity and potential of renewables. It’s also the result of the billions spent globally and the millions spent in Australia on public relations, advertising and communications by fossil-fuel companies telling us we can’t possibly live without them.

If the Australian public and the fossil-fuel industry were in an intimate relationship, it would be a toxic one requiring some kind of intervention.

This culture capture manifests in three stubborn beliefs in the community. That fossil-fuel jobs are “real jobs”, and in fact more important than other “real” jobs. That we can’t be a wealthy nation without fossil fuels. And that renewables can’t provide the affordable and reliable energy that fossil fuels can.

The good news? This culture capture is splintering, albeit slowly, particularly in the very communities where fossil fuels have provided jobs and wealth for decades.

The seat of Parkes takes up a massive chunk of the state of New South Wales: 393,413 square kilometres, to be exact. It stretches along most of the state’s Queensland and South Australian borders, from Broken Hill to Gunnedah and all the way down to Dubbo and Condobolin. Its economy is based on agriculture, coal and opal mining, timber, winemaking, tourism and construction. It’s represented in federal parliament by a Nationals MP, Mark Coulton. The town of Narrabri is home to a controversial coal-seam gas project; the distinctive “Lock The Gate” anti-CSG sign can be seen across the region. Parkes is also the home of the NSW state government’s proposed Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone, a huge solar, wind and storage project planned to be shovel-ready next year. Since the pandemic hit, all my focus groups have been conducted online on Zoom. For a seat like Parkes that proves handy, because you can recruit people who live in different corners of the sprawling electorate.

One evening, at the tail end of summer 2021, I was talking to a group of voters from Parkes, men and women of different ages, backgrounds and voting preferences. The topic was energy – their attitudes to coal and gas versus renewables. The conversation turned to the jobs available in the different industries. The Australia Institute’s “Climate of the Nation” report has shown time and again there is a big gap between perception and reality of fossil-fuel sector employment. In relation to oil and gas, its 2021 report stated that:

Australians overestimate the size of gas and oil industry employment by a factor of 46. Excluding those who say they don’t know, respondents on average believe that oil and gas extraction employs 9.2 per cent of the total workforce. In reality, oil and gas extraction employs around 23,200 workers, making up less than 0.2 per cent of the 12.9 million people employed in Australia.

This overestimation is also the case regarding the coal industry. More importantly though, almost half of respondents to the “Climate of the Nation” survey regularly report they don’t know what proportion of the total workforce is employed in fossil fuels. This is consistent with what I find in all my qualitative research. People don’t really know the numbers but they feel they must be significant – or else why would there be such political angst about Australian jobs in coal and gas? In fact, the fossil-fuel sector is not even in the top 10 industries in terms of employment. It accounts for around 1 per cent of the total workforce, and this number is falling.

There are other factors driving this amplification of the significance of fossil-fuel jobs. When Australians think about fossil-fuel jobs they think immediately about the communities where those jobs are concentrated. They don’t just mention the direct jobs in the mines and companies themselves. They talk about all the cafe owners, hairdressers, mechanics and cleaners whose wages are paid by the fossil-fuel workers – whom they believe would lose their jobs and businesses if fossil fuels left town. While people understand that many fossil-fuel projects are largely automated, they nevertheless believe that ongoing jobs in coal and gas (the post-construction jobs) are more important and better paid than in solar and wind. They even think this despite knowing that there will be fewer coal and gas projects in Australia in the future, that the global trend is towards renewables, and that ageing coal and gas facilities are being phased out rather than replaced. They see these jobs in fossil fuels as highly skilled, highly paid and valuable. Jobs valuable enough to sustain families and communities without a whole lot of other employment options.

One of the devices in qualitative research I often use to find out what people believe and know about a topic is to put various statements of fact in front of them to see if they find those statements credible. While Australians don’t trust politicians, they still tend to trust government sources, so I quote facts from sources such as the Australian Tax Office, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, government departments and various well-known universities. This particular evening, I put a statement in front of the voters of Parkes for their response: “There are more jobs today in health and education than in fossil fuels.” A little digging on the ABS website tells you this is definitively the case. Did they think this was true? As usual, I received only two kinds of response to this question. The first one: “no”, they didn’t think it was true. The second, perhaps even more disheartening: “yes probably, but who cares?” Then I followed up with another question: Even though it might be true, does it feel true? “No, it doesn’t,” came the common response, “it doesn’t feel true.” Some of them also acknowledged that it wasn’t something they thought much about, or had ever read anything about.

But even more extraordinary was the prevailing sense – in this focus group in Parkes and the many others I’ve conducted over the past three years – that fossil-fuel jobs are more valuable than other jobs to the nation as a whole. None of this Parkes group was employed in mining. They were all in human and community services. There were a few disability support workers, a midwife, a nurse and childcare worker, as well as people employed in local government. While they told me that “a job was a job”, it was also clear they saw mining jobs as more important to the economy than jobs in their industries. Their own jobs. Because in their view, the mining sector creates wealth for the state, as opposed to service industries such as health and education, which, they argued, require state funding.

As one of the participants, a man working with youth at risk, put it: “You’ve got mining, which is a money-making venture, it makes money. Then you’ve got community services – nurses, teaching and all that – they’re not a money-making thing. They cost. Without mining, and the taxes that they pay, like the taxes we all pay, you wouldn’t have [those services]. [Mining is] what generates these other jobs.”

The conversation about jobs in this Parkes group left me at a loss, dismayed that people who do some of the most important, challenging and valuable work in the community, in some of our largest industries, felt that they were economically less valuable than people employed in coal and gas.

If only health and education had the same public-relations agencies as those that work for the Minerals Council.

In the mid 1990s, BP Australia created a famous ad campaign with the tagline “The Quiet Achiever”. There were 10 television ads and extensive outdoor media, billboards and signs at sporting venues. You can see it all on YouTube if you want a nostalgia trip. Most of them feature a large cast of white men in hard hats, Akubras and lab coats, some working machinery, others swishing liquid in beakers. In one ad, great artistic and sporting icons – Dame Joan Sutherland, Dawn Fraser, Sir Robert Helpmann – smile serenely at the viewer as the voice-over explains how BP supports Australian excellence. It’s easy to mock this campaign from the vantage point of the present, but it was highly effective at the time. I saw the ads on TV like everyone else, but I clearly recall one evening, as a teenager sitting in the family car waiting for my dad to pay for his tank of petrol, looking up at one of these BP billboards. It had an image of a handsome young stockman with a Man from Snowy River vibe. I remember feeling struck by it. I wasn’t quite sure what BP did, but I felt it must be important and very Australian, and something to be regarded with solemnity and respect. Like a father-figure watching over the country; strong but also benevolent. I felt vaguely patriotic about BP for years, until I realised that BP stood for British Petroleum.

It’s not uncommon in focus groups for people – particularly, but not exclusively, older men – to say that our economy was built on the sheep’s back, and then the coal cart. During the global financial crisis, as I was conducting broader qualitative research on the mind and mood of the public, it was common for people in groups to say that the mining boom (along with the solidity of the four major banks) protected Australia from the economic woes of the world. “China needs our coal” was a more common refrain than “the federal government acted swiftly to stimulate the economy with infrastructure spending and cash handouts to citizens that flowed quickly through to the retail sector, and introduced the Guarantee Scheme for Large Deposits and Wholesale Funding”. Mining and the banks got much of the credit for avoiding a recession and high unemployment. The Labor government failed to tell a compelling story about its role in protecting the Australian economy from the full blast of the GFC, leaving it with less ammunition to fend off attacks on the so-called mining tax (which had a decent level of support, at least in theory, from the public).

The GFC is now a dim memory for most people. Much has changed in our economy, and in the global economy, but “mining keeps Australia going” is a sentiment I still hear again and again, along with “it’s hard to imagine a future without coal”. Why? “Because we have the best coal in the world and countries like China and India need it and will continue to need it for decades.” I ask: Do you think China and India are investing in renewable energy as much as fossil fuels? “No.” Do you think there has been an increasing demand for our coal or a decreasing demand? “Increasing.” Why’s that? “Population growth and a world with growing energy needs.” If you present credible evidence that demand for coal has been decreasing: “Oh, that’s just our trade war with China, that won’t last.” And finally, the argument that frustrates me the most: “Poorer countries need fossil fuels to be wealthy and only wealthy countries can afford renewables.”

But probably the hardest and the most important fact to land with focus groups in conversations about the economic benefit of fossil fuels is around subsidies. Every time I present any arguments on this to focus groups, I’m met with a mix of disbelief bordering on denial.

Let me give you a recent example. It’s a Friday night during the final long days of Sydney’s lockdown, and in lieu of after-work drinks some voters from the western suburbs have assembled on a Zoom call to talk about energy. The group had been recruited on the basis of a general concern about climate change and having positive attitudes towards renewables. Despite everyone’s best efforts, an outlier can occasionally slip in to a focus group, someone who is more or less enthusiastic about the topic than we were aiming for in the recruiting brief. This evening, an older man, very articulate and polite, has shown his cards early: he doesn’t think renewables will ever do the job of fossil fuels. He keeps pointing erroneously to our “low per capita emissions” and the fact that Australia “isn’t actually a big exporter of coal and gas”. He talks at length about the importance of the taxes and royalties that coal and gas companies pay to the state. He finishes his comments by saying, “It’s not as if they get any subsidies from the government. Unlike renewables, which are heavily subsidised.”

I think I audibly gasped, a real faux pas for a researcher who must maintain a poker face when moderating at all times.

Me: You don’t think coal and gas get subsidies from the government?

Him: They don’t.

Me: Would it surprise you to know they get billions of dollars a year in subsidies and some of these companies that are foreign-owned don’t pay tax or royalties?

Him: I don’t believe that.

I actually understand this. He can’t believe that. The idea that the government might give swimming pools of taxpayers’ money to companies that contribute such environmental and climate damage is just too upsetting to think about.

I also find it hard to believe, when I read the regular reports on subsidies. One such report, released by Jubilee Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation in the lead-up to the COP26 climate conference, showed that “over the past decade, public financial institutions overseas have pumped AUD$36.7 billion into Australian fossil fuel projects”, compared to the $3.3 billion received by renewable energy projects between 2010 and 2020. Another report released around the same time by The Australia Institute found that fossil-fuel subsidies have cost state, territory and federal governments around $10.3 billion over the past financial year, or $19,686 a minute.

Set aside the fact this is taxpayers’ money going to an industry that is driving destructive climate change, and what we already know about the true numbers of on-the-ground jobs these companies create: many of these companies, particularly in the gas sector, don’t pay much in tax or royalties at all, and take their profits overseas because they are foreign owned and domiciled, and can evade their financial obligations through various capital expenditure “write-offs” and other allowable accounting tricks. Chevron Australia Holdings – the local arm of the giant US fossil-fuel company – is a notable example: a 2019 report showed it paid more in political donations that financial year than it did in tax. (There was good reason why the Rudd government wanted to introduce a resources super-profits tax.)

I can understand why taxpayers don’t want to think about this, despite their cynicism and distrust of politics and politicians. They know politicians and business are in a cosy relationship. They believe politics is broken. But the idea that taxpayers are being ripped off in such a systemic way – it seems unfathomable.

When I put a statement in front of people such as “The federal government gives billions of taxpayer dollars to foreign-owned coal and gas companies. These companies pay minimal tax and royalties”, these are the usual responses I get: “That can’t be right.” “The government must be getting something in return for all that.” “But these companies are providing employment opportunities to Australians. That’s the benefit to Australia.” “Is it totally a waste? Those subsidies must be helping the economy in some way or they wouldn’t keep giving it to them.” According to the “Climate of the Nation” report, Australians perceive the oil and gas industry as contributing around 55 times more to government revenue than it actually does.

As a researcher, I am not there to educate but to understand how these respondents feel about the issues my clients want to campaign on. Yet I do experience extraordinary sadness, because in order for these people to believe the extent to which their hard-earned tax dollars are handed over to the likes of Chevron would require an almost total collapse of their faith in our leaders and the integrity of our politics.

In the research I do on climate and renewables, I tend to divide my time between focus groups in key seats that are either marginal or “resource” seats: regional seats in Western Australia, northern Queensland or NSW’s Hunter Valley; seats in outer suburban or well-developed regional areas, such as Longman or Lindsay, that might swing in federal elections; and increasingly in what campaigners call “teal seats”, traditionally conservative seats where concern about climate change is high (teal being a mix of blue and green). If I do a large qualitative study with focus groups from a mix of these different seats, what I often find is that there are more commonalities than differences in opinion, especially when it comes to the central role of fossil fuels in our economy.

One project I conducted earlier this year included a group of progressive voters in the seat of Cooper and a mix of voters in the seat of Longman. Cooper is a typical inner-city federal seat, located in Melbourne’s north, that has traditionally been Labor but could be taken by the Greens under the right conditions. Longman is a regional Queensland seat but within easy driving distance north of Brisbane; Labor retained it in the 2018 parliamentary-eligibility byelections before it swung back into Liberal National hands in the 2019 election.

While in any given project you might have a diverse group of people in your focus groups, you tend to have one discussion guide with the same questions. I asked both groups how important they thought the fossil-fuel industry is to the Australian economy. There was very little difference in the response to this question from these two groups. Both thought fossil fuels were central to our economy, with more jobs in such industries than in sectors such as education. Both groups worried about the jobs of the workers in fossil fuels – where was the plan to support those communities when the shift to renewables begins in earnest? Both groups felt the move to renewables was both desirable and inevitable. The only real difference between them was on the question of urgency. The more climate-concerned, progressive group in Cooper wanted it to happen faster than the less engaged, more economically anxious group in Longman. The Cooper group supported renewables because of the climate regardless of whether that meant some economic cost including a loss of some jobs; the Longman group supported renewables too, but wanted the shift to mean that jobs were retained.

This story is a mixed blessing for those in the renewables sector and the climate movement. The common goal of a move towards renewables is there in the sentiment but is countered by reluctance to completely “let go” of the fossil-fuel safety net. This sometimes results in people saying we should hedge our bets and try to keep fossil fuels going until the technology and the economics of renewables means we can safely make the switch. When, I ask them, might that moment come? “Twenty years, 30 years, maybe more.” They don’t think that time has come now? No, they don’t.

As with jobs, the “Climate of the Nation 2021” report shows we overestimate the contribution to the nation’s economic prosperity of coal, oil and gas. For example, the report showed that Australians believe coalmining makes up 12.6 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product, whereas in reality coalmining accounts for just 2.5 per cent of GDP. Renewable energy is also moving swiftly to become the cheapest form, and that’s just taking into account raw costs and ignoring the associated costs of environmental damage involved in fossil-fuel extraction, manufacture and use. Reports from the International Renewable Energy Agency show that renewables will be a reliable and consistently cheaper source of electricity over fossil fuels within a few years. For example, onshore wind schemes cost an average of 6 US cents per kilowatt hour, with some lower, and the cost of solar PV is 10 US cents per kilowatt hour. The cost of fossil fuel-based electricity is 5 to 17 US cents. Modelling by the Energy Security Board in Australia has revealed that if the national policy settings were aimed squarely at further and rapid growth in renewables, this could reduce annual electricity bills within a short period, with the average household saving at least $550 each year.

The biggest and most urgent task is to show Australians that the economics and the technology have arrived. What we lack is political will.

There are two peak bodies in the renewable energy sector. The Smart Energy Council and the Clean Energy Council (CEC). I work closely with both of them. The CEC recently employed me to conduct a couple of phases of qualitative research, testing its public campaign championing the capacity of wind, solar and hydro to meet the growing energy needs of Australian households and businesses.

Prior to this work, I had a pretty good grasp of the community view of renewables from my years of qualitative work and the quantitative research. The survey work shows us the vast majority of people are supportive of renewables and believe governments should be investing more in them. For example, the 2021 Lowy poll found almost all Australians (91 per cent) say they would support the federal government “providing subsidies for the development of renewable energy technology”. That stands in contrast the 30 per cent who would support public subsidies for new coal-fired power plants.

 The key insights from my own work on renewables can be summed up like this: solar is great – it’s the future – hydro has been around forever, and wind, well it’s not very attractive, and bad for the birds, but it’s part of the mix. People still believe renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, and that it requires a lot of upfront costs and government support. It’s not really going to grow much further without battery storage, and that’s expensive. It’s more for houses and buildings than manufacturing.

In other words: it’s the future, but the future isn’t here yet.

Again, this story is a mixed blessing. On the downside, I have tried all kinds of angles in all kinds of groups to get people to believe that renewable energy stacks up economically compared to coal and gas. It’s very hard to convince them. Namely because, for most of us, our only point of reference is our own home. Solar panels require upfront costs and ideally a battery. If you are renting, or in an apartment, solar panels aren’t really an option. If your energy needs aren’t that significant, do you get a return on investment? People who’ve invested in solar in their homes are often the best advocates for the technology, but it doesn’t make them any more or less informed or open to persuasion about the role renewable energy can play in manufacturing or its ability to replace fossil fuels in the next decade. And they are no more or less willing to imagine an Australian economy based on renewables rather than coal and gas.

We tested the CEC campaign messages on two groups. The main audience was concerned about climate change and positive about renewables but thought other issues, such as cost of living, jobs and personal safety and security, were more important. We also tested the messages in front of another audience, which I sometimes jokingly describe as “the acid test”: older men in regional Queensland who are doubtful about the climate science. Could we convince both groups that renewable energy was ready to take on all our energy challenges sooner rather than later? Again, I used my tried-and-true provocation, putting a statement of fact in front of the groups and observing their response. “Thirty per cent of Australia’s energy needs today come from renewables. Soon it will be 50 per cent”. This was one of those statements that didn’t feel true to people. But if they accepted it was true, which it is, it had the capacity to shift sentiment across the course of a 90-minute discussion.

Prior to the conversation, we measured how people felt about a range of issues associated with renewables: that it was better for the environment, could generate jobs, was good for the economy. Attitudes barely shifted. But on the question of whether renewable-energy solutions are available here now and ready to go, attitudes shifted noticeably. Even in the doubtful group of Queensland men. In fact, it was the only thing that shifted for them. “I feel more positive now than at the start of the discussion. I guess all that information has made me change my mind,” said one of the men who, like many of the others in the group, believed climate change was more a natural cycle than driven by human activity.

My mother’s family came from Italy before World War One to cut cane in northern Queensland. They then went on to grow fruit after the sugar industry moved towards automation. Some of my generation became fly-in, fly-out workers in the mines in Queensland and Western Australia, making the money they couldn’t otherwise in their home town to buy houses and raise families. I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a country town, but I’ve spent a lot of time there as a child and an adult.

Before COVID-19 shifted much of the qualitative research online, I spent at least a third of my year travelling to country towns across Australia to conduct groups. The sentiment in these towns is indeed different to the city. The sentiment between country towns is also different. Generalisations about rural and regional Australia rarely stand up to scrutiny. And the characterisations of regional Australia are often so caricatured it’s embarrassing, especially from those who purport to represent their diverse populations in our parliaments. While there are differences in attitudes to climate change between the inner city, the outer suburbs and the regions, it’s not the same as saying there isn’t passionate concern – and huge disappointment – in regional Australia about climate action and the pace of investment in renewable energy.

In fact, focus groups in regional Australia are often the most interesting when it comes to discussions about fossil fuels and renewable energy. And in many ways, they are the ones that give me the most hope that the grip of coal and gas on the hearts and minds of Australians might be slipping.

A few weeks ago, I was conducting a focus group in the seat of Brand, in regional Western Australia, a state with an economy that relies more on gas and iron ore than coal. The conversation around renewables versus fossil fuels can play out quite differently because of that. The group was full of people either employed directly in or related to people working in mining. (I don’t think I’ve ever done a Western Australian focus group where that wasn’t the case.) It was an extraordinary discussion. Everyone in the group knew that the energy landscape was changing, and changing rapidly, because they had experienced it firsthand. They had little difficulty imagining the role renewables might play in manufacturing. There was a resolute pragmatism that Australia needed to change to take advantage of how the world was shifting. A father of two, a process engineer, reflected that “the demand from coal is going to decrease over the years, as there is this push for decarbonising the industry. The first cut will be coal because that’s what people are calling dirty energy and it’s one of the easy wins, the low-hanging fruit.” One woman, whose husband was a FIFO worker at a nickel refinery, had been given a family tour of the facility and witnessed the role renewable energy could play in manufacturing. “I just think it’s amazing to see,” she said. “With kids and grandkids, it’s so important that we’re doing everything we can now to make the improvements for them for the future, because it is the way of the future, and we have to do something and we have to do it now.” Another woman, who had worked in administration at an aluminium company, reflected on how the adoption of renewable energy was making her old industry more internationally competitive.

It was a nuanced and informed conversation about the economics, the technology, the opportunity and the challenges involved in the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. More than anything it was fundamentally hopeful. It was about the jobs and the industry, but climate change got attention too. The group understood, better than most inner-city citizens like me, for whom climate change is a major concern, the opportunities that renewable energy offers regional Australia. The conversation ended in a pep talk from the process engineer and father that was met with nods and smiles from the faces arranged Brady Bunch–style across my screen: “When you have a quick look at the top 20 countries that are leading on renewables, Australia doesn’t get a look-in. I think in our current world environment it’s about time we start putting some positive stuff out there. It’ll be better for our kids; it’s better for us. We’ve got the technology, we’ve got the know-how, we’ve got these kids coming through that want to work in these industries.”

Some evidence-based, ambitious, optimistic and forward-thinking words coming out of the mouth of a mining process engineer, rather than a prime minister. Like I said, the public can move faster than the politics.

Anyone who works in the climate movement tells you that to do so requires a daily exercise of active hope; to understand the science and the scale and complexity of the task ahead – and no doubt the resources and the resolve of the opponents – but still to try, and keep trying. I’ve found my version of active hope in listening to the public and the complex, contradictory, justified, infuriating views on climate change and the solutions to the crisis, and translating those views. Some groups, almost always those in regional communities where mining has played a foundational role, are remarkable for their willingness to grasp the opportunities afforded by climate solutions, their willingness to change. In some groups I wind up tearing my hair out, particularly those with people for whom neither feelings nor facts can shift sentiment or cut through their unwillingness to imagine an Australia without the coal and gas industries. Then again, why should they be left to imagine such a world when so many of our elected leaders refuse to?

It would be easy to dismiss some of the people in my research and the respondents in the surveys I’ve quoted as being misguided. They are, but more fundamentally they are misled. It’s the case that feelings are as important as facts to human beings. In his influential book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, American academic Drew Westen writes, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” From the Quiet Achiever ads that had me in their thrall as a teenager to the more recent “keeping Australia going during COVID” campaign, the fossil-fuel companies understand the critical task of telling a compelling, emotional story about their role in creating a rich, safe and secure Australia. It works, and continues to work, despite all the evidence that it is, in fact, a distortion at best, and a taxpayer-funded fantasy at worst.

The task for any leader inside or outside politics who cares about climate change is to tell a better story, one based on fact but that also paints a vivid and compelling picture with renewable energy and a healthy environment at its heart. And to do so quickly.

Rebecca Huntley

Rebecca Huntley is one of Australia’s foremost researchers on social trends. She is the author of numerous books, including How To Talk About Climate Change in a Way that Makes a Difference.

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