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Climate Change according to Australia Post

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How have Australia’s stamps represented government policy on climate change? Credit: Les Haines

By Chris Yardley

Postage stamps are time capsules representing the events and issues of their time. Why, then, have Australia’s many stamp issues steered clear of climate change?

The issues of the changing climate have been current for 30 years or more, so one might expect that the messages of the changing climate, sustainability and environmental conservation would be a constant theme on postage stamps. They are not.

A postage stamp is a “time capsule” representing an ideal or a situation at a certain point in time. Because of the lead time required for the design and production of each stamp series, this is more likely to be the date when the decision was made about which event or message would be promoted than the date of issue. Nonetheless, each stamp series is a visual memory and a marker of an idea to be celebrated at a particular time and space. How, then, have Australia’s stamps represented the issue of climate change?

My colleague Maria Taylor has shown that since 1988 the science on climate change published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been consistent, but that the public rhetoric of the Australian government has varied with the politics of the day. This is reflected in Australia’s postage stamps.

In the late 1980s the Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was calling for action on global warming, and this was reflected in the Australia Post stamp issue shown in Figure 1. The four images and text cover the spectrum of the ongoing concern: “conserve our soil”, “precious pure air”, “water is precious” and “conserve energy”. The stamp design and format are consistent and form a cohesive whole, with the stamps ranging in value from local to international delivery. They are strong lenses to promote public changes of behaviour prompted by sophisticated images evoking curiosity in understanding the messages. The 33¢ image is particularly strong. The sands of time are running out for the natural world unless something is done.

It would be 19 years before Australia Post again reviewed the changing climate situation by highlighting the importance of renewable energy. According to Taylor, the communication from two other Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, changed dramatically “from expressing good understanding and a will to take action, to a confused and conflicted debate with clear correlations to the national response”.

The four stamps in Figure 2 illustrate four possible sources of renewable energy, but have a weaker “call for action” than the 1985 set. The renewable energies – solar, wind, hydro and biomass – are named in the foreground but the theme is written in a very small font. The images are mirrors of the technologies, with an element of lens, but the environmental message is diluted. The emphasis for the action for change has been lost because of the change in political motivation.

After Howard’s 11-year term in office, Kevin Rudd’s Labor party was elected to power in 2007. Rudd declared that the resolution of climate change was the “world’s greatest moral challenge,” and one of his first actions was to ratify, on behalf of Australia, the Kyoto Protocol of 10 years before.

Australia Post responded to that challenge with the stamp set entitled “Living Green” (Fig. 3), which was also issued as a prestige stamp booklet with background information text. Australia was in drought during 2007–08, and the first stamp, “save water”, was particularly pertinent. All the stamps in the issue were for local service with the three other prompts being “reduce waste”, “travel smart” and (once again) “save energy”. Climate change and its alleviation is the underlying subject of this issue.

2008 was also important in Australian terms as the Garnaut Climate Change Review was stressing the urgency and expense of the primary challenge “to end the linkage between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases”. The images are strong and simple lenses that send a very clear message.

The fourth set in the series (Fig. 4) celebrates “Earth Hour”, an Australian initiative in 2007 that is now a worldwide event organised by the World Wildlife Fund. It is held on the last Saturday of March each year, and encourages households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights for an hour to raise awareness about the need to take action on the changing climate.

Australia Post’s Earth Hour stamps, issued in 2009, chose three animals to represent the fact that all life on Earth is threatened by a change in the climate. The design was driven by the concept of “protection”. Leadbeater’s possum, shown on the green 55¢ image, is an endangered species in its natural habitat in Victoria. The orangutan, whose image is on the $2.05 international stamp, is in danger due to deforestation in Indonesia and Borneo. The middle image carries the main semiotic message of the three stamps, with the owl representing the wisdom of taking timely action against global warming.

This fourth set takes a world view to tell its Australian message. These Australian stamps confirm Taylor’s basic thesis that changes in political motivation determine priorities in the narrative supporting, or denying, the need for public policy.

While New Zealand Post has not issued any stamps on the subject, this is understandable as they issue almost every stamp as a tourism poster.

So many other stories are told on postage stamps. They provide an un-researched social history of the world.

Chris Yardley has completed a PhD at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, and is author of The Representation of Science and Scientists on Postage Stamps (http://press.anu.edu.au?p=311431).