Picture of wind turbines against a sunset with the text “the future will be union-made”

Who really stands between Australia and a safe climate?

You’ve heard this story before, right? The one where working class Australians aren’t really thinking about environmental issues at all, but at the same time feel constantly threatened by Australia’s inevitable transition to renewable energy? I call it the Fitzgibbon Paradox.

It’s a comforting story for politicians that have no interest in tackling climate change to tell themselves. The idea is that caring about clean air and drinkable water is just a niche obsession for inner-city dilettantes who are detached from the everyday pressures faced by working people.

The problem is, it’s just not true.

Who’s concerned by climate change?

Late last year, as part of the launch of our Transition from Crisis report, we asked thousands of Victorians for their thoughts on climate change, renewable energy and jobs. We also asked them to identify whether they considered themselves ‘working class’, ‘middle class’, ‘upper middle class’ or ‘wealthy’. Their responses were illuminating.

We learned that about three quarters of Victorians, from all walks of life, are genuinely concerned about climate change. Contrary to what some folks would have you believe, less than one third of working class Victorians claim to be unconcerned.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because working people feel the impact of climate change every day. If you work outdoors, weather is getting hotter, to the point where on building sites workers are more regularly forced to down tools on hot days because it simply becomes too dangerous to keep working. If you fight fires, the fires are bigger and the seasons are longer and more devastating. The smoke from these fires is now a dangerous hazard impacting entire capital cities. If you are a nurse, paramedic or healthcare worker, you’ll know all too well the disastrous impact a heatwave can have on our communities, especially the elderly.

We also learned that the group least likely to support real action on climate change is actually the wealthiest among us. They’re twice as likely to demand more support for fossil fuels. They’re much more likely to tell you investing in renewable energy will cost jobs, and they’re less likely to want the government to take action.

It’s the top end of town that have the biggest interest in maintaining the status quo, perhaps because they’re more shielded from the catastrophic impacts of climate change on their jobs and way of life than the rest of us. Unlike many pensioners, they can afford an air-conditioner in each room and the power it costs to run them.

Transitioning from crisis

Our two biggest trading partners with coal, Japan and Korea, both now have targets of zero emissions by 2050. In Australia and around the world, energy companies have already made choices to close coal-fired power plants. When Engie closed Hazelwood in the Latrobe Valley it was an investment decision to not repair ageing infrastructure and to sack the existing workforce. With banks and superannuation funds making decisions to rapidly divest from fossil fuels, the risk is that those communities that have powered our nation for last 100 years, face energy plant closures sooner and are left behind, when they should be the centre of these discussions, so their workforce and their families can have a secure future.

Action on climate change is already happening, whether we like it or not. The choice we all have to make is whether we want to be active participants in that change, securing quality, well-paid jobs for a transitioning workforce, or do we bury our heads in the sand and see investment in these new opportunities siphoned off overseas and good jobs replaced by low-paid, insecure work?

Take the Star of the South project for example. This is poised to be the first large-scale offshore wind project in the Southern Hemisphere, situated close to important energy infrastructure that already exists in the Latrobe Valley. If this project gets off the ground it could create thousands of good jobs and, if connected with Hydrogen plants, can supply our trading partners with the clean energy they’re increasingly demanding.

Most of us, in most jobs and in most communities, want our governments to show genuine leadership and facilitate a smoother transition to a low carbon economy, with innovative, job-creating projects just like this. If the Morrison Government, and people like Joel Fitzgibbon, remain uninterested in facing this reality, then state governments will have to keep stepping up to the plate.

When workers are told by people in power that we can’t afford change or uncertainty, they know that change and uncertainty are already here. We can either plan now for an orderly transition, build new industries, and create the well-paid jobs of the future, or we can have a very different future thrust upon us. It’s time that we got beyond political games because such distractions don’t just damage our climate, but also damage our chances of creating a future built on good, clean, well-paid and secure jobs.

Luke Hilakari is the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council

You can read the full “Transition from Crisis” report here, or join us at upcoming events here.

Luke Hilakari is the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council — the voice of Victorians at work.

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