After ten years of being a climate sceptic, John Howard begrudgingly pronounced himself a climate change realist. But while the rhetoric has changed, Government policy hasn’t. Australia’s greenhouse pollution continues to soar as the renewables industry slowly but surely packs its bags and heads overseas. Meanwhile the coal industry continues to expand with the help of massive public subsidies.

With APEC over and the federal election looming, Howard is behind in the polls. With climate change still a hot button issue, he has a simple choice: He can either do something serious to tackle climate change and win voter confidence, or he can somehow try to take climate change off the political agenda. His trick will be to figure out how to appear to be doing the former, while actually doing the latter – and this is exactly what the Government’s $23 million climate change advertising campaign attempts to do.

Inviting individuals to ‘Be Climate Clever’, the ad urges Australians to take responsibility where the Government is not. The campaign is craftily designed to deflect attention away from the need for policy change. By embracing an increasingly concerned community, Howard is gambling that he can convince voters that they don’t need to worry about climate change; as long as they do their bit at home the Government will take care of the rest.

Without irony, the ad insists that “Together we can be Climate Clever.” It’s as if we each have equal responsibility: You, me, Mum, Cam and Pru next door, and the Howard Government – working shoulder to shoulder to solve the climate crisis. In a sense it is true. We all do need to be part of the solution. Most of us can reduce greenhouse emissions in our own homes. But in another sense, it is a sophisticated manipulation.

Howard knows that in order to really cut greenhouse pollution we need to make the big polluters pay for their environmental impact. We need a legislated emissions reduction target and we need targets and incentives for renewable energy. These are policy solutions that require political leadership. Deflecting the need for climate action back to individual households is a great ploy to delay the necessary action by at least another few years.

Don’t get me wrong, personal, voluntary action is great – but it is not sufficient. When we wanted to stop asbestos being used we just banned it – we didn’t ask people to voluntarily seek alternatives while continuing to subsidise asbestos producers. It’s far simpler to ban new coal fired power stations than it is to convince 20 million people to voluntarily buy green power. It’s easier and cheaper to simply legislate for high energy efficiency standards than it is to voluntarily change 50 million lightbulbs – one at a time. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how many energy efficient lightbulbs you install if the Government continues to approve new coal fired power stations and coal mines. It doesn’t matter how good you are at turning off your computer if our Government continues to undermine global action on climate change and the Kyoto protocol.

While the Howard Government tries to distract us all with appeals for ‘aspirational’ targets, voluntary action, and the myth that coal can be clean, the reality is that we’re going to need more than words if we’re to avoid climate chaos.

The only really honest statement in the ad campaign is that “Climate change affects us all”. We are all in it together, and we can all be part of the solution, but the key role for individuals is to hold our Government accountable and force them to take real action. We need a legally binding target to reduce emissions by at least 30% by 2020. We need to stop building coal fired power stations and coal mines, and we need a massive investment in renewable energy. Anything else is not climate clever, it’s just more hot air.