As a former political adviser, lobbyist, speechwriter and policy consultant Guy Pearse has seen behind the façade of numerous industries, companies and environmental organisations. Intrigued by Guy’s presentation at the 2012 Festival of Ideas in Sydney, we talked to Guy about why the politics of climate change matters. Here’s what he had to say.

Businesses around the world have seized the opportunity to cater to green-minded consumers and almost every major global brand has embarked on a campaign designed to persuade the consumer that it is cutting its carbon footprint. Likewise, governments around the world are busy doing their bit to give us the impression that their country is going green. But is the climate-friendly revolution really underway? The answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’.

Marketing is a more relevant window onto the issue of climate change for many people fatigued by the politics. Greenwashing is rife in both the public and private sectors and regrettably, the profitable path of least resistance for almost everyone involved is to continue the unsustainable path we are on. There is no easy fix, but what seems clear is that we won’t have a genuine clean energy revolution while a fake one is being so successfully sold.

For governments, it’s time for a reality check. Faith in business leadership has become a convenient excuse for avoiding regulation. Yet, as Greenwash highlights, the reality is that companies will not step far ahead of the pack while their competitors can get away with standing still. So we are drifting towards a dangerous and expensive adaptation to the more extreme climate change impact scenarios with political hopes pinned on an advertised revolution that we now know is false and an agreement to negotiate a new global deal by 2015 that will begin in 2020.

It’s hard not to come away from Greenwash thinking Governments need to stop kidding themselves (and the public) that they are taking the big steps required to return the climate to safe territory, and start actually taking them. What is required to change the direction we’re on is a mass movement globally sufficient to generate the political space required for policy reforms currently deemed ‘unthinkable’. We’re talking something like the mass movement in support of the abolition of slavery, only in a fraction of the time that took.

The sort of reforms that would require companies to move together in embracing changes on a scale that could feasibly accommodate the rapidly increasing sales volumes being experienced whilst also achieving the overall emissions reductions demanded by the science. The movement would need to be global in order to create comparable political space in both developed and developing countries so as to avoid the leakage of emissions to ‘pollution havens’. This would also have to be broadly based to make it impossible for either side of politics to ignore, and incremental change would need to come to be understood as tantamount to business as usual, which would be seen as anathema.

However, the chances about this scenario unfolding are at best about three per cent. Climate change has plummeted down the political agenda worldwide (even amid mounting evidence of the impacts); the public is deeply divided about the science and the policies being offered by politicians; both sides of politics are embracing ‘greenwashed incrementalism’; and the fossil fuel industries are booming as emissions spiral. In short, the tide is headed away from the scenario for positive change, not towards it.


Green washed?

Why the politics of climate change matters

Guy Pearse, Research Fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland

Author of Greenwash: Big brands and carbon scams (Black Inc. 2012).
Worked on the White House advance staff of the Clinton-Gore administration.

Exposing corporate and political collusion, deception and spin on energy and environment-related issues.

NSW, Australia

Lyndal Harris,

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