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After The Ruin Of The Mid–Terms,
Is There Hope From Down Under?

By Peter Boyer

03 December, 2010

“No responsible decision maker will be able to say next year that they need more time or more information on climate change. In 2011 there will be nowhere to hide.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard addresses the Council for the Economic Development of Australia on November 29. Photo CEDA.

The US mid–term elections brought the global climate campaign to its knees, but as November drew to a close we in Australia got the most promising signal for a long time that our own national leadership is beginning to take climate policy seriously. Is this real hope, or just clutching at straws as we sink into a bottomless quagmire?

First, the bad news. For the past year, the broad Australian movement for climate action has endured the poor result in Copenhagen and Australian indecision on climate policy in the faint hope that the United States might start to put its considerable weight behind the faltering, ineffectual global effort to reduce carbon emissions. As we tottered toward COP16 in Cancun, that opened earlier this week, maybe, we thought, the Obama Administration might just pull something out of the Congressional morass that gets the global community moving in a positive direction.

That hope has now been extinguished by a resurgent neo–conservative movement in the US, led by the querulous Tea Partiers backed by the media man–of–the–moment Glenn Beck and big money from the Koch Industries oil empire. If all this sounds conspiratorial, then it probably is.

Barak Obama must shoulder some responsibility. Before he was elected President he gave climate action high priority. Now, after an exhausting health care reform battle and a demoralising election campaign, he seems to have given up, declaring emissions trading to be off the agenda. In a few short sentences during his long and uninspiring post–election media briefing, Obama said he would be looking to measures other than cap–and–trade “that don’t hurt the economy.” He didn’t mention a carbon tax, but any form of carbon pricing in the US now looks pretty well dead in the water.

In Australia, the climate spokesperson for the Liberal Opposition, Greg Hunt, trumpeted Obama’s announcement as support for the Liberals’ “direct action, no tax” policy. Both of them, Obama and Hunt, now appear committed to pursuing regulatory measures such as incentives for tree–planting, cleaner motor vehicles, renewable energy and the like. In abandoning a pricing mechanism—cap–and–trade or direct tax—both are ignoring the mountain of evidence that economic or fiscal measures get the biggest bang for the buck and that regulation is the costliest, least effective way to curb emissions.

The mid–term elections marked a complete failure of US climate policy, which rarely got a mention amid all the campaign hubbub over economic hard times and libertarian prattle about smaller government and personal freedom. It represents an enormous setback for humanity’s battle to stop global warming: a victory of opposition over cooperation, of suspicion over trust, of personal greed over public interest, of fear and ignorance over considered, well–informed debate. Vested interests—especially resource interests—have drawn on their considerable reserves to play on people’s anxiety about the future.

I thought the slogan–rich, information–poor Australian election campaign three months ago was about as bad as it could get. I ranked those of our politicians who were opposed to climate and energy action, with their noisy, petty posturing, at the bottom of the global political compost heap. But I was wrong. On both counts, the US political scene leaves Australia for dead. Sarah Palin’s declaration that the great challenge of our time is “off the table” was bad enough; worse was the dumb triumphalism that went with it. These people actually think a great victory has been won.

Now we find that even politicians in Obama’s own Democratic party are opposing a recent court decision allowing the US government to treat carbon emissions as pollution and regulate accordingly. The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation is a glimmer of hope that the Administration might be able to apply at least some physical restraint to America’s ever–rising carbon emissions. Yet the US media has treated the populist opposition to EPA control as business as usual. From this side of the world it looks close to madness.

In the wake of the mid–terms I got to wondering if we haven’t reached the limits of what democracy and civilisation can achieve. Could it be that the size and complexity of the climate issue has tested our civil systems beyond their capacity, and we’re now observing the start of a breakdown?

The United States arouses powerful passions. This great nation has given us so much to value and admire: in its self–belief, its “can do” attitude and innovative technology, its fierce defence of individual liberty, and its scientific achievements. But there’s a negative side to this. American can–do self–belief is sometimes manifested in a false optimism that every problem has a technical fix, no matter what its cause. Hence Obama’s misplaced faith that technology can of itself lower emissions despite his country’s rising energy demands.

The nation that gave us the great Abraham Lincoln also gave us the Tea Party, a host of ordinary Americans who see themselves as latter–day Lincolns defending freedom. This has to be delusion on a grand scale. These people appear to have been cynically manipulated by vested interests to destabilise a government already under siege from the global financial crisis.

In times past (in stark contrast to the public attitude in the wake of the so-called “Climategate” emails) Americans have held their scientists in very high regard. But it’s a faith that has its darker side, painstakingly researched and powerfully evoked in Merchants of Doubt, the new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. This is a masterful account of how a few scientists, mainly working outside their field of expertise, used their god–like status to conceal the truth about various environmental and health issues. As the book tells it, for decades a small handful of scientists sought for reasons of personal ideology to cast doubt on links between tobacco smoke and lung cancer and the causes of acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming.

In the case of global warming, the results are now plain to see. Americans have ditched their enlightenment traditions to come out against the science. Somehow, this now has to be turned around. Merchants of Doubt is an important first step to Americans and the rest of the world regaining their trust in the integrity of the scientific method. In the meantime, in the US political firmament fear and ignorance have the upper hand over informed public policy. It will take a supreme effort by the Obama Administration to turn this around in the two years before he faces the people to win a second term.

We Australians, too, have the battle ahead of us. Our own record on climate action puts us alongside the US at the back of the pack of developed countries. But just as November drew to a close, Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave cause for some hope that in the coming year we might just start to turn things around.

Like Obama’s Administration, the Gillard government must deal with a political opposition which is implacably opposed to pricing carbon, either through carbon emissions trading (cap–and–trade) or a direct tax on emissions. Like her US counterpart, early this year Gillard’s Labor government backed away from taking decisive action to implement a pricing scheme, fearful of an opposition attack that branded the scheme a “great big new tax.” But unlike Obama, Gillard has now decided to accentuate the difference with her opposition and take them on over carbon pricing. In a speech in Sydney on November 29 to the Council for the Economic Development of Australia, she declared her hand.

“2011 is the year Australia decides on carbon pricing,” she said. “The Parliament is now the master of its own destiny. We must decide in 2011 on a way of pricing carbon that is supported by a broad enough consensus that it can be legislated. Climate change was first discussed in our Parliament in the nineteen eighties. It’s been central to public debate in two successive Federal election campaigns. But a working consensus for action has eluded us.”

“In a system like ours, it is incredibly rare to have a second opportunity at a hard reform which fails in the Parliament. We have one on a carbon price. I promise you, no responsible decision maker will be able to say next year that they need more time or more information on climate change. In 2011 there will be nowhere to hide.” Gillard has the numbers in parliament to do as she says.

The Asian powerhouses of China and India are now taking more responsibility for their own rising emissions. With early pace-setters Europe having become bogged down with economic problems, and decisive action looking farther away than ever in North America, Australia—culturally a European country but geographically part of the Asian bloc—may yet prove a global lynchpin. All the past disappointments are a warning not to expect too much—in fact, a warning to expect virtually nothing. But we’re an optimistic race which doesn’t dwell too long on disappointment. There’s too much to be done.

Peter Boyer is a science writer based in Hobart, Tasmania. He has lived most of his life in this beautiful island to the south of the Australian continent, facing the mighty Southern Ocean and Antarctica. As a freelance writer he worked for a long time for the Australian Antarctic Program. He became concerned that the many issues associated with climate change – the science, the politics, the economics – were not getting enough exposure among the general public of Tasmania. As a presenter for Al Gore’s Climate Project since 2006 he has spoken to more than 9,000 Australians about our environmental and energy challenges. Since September 11, 2007 he has written a weekly column, Climate Challenge, published in Tasmania’s major newspaper, The Mercury. In April 2009 he founded the blog site Climate Tasmania.

Copyright 2010 Peter Boyer