Finding a way through the Overton climate window is the only way forward | Peter Lewis

With their own sense of dark irony, the bushfires that have ravaged much of Australia over summer are now closing in on Canberra – just as our leaders prepare to return to the capital to put the nation back together.

The profound human cost of lives lost, sacrifices made, wildlife destroyed and dreams shattered has moved the nation, the work of the volunteer firefighters tapping a spirit of mutuality and civic-mindedness that we thought we’d lost.

The economic cost of the fires is still being reckoned: from insurance to tourism to ruined local economies, the numbers guys are starting to draft their response to Bill Shorten’s unanswered pre-election question: what is the cost of climate inaction?

But what is less clear is the political impact the fires will have on climate policy.

Here are a few things we do know. The prime minister has taken a serious hit to his personal authority for his dereliction of duty before, during and since the fires. He limps back to parliament a diminished leader, facing twin crises of a looming pandemic and an orchestrated vote-buying scandal.

Yet as I pointed out last month, the PM is holding on to his base, aided and abetted by those who create a parallel universe where the fires are the work of greenies and arsonists and nothing the experts say will convince them differently.

Despite these determined efforts to gaslight the debate, there is a sense that the summer carnage will shift the needle on climate change and our global laggard of a government will be compelled into more meaningful action.

To understand the moment we find ourselves in, I’ll defer to a construct that political scientists use to model how political activism can deliver meaningful policy change: the Overton window.

The Overton window of political possibilities holds that for every issue, there are range of policy responses that sit on a spectrum from radical to sensible and back to radical. As a rule, support for these policy options will follow a bell curve: policies seen as sensible will also be the most popular. When a policy is seen as sensible and popular, it will offer a window for political action.

In a static world this would hardly be a revelation – indeed it would be a recipe for both incrementalism and stasis. Except there’s a twist: the Overton window moves over time, influenced by public activism, policy advocacy and external events.

That was the idea first laid down by Joseph Overton, head of a libertarian Michigan thinktank in the mid-1990s when trying to articulate a plan to deregulate education in that state. Rather than championing radical, unpopular ideas direct to legislators, he urged the long game, advocating instead to extend the window of what was acceptable, and only when it was in your zone would you pounce through it.

Overton died in a plane crash a few years later and never lived to see the malign impact of his theory, but its thinking has driven the right’s success for more than three decades, from mainstreaming market deregulation to marginalising healthcare reform.

The left has been less inclined to adopt the window, too often pushing for policy purity rather than the long game of moving the policy spectrum, although the successful campaign for marriage equality is a great example of how this type of fenestration can work.

Indeed, the failure of the 2019 election campaign can be explained in part by Labor’s failure to situate their policies within this framework. Instead of demanding policy be set within the Overton zone, Labor presented a patchwork of radical deals without the necessary ballast to make them viable.

So is there an Overton climate window? And if so, have the bushfires extended it?

We have known for many years that there is passive support for climate action. Our benchmark polls show about 60% of Australians accept climate change is real and a similar number believe the government is not doing enough.

The problem has been when concrete policies have become contested: support for market mechanisms, when compared to the perceived costs in jobs and prices, left the Overton window shut.

There has also been consistent support for renewable energy, but the cashed-up efforts from the fossil fuel lobby and their ties to media and government have provided an effective counterpoint to seriously scaling the industry in Australia.

But as results in this week’s Essential Report suggest, now there is overwhelming support for concrete action to back renewables and increase targets, while a number of policies that have sat on the fringes of the debate now have majority support.

To what extent would you support or oppose the following policy proposals if they were adopted by the federal government?

On first blush these are strong numbers for comprehensive climate action, but I would lay down a couple of caveats before we break any glass.

First, while the combined support for measures looks strong, only the accelerated development of renewable energy has more passionate supporters than passive. Additionally, by choosing not to offer the chance to give a “no response”, we were forcing a choice on the issue, rather than allowing a shrug of the shoulders. This in itself is an element of the political challenge.

Other points worth contemplating are that longer-term options are more popular than shorter-term targets (compare the 2030 and 2050 targets), while proposals for the government to actually ban new coal mines garner much stronger opposition.

Based on these findings, the Overton window then would be open around aggressive support for renewables and long-term emissions targets, perhaps with some specific measures to ensure mining companies contribute to the cost of fires.

This is reinforced when you look at support for measures via voting intention, where a majority of conservative voters appear to be within the edges of the window.

Voting intention

They are right on board with renewables, and while there is majority support for the next layer issues, that support slips below majority once targets become more ambitious and government action more punitive.

The idea of pushing for centrist, reasonable and sensible policies may chafe when the world is on the brink. It does not dispel the need to campaign hard at the margins – climate rebellions and school strikes are essential to shifting the window to make other policy change possible.

But the risk is to confuse the movement with the moment. If political change is the answer and Australia can’t wait until 2022, then locating the Overton window and finding a way through it now seems the only viable way forward.

Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential, a progressive strategic communications and research company