chris bowen

To Chris Bowen, Climate Protests Don’t Matter

The Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy tells us what he thinks about the Future Gas Strategy, consultation with Indigenous communities, and why climate protestors “holding a placard and yelling” won’t change his opinion. Words by Ky Stewart

By Ky Stewart, 31/5/2024

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At the end of last month, we asked how you were feeling about Australian politics right now. The responses were grim: 89 percent of you didn’t feel inspired by politics; 83 percent had no confidence that the Labor Government would address your issues; 93 percent felt unrepresented. That didn’t sound good, so we decided to take your concerns to the seat of power. That’s right, Junkee went down to Parliament House. During Budget Week, no less. We spoke to Senators and Members of Parliament from the Labor Government, The Australian Greens, and the Independents about the stuff you told us you care about. (We reached out to Liberals too, but no one wanted to talk. Honestly, we tried.) 

We kicked things off with the Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, who’s been in the role since the 2022 election. Since then, he’s overseen Australia’s renewable energy plans, the implementation of greenhouse gas emissions targets, and the party’s plans to address the harm of climate change in Australia. The Labor Government’s recent Future Gas Strategy plan — a plan Bowen defends — has come under fire from climate activists and even his own party members. We asked him about all of it — here’s our chat. 

Ky Stewart, Junkee: We surveyed our audience and overwhelmingly they said climate change was one of the biggest issues they had. And on top of that, 89 percent said that they didn’t actually feel inspired by politics. Why do you think so many people don’t feel inspired or engaged by politics, even though they have all these big concerns? 

Chris Bowen, Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy: Look, my best guess is a couple of things. I think that in Australia, politics of climate have been 20 years of arguments and not much progress. So if you’re a young person, I can understand a high degree of cynicism. Politicians have been spending 20 years arguing about whether climate change is real, let alone whether we should do anything about it. Very unproductive.  

It’s hard to take the policies that we’re implementing and then turn that into tangible action that people can see and understand. That’s a challenge for us. But maybe if I could just defend politics for a minute and say… politics, parliament, [and] government is how you get your hands on the big levers to change the country. And [there’s] no bigger lever than climate change policy to change it. We’ve changed the direction of the country in the last two years on climate change. 

So if you actually care about climate change, which 89 percent of your respondents did, then politics is what really counts. So we’ve got to find ways of making that more real and relevant to people.  

How do you suggest then that young people engage more in politics and even run for local governments?

Well the first thing is to be involved, right? You’ve actually got to be involved in a political party. I understand peaceful protest and I respect that and accept it’s got a role, but it doesn’t change the levers. Getting engaged in the serious discussions about what we’re going to do about an issue inside a political party is very, very valuable, more valuable than I think other forms of protest in terms of moving and encouraging behavioural change in political parties, in governments, and in countries.  

Speaking of protests, do you think the recent School Strikes 4 Climate helped put at least some pressure on the Government? Maybe you took notice of a few of them and thought, ‘Okay, there is an overwhelming amount of young people who are engaged in this?’

No. Because I don’t need to be told that young people care about climate change. I know that, right? So again, no disrespect to the people engaged in those activities. I understand and respect it. But the idea that if 50,000 people come rally, nothing’s going to happen, but if a 100,000 people do, the government’s going to listen… it’s just not how we think about these things. And likewise, on a much smaller scale, if a protest turns up in my electoral office and sits in the foyer, and as long as they’re peaceful and they let the constituents come and go, I’ve no problem with that. But it doesn’t change the way I think about the issue. I think about the issue because I want action on climate change. So again, I respect it, but I don’t think it’s the most productive way of engaging in talking to governments about what we can do. I’ve had great meetings with young people, [with the] Australian Youth Climate Coalition. They have strong views and want to push the government to do more, but sit down for an hour and talk through the issues and explain why we’re doing what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it and get their feedback. And I think it’s a two-way conversation. There’ve been things I’ve said to them that they didn’t know about and they all think, ‘Oh, well, from his point of view, now maybe I can understand why they’re doing it that way’, but also [it’s a] two way street, you tell me what you think. That dialogue is more valuable than holding a placard and yelling. That’s not the way to convince people. Sitting down and having a chat. Much better chance.  

In a nutshell, what is the Labor Government doing on climate change and your plans for the future of Australia in terms of meeting the emissions targets and preventing further climate harm?

So we’re doing massive amounts, right? But we’re doing it in stages. We’re doing one thing, doing it the best we can, and then moving on the next thing. You can’t do it all at once. So we passed the Climate [Change] Act. Australia hadn’t had one for 10 years. That’s important because it tells the renewable energy investors [that] Australia wants renewable energy investment. We are building [towards] 82 percent renewable energy in our energy system by 2030. It was 30 percent when we came to office. That’s a big job. It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get it done. And that’s really important. We might get onto no new coal and gas and everything if you want to, but for every kilowatt of renewable energy you have, that’s one less kilowatt of fossil fuels you need. So getting that 82 percent is really important. And we’ve done other things. The most recent one was transport. 

Transport is our third biggest emitting sector. On track to be our biggest emitting sector if we don’t act. We were the only country in the world, only major country in the world, apart from Russia, without [emission] standards for our cars to say to the car companies, ‘Send us lower emissions vehicles we were requiring you to under law’. I’d say to car companies, ‘Why don’t you send us more EVs, better cars?’ ‘Oh, because you don’t make us’. Alright, we’ll fix that. We’ve still got to get through the Parliament, but we changed that policy to say, no, Australia will have vehicle efficiency standards. So sector by sector, hard grind, hard grind, bit by bit, you get real emissions reduction.  

Speaking on the Future Gas Strategy, there’s been a bit of criticism on it from some environmentalists and particularly young people who may not understand how having a gas strategy helps bring down emissions or move away from fossil fuels.  

No, I very much understand that. The Future Gas Strategy is really a way of saying, ‘Guys, we’re going to need gas for a while’. I’m not here to promote gas, but I will say it has one big virtue when you’re building a renewable system: it’s flexible. So you can turn gas on and off at two minutes notice. So people say gas is high emissions, yeah, it is, but it’s not when it’s turned off. Whereas coal’s on all the time. You turn a coal-fired power station on, 40 years later, it’s running. You just can’t turn them on and off. You can’t turn nuclear on and off either. So that’s really useful — if at night we’re short because there hasn’t been enough sun during the day and it’s not windy, we’re going to need something extra, well turn the gas on. That’s still a lot better than having coal running all day. We’re building green hydrogen, but it’s not ready yet and you’ve got five million Australian homes on gas for heating and cooking. It’d be great if they could all switch to electricity straight away, but it’s expensive. 

We’re not spending government money on gas. The Budget was all about renewable energy. It wasn’t about new money for gas. Lots of new money for renewable energy.   

There were some concerns when Scott Morrison’s Liberal government had his Gas Recovery Project, which you labelled a fraud

And it always was. It still is, yes.  

What is the key difference between that strategy and this new one? 

Well, they were proposing to spend government money on gas and said it was the answer to all the problems. ‘Gas-led recovery.’ We’re not proposing to spend government money on gas extraction. What we are saying is we are going to need some new gas from time to time, right? Because the Bass Strait is running out. We’ve been getting gas out of the Bass Strait since the 1970s. It’s not a renewable resource. 

So that’s why I say the gas-led recovery is an unhelpful and inaccurate statement. ‘No New Gas’ is actually also unhelpful and inaccurate. I’ll tell you this. As we build to 82 percent renewables, if we start having blackouts because we don’t have enough gas, you’re going to lose community support for renewables real quick. 

So you’re going to go backwards in the climate change debate and we need to bring the community with us. Young people are passionate about climate change, but not everyone is. But they are happy for action on climate change, providing power remains cheap and it’s reliable, etcetera. So we’ve got to keep those people with us. Renewable energy is very reliable with the right settings, but it’s not imperfect. We also need some backups and gas is a key backup.  

Speaking of communities, there’s concerns over gas projects that infiltrate Traditional land of Indigenous communities. There was a lot of contention with the $3.6 billion Santos Narrabri gas project. Do you see the potential contradictory aims of advocating for climate legislation and then allowing a gas project on Indigenous lands that could—

I do believe in full prior, informed and free consent, but this is the case across the board. I’m doing offshore wind. First Nations groups have different views. There’s some First Nations groups who are strongly supportive of what we’re doing and working with us. Other First Nations groups have concerns and oppose what we’re doing. So we consult, but ultimately we’ve got to make decisions. And there’s Native Title land where First Nations people are the owners and there’s non-Native Title land where they should be consulted, but actually somebody else is, under law, the owner. 

We are developing, with First Nations people, the First Nations Clean Energy Strategy for the first time. [That] hasn’t been done before. And I see big opportunities. In Canada, 20 percent of renewable energy is owned by First Nations peoples. In Australia, it’s less than one percent. There’s a lot we can do. So I hear you about gas and First Nations. And again, to be very honest with you, not all First Nations people have the same views. There are some First Nations groups who support gas in their communities, others who oppose it. If we [are] genuinely respectful of that conversation, we’ve got to respect different views.  

(Minister Bowen was unaware that I am a First Nations person, and am completely aware that we do not have homogeneous opinions.)

I want to know a bit more about how the Labor Government proposes to balance those tensions and if there’s more consideration needed for those Indigenous communities or the financial impact of having those companies come in and well them and drill them?

Well, again, one of the key criteria for any approval is if it’s on Native Title land, the Native Title holders are the owners of the land. If it’s not on Native Title land? Have the First Nations traditional owners been consulted and what are their views? One project can cover various tribal lands [sic] and I’ve seen examples where one Land Council is for it and another Land Council’s against it. So these are difficult issues to work through and they take time. You’ve got to take the time for proper consultation. The First Nations consultation can’t happen on the same timeline as perhaps we’d like to get jobs done.  

A lot of us are angry about climate change. How can you make us feel a little bit more optimistic in how we move forward?  

Climate change is the centre of our Government’s policy. It was the centre of last night’s Budget. It’s what gets me out of bed every morning. Not every young person will agree with everything I say or do and I’ve got a different job to do, right? I’ve got to keep the energy system running while we’re doing this transition. But be under no misapprehension about how seriously I take it [and] the Government takes it. Some people say ‘1.5 degrees, it’s gone, we can’t do it, it’s hard’. But I’m not giving up for future generations. And if we fail to get to 1.5 degrees of warming, I’ve got to tell you the difference between getting to 1.6 and 1.8 is huge for future generations. So we just got to keep driving for it. 

I prefer to focus on the optimistic side. If we get this right, how many jobs will be created? Well, great jobs for young people in clean energy and renewable energy and the future. I’m pretty determined to restore Australia’s climate leadership. We are now much more respected around the world as a result of that climate leadership. We have delegations with young people to COP every year. I spend time with them and I like to think that they see that actually Australia is back at the top table. 

So I understand the despair, but I’d encourage people to really focus on what we can do together. I’d just say this, climate change politics can be very tribal. The fossil fuel industry says ‘Any sort of investment in renewable energy takes away from fossil fuel’. The climate change groups say, ‘We’ve got to do all this tomorrow and if you don’t do this, then it’s a failure’. No, we’re actually doing a lot. We might not do this bit that you don’t like. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Even if you don’t agree with 100 percent, don’t let that 20 percent you don’t agree with infect your views about the 80 percent that we are doing that you do agree with. Because I think that can infect the discussion and really lead to disenchantment when actually a lot of good stuff is happening.  

What do you make of the opposition’s proposed use of nuclear power?  

It’s an excuse to keep coal. They don’t believe it. The smart ones, they know it’s not real. But David Littleproud even says the quiet bit out loud. He says we need to keep the coal longer, we need to slow down the renewables. So what they’re really saying is ‘Slow down the renewables because nuclear is coming. Nuclear does take a while, but that’s okay it’s coming. In the meantime, we’ll keep the coal’. Now it’s a fraud. But if they were successful, it would achieve its result of keeping coal longer. That’s what it’s all about. Slowing down the transitions. It’s also the most expensive form of energy available, right? But it’s a particularly slow form of energy and they’re comfortable with that because they want to keep the coal for as long as possible.  

What does the future look like should Labor be reelected? What are your plans?  

Well, a renewable energy superpower by 2030, that’s what I’m driving. That’s what gets me out of bed every day. Become a renewable energy superpower, create lots of good jobs and reduce a lot of emissions, not just for Australia. Our own emissions are important. Some people say only one percent doesn’t count. I say, no, the one percent does count a lot. Like every percent counts. But I do say this, what we can do even more is help other countries reduce emissions by our green exports. That’s what last night’s Budget was all about. Green hydrogen, renewable energy, critical minerals for batteries, battery manufacturing, making solar panels in Australia, all that. We can help the rest of the world decarbonise because we have the best renewable resources in the world. Renewable energy takes space [and] we’ve got plenty of it. Singapore, a great country, love it, [but it] doesn’t have any room. So they struggle. We can help them and countries like them decarbonise. And that’s what drives my agenda. 

That’s all the questions I had, thank you.  

It’s been great, Kyle. Thank you.  

(My name is Ky.) 

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity. The full version is here:

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

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