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Australia’s Hazardous Road To Climate Action

By Peter Boyer

04 November, 2010

Julia Gillard (Prime Minister), Tony Abbott (leader of the Opposition),
and Senator Bob Brown (leader of the Australian Greens)
Photo collage by Peter Boyer, founder of Climate Tasmania

We are a contradictory species, and no more so than here in Australia. The nation that gave birth to green politics is also among the planet’s top carbon polluters on a per–capita basis – on some measures even ahead of the United States. For decades Australian conservationists have been at the forefront of global debate on the marine environment, ozone depletion, protection of natural areas and deforestation; yet we are the world’s leading coal exporter. We were leaders in the push to establish global framework conventions on climate and biodiversity in the early 1990s, yet our carbon emission curve continues to get steeper and we lead the world in our rate of species extinction.

The fault–lines were there long ago. The year that saw the world’s first Green party (the United Tasmania Group) established – 1972 – also saw publication of the Club of Rome’s landmark study of global sustainability, The Limits to Growth. In Australia no less than in Europe and the United States, the Club of Rome business–as–usual projections (broadly, a precipitous decline in global economic activity some time in the first half of the 21st century) were greeted with scorn and derision. The Australian government’s 1988 support of a world push to stop the use of ozone–depleting chemicals was criticised as an over–reaction, just as in 1997 its signing of the Kyoto climate agreement was hit with a barrage from mining and manufacturing interests defending their freedom to pollute.

Australian big business lobbied John Howard’s conservative government to reject the Kyoto Protocol; the result was that in 2002, following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, Australia announced that it would not ratify the agreement it had supported less than five years earlier. For years Howard refused to debate the issue of human–induced global warming, finally producing a carbon pricing policy in 2007 when it became obvious that his electoral fortunes would suffer if he didn’t. But it was too little: his “climate agnosticism” was a big factor in his loss of the 2007 election to the Labor Party under Kevin Rudd. In the process he became only the second prime minister in Australian history to lose his own parliamentary seat.

Just as climate policy (or lack of it) was the downfall of Howard, so too was Rudd stymied by his own inability to articulate a clear path to lower carbon emissions. After his star turn at the Bali climate convention a week after he was elected, he pushed hard for a comprehensive cap–and–trade scheme, which he called the “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).” The CPRS drew on the work of Professor Ross Garnaut, an economist appointed in 2007 by Rudd and other Labor leaders to investigate the most cost–effective way of combating rising carbon emissions. But by late 2009 the scheme had become hopelessly compromised by a desire to keep business on their side by offering billions of dollars worth of free permits to continue to pollute. Even before it went to its final vote in December 2009, the CPRS was a colossal legislative white–elephant.

But on the eve of the vote, the climate change debate scored its second political victim. The determination of progressive opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull to support action on a carbon price was his downfall. He was toppled in a sudden leadership challenge, a single vote casting him aside for conservative Tony Abbott, who a few weeks earlier had described the science of climate change as “absolute crap.”

Abbott went on the attack, branding Rudd’s proposed cap–and–trade scheme as a “great big new tax.” Notwithstanding his past public attacks on climate science, he didn’t go so far as to abandon climate policy altogether, promising that his government would seek to mitigate carbon emissions through tree–planting and incentives to businesses and individuals – measures that Ross Garnaut characterised as Soviet–style command–and–control approach. Rudd and his party felt the pressure of the Abbott attacks on the emissions trading legislation. Late in April, under pressure from Labor Party colleagues spooked about declining public support in the polls, he announced it was to be delayed for a further two years. It was to prove a fatal decision.

The announcement only seemed to make matters worse, with the polls showing a steepening decline in voter support. With the next election due within months, desperate measures seemed in order for the parliamentary party. The d’enouement came in an unforgettable night late in June, with parliament about to enter its winter recess. Ironically, the same colleagues who had enjoined Rudd to put off his cap–and–trade scheme led the clinical putsch which over a frantic 15 hours – including a sleepless night for many of the participants – deposed him and elevated his former deputy, Julia Gillard, into the leadership. Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister.

Abbott resumed his anti–carbon–tax attack on Gillard. In the ensuing election campaign his assault seemed to be gaining some traction, helped along by a relentless xenophobic campaign against rising numbers of boats off Australia’s northwest coast carrying refugees seeking to land in Australia. It was an election campaign many of us would like to forget, but it produced a parliament that for the first time in my longish lifetime promised significant change – for the better – to the way we govern ourselves in this outpost of democracy. With that came promise of a more decisive approach to climate policy.

With independent MPs holding the balance of power in the lower house of parliament, Gillard and Abbott were forced to bargain with them to win government. It was a battle of wits and diplomacy that Abbott, ever the pugilist (boxing was his chosen sport as an Oxford University don), never looked like winning against Gillard’s feminine charm. The result was a re–elected Gillard Labor government, without the significant lower–house majority it had enjoyed under Rudd, but with a new lease on life courtesy of some strategic alliances with lower–house independents. It also enjoyed support from the Australian Greens party, which in the election had increased its vote all over the country, winning its first lower–house seat and, crucially, the balance of power in the upper house, the Senate.

So here we are on this spring morning in early November 2010. The Labor government still has no scheme in place to put a price on carbon. Its various schemes to support renewable energy and encourage energy–efficiency, taken as a whole, cannot reasonably be expected to put a dent in the inexorable rise of our national carbon emissions. Many other nations have now pulled well ahead of Australia in progress to establish carbon pricing measures, notably including China, India, Japan, and Australia’s neighbour across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand. Not a good look.

And yet... Under Julia Gillard, the Australian government has shown signs that it is prepared to shift ground on climate policy, perhaps even to embrace an interim carbon tax arrangement – similar to James Hansen’s “fee–and–dividend” proposal – that the Greens had taken to the election, in the likely event that a market–based mechanism will take a long time to bed down. Despite no let–up in the campaign by those seeking to discredit the science of anthropogenic global warming, Gillard and her government, along with the independents and Greens supporting her, have continued to support policies to lower carbon emissions. While we still have a lot of catching up to do, we have many elements in place for significant progress over the next year or so.

This is hardly something to cheer about, but when it comes to national action on climate, we (along with most of the rest of the developed world) are still well ahead of the United States which has been the benchmark, for better or worse, for so many of our nation’s developments since World War II. Gillard’s government has a pretty good chance of securing parliamentary support for carbon pricing policies over coming years, and while some individual states of the Union have made big commitments and real legislative progress, the United States as a whole remains incapable of moving anywhere, stuck in a deadlock between executive and legislature which the mid–term election only made matters worse.

Perhaps Australia can help here. The country which, outside North America, has most in common with the United States may be able to light a path for those congressional leaders who seem incapable of seeing what science has for so long sought to make clear to us: that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm and the seas’ acid–alkaline balance to shift, and that if we don’t change our ways we are on a collision course with nature that we can only lose. Perhaps Julia Gillard and her parliamentary colleagues can gain some courage from their situation and force the debate out into the open, where naysayers can be scrutinised and their arguments revealed for the sham they are.

What of the rest of us? We can continue as we are, improving our personal situation, supporting each other and our communities, switching off lights and appliances and installing our solar hot water systems, taking our exercise in walking and cycling, supporting public transport, and adjusting our minds and bodies to living within natural limits. And we can lobby our political leaders to take heart and take a stand for the planet. Apart from that, we can only hope.

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.

The article was first published in Climatestorytellers.org and republished with the kind permission of its editor Subhankar Banerjee

Copyright 2010 Peter Boyer