Monday, 15 July 2013

Global climate change politics: an inconvenient truth



Polar bears. Bloody whingers.

On Sunday, Greens Leader Christine Milne called it on the ABC’s Insiders program: “In all this discussion about changing to a flexible price, no-one is talking about the impacts on the climate.” And she’s right.

Barely a month ago, President Obama gave a speech about climate change that reframed the challenge as a global, imminent concern that threatens not only our livelihood, but our life. 
It was the sort of impassioned plea that Malcolm Turnbull made in Parliament in 2010 – about preserving the planet for future generations. 

Turnbull said, “Climate change is the ultimate long-term problem. We have to make decisions today, bear costs today so that adverse consequences are avoided, dangerous consequences are avoided many decades into the future…”

That was three years ago. Australia was still reeling from the Black Saturday bushfires, where a record number of people lost their lives in a raging inferno that followed a two-month, unprecedented heatwave. In 2011, Japan shuddered from the fifth most powerful earthquake in Earth’s history, Christchurch also crumbled, and Queensland and Victoria were inundated with floods. Climate change seemed palpable. It was happening all around us and even as skeptics brushed them off as cyclical events, we shifted uneasily in our seats and wanted something to be done.

Now, America is feeling that same sense of urgency. As Obama said in his speech, the country has had its hottest year on record, the artic ice cap is melting to record levels and extreme weather events have cost the country millions.

But in Australia, we’ve become complacent. Victoria has a desalination plant that the Naphine Government has said we won’t need to draw from until at least 2016, because our dams are up to 74 per cent capacity. We whinge about the plant’s cost, forgetting how recently we would anxiously eye the ‘water storage’ calculator on billboards, watching levels plummet to below 35 per cent.

Do we even remember why we have a carbon tax/price in the first place?

Let’s recap. In 2006, Al Gore presented one of the most powerful PowerPoint presentations of all time in the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Suddenly, work that scientists had been quietly toiling away at for years became of interest to the mainstream. It was compelling stuff. We watched as the graphs soared into unchartered territory and we emerged alarmed and afraid of what we were doing to the Earth.

“DO SOMETHING!” the masses screamed. And governments did. Well, they started to. The British government released the Stern Review in October 2006, outlining the effect of climate change on the world’s economy. In Australia, John Howard kicked things off in 2007 by laying the groundwork needed to set up an emissions trading scheme, as recommended by the Shergold emissions trading task group.

Before the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd declared, “Climate change is the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.” He was voted in, and then no sooner was the ink dry on his signature to the Kyoto Protocol; he suddenly lost his mojo for the environment that had been so convincing earlier. A new kid had come on stage – the GFC. The message shifted to bugger the planet; we need to get people out buying plasmas again.  So the planned Emissions Trading Scheme that had been worked on for years, and which Malcolm Turnbull had fallen on his sword for in lending bipartisan support to get through, was suddenly off the table in 2010. The greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time could wait another few years (until 2013) said Rudd.

Back then, Rudd’s capitulation on climate change marked a turning point for him in the polls, and soon, the faceless men came for him, quickly installing Gillard, who went into the 2010 election declaring a carbon tax a “never-ever” under her Government. But we know how that turned out, and in fairness, a hung parliament wasn’t on the radar when she said it.

Gillard created a Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, comprising members of the rag-tag Parliament to prepare a report on ways to introduce a carbon price. The result was the Carbon Pricing Scheme introduced on 1 July 2012, which required big emitters to purchase carbon emissions permits at a fixed price for the first two years, after which time the number of available permits would be capped and the price floated in line with an emissions trading scheme. As Milne told Barrie Cassidy on Insiders, the current scheme has been vilified as a ‘tax’, “…when in fact what we legislated was an emissions trading scheme with a fixed price period.” But don't let that get in the way of a good Coalition slogan eh? #bigfatcarbontax

It was part of the Clean Energy Future Plan, which provides investment in clean technologies, support for manufacturers and farmers to reduce their environmental impact, and help for households and businesses to reduce energy consumption and switch to cleaner sources. And it’s working. Just one year in, the Clean Energy Future Report notes that carbon pollution from electricity is down 7.4%, primarily because we’re switching to cleaner sources. The report states: “…renewable energy output increased by almost 30% and the output from the seven most highly-polluting coal generators was down 14% from the same period in 2011-12.” 

That’s a pretty good result, huh? So why aren’t we hearing more about this? Rudd has announced he’ll scrap the second fixed-price year and move straight to the floating price. This means it will cost a lot less for big emitters to pollute, just as their emitting behavior was starting to change.

Tony Abbott’s been imploring me to read his Real Solutions Plan, so I had a flick through to find out what his vision is for the climate. In 50 pages, ‘climate’ is mentioned once. The ‘Real Solution’ outlined is to shut down the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), established by the Gillard Government to invest in businesses trying to get innovative clean energy proposals off the ground.  He’ll also suspend the operations of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (no need for a regulator if you’re not collecting the carbon tax anymore).

The (other) Real Solution is to implement the Direct Action Plan on climate change and carbon emissions. But there’s no detail about that whatsoever in the Real Solutions Plan, so I Googled and eventually found it on Greg Hunt’s website. Not the Coalition’s website mind you, but I digress. The plan has slightly curled leaves on the front page, which seems like a good omen, but in actual fact, the leaves represent the entire plan. 

Yes, that’s right! The Direct Action Plan is to plant 20 million trees to suck up all the extra carbon being emitted into the atmosphere! Well, that, a few incentives for old and dirty businesses to clean up their act. No sticks here, just leaves and carrots.  Oh, and here’s the kicker. Abbott will scrap the carbon tax but keep the compensation to households (so will Rudd). Bills will go down. Power usage will go up and the compo cheque’s in the mail so you can go ahead and buy that third plasma TV. Direct Action to not change behaviour. Brilliant work, Tones! No wonder Turnbull said the policy was bullshit

We’ve lost sense of what action on climate change is all about. As Obama repositions the debate from parochial concerns about jobs and rallies Americans to lead the world on creating a greener planet and industries, the political leaders of Australia appeal to our hip pockets, and back away from the hard decisions that are needed to transition industry and attitudes, work once deemed so important.
Fair-weather politics at its worst.  





2 comments:

  1. Good points well made. The climate conversation in this country has gone out the window and both parties seem intent on keeping the carbon compo regardless of the fact that lowering the price means less oncost. A joke.

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