Thursday, 22 May 2014

Australia's gone cold on climate change action

"Is it just me or is it getting a bit balmy in here?"
Australia’s eastern seaboard is basking in a record-breaking stretch of warm days, two weeks out from the official start of winter. Everybody’s talking about the weather, but hardly anyone's mentioning the climate. As in - change, action, what are we doing? We’re the well-fed lobsters in the slowly boiling pot – screaming at the injustices of the budget to our hip pockets, analysing the nuances of a wink and ignorant of policy that sets out how we’ll play our part in averting a looming climate crisis (not using the term loosely).  

The budget is tough. It’s about heavy lifting, doing your bit and if you don’t, they’ll be not-so-subtle pressure applied to make sure you do – earn or learn, get a job or work for the dole, type of thing. But curiously, the one policy area where sticks would work more effectively than carrots doesn’t have any. Climate change. The Artic ice cap is melting at record levels. Local councils across the country are modelling the impact on sea rises on their coastal communities. Businesses are factoring in the impact of climate change into their strategic plans. But the Government is silent. And as a society, we’re complicit.

In his 3500-word Budget speech, Joe Hockey did not mention ‘climate’ once. In fact, he neglected to allude to any policies regarding ‘Direct Action’, the Coalition’s policy on climate change. The plan is to establish the Emissions Reductions Fund to pay big emitters to build new 5-star energy rated offices, or something. Who would know? The Government will also plant 20 million trees, which will supposedly drink in all the carbon from the atmosphere. Where are these trees going and who’s planting them? The Coalition rarely talks about its Direct Action policy, because we’ve given up holding them to account on climate change.

They’ve also appointed climate skeptic, Dick Warburton, to review Australia’s previously committed to Renewable Energy Target. I don’t mean to be skeptical about a skeptic, but I doubt he’s going to recommend we stick to the current target, let alone a higher one. “China’s making more mess!” will come the inevitable argument.

Some days it’s hard not to feel sorry for Malcolm Turnbull, the man who staked his Opposition leadership on supporting the former Rudd Government’s push for an Emissions Trading Scheme, and lost, watching the whole war on climate change be abandoned shortly afterwards. In 2010, Turnbull  told Parliament, “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.”

It’s laughable to think how far away Australians now are from the idealistic, passionate commitment to climate change that existed only a few short years ago. Before the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd declared, “Climate change is the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.” And then the economic grim reaper – the GFC – killed off efforts to do anything other than focus on getting people out buying white goods again.

“Even Howard…” is a phrase used at the moment to compare Abbott’s performance against that of his self-reported political idol. Well, “even Howard” kicked off Australia’s climate change action in 2007 by laying the groundwork for an emissions trading scheme.

Meanwhile in the US, the Obama administration has just released a very slick, comprehensive study titled the National Climate Assessment. The President is on the road debating its findings with television weather forecasters, because despite their lack of scientific credentials, 62 per cent of Americans trust them on climate change far more than they do climate scientists.  
While Tony Abbott stands with smirking lips beside state Premiers, declaring himself the Infrastructure Prime Minister, President Obama is determined his legacy will be to finally do something meaningful about his country’s contribution to climate change.  The Australian Government is preparing to skittle the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, each of which was designed to promote, regulate and remove barriers to high polluters switching to clean energy and which were already contributing to a reduction in emissions.
Next month, the US Environment Protection Agency will launch the most dramatic anti-pollution regulation in a generation, with a sweeping crackdown on carbon. While our government throws our cash at dirty polluters hoping they’ll come up with something novel, Obama is forcing the behavioural change, because sometimes, tough love is what’s needed. Perhaps this is one of the advantages of knowing you can’t run for a third term in the US – short-sighted, politically motivated parochial interests give way to a desire to leave a legacy that will endure for generations beyond.
In his Budget speech, Hockey finished by saying, “As Australians, we must not leave our children worse off. That’s not fair. That is not our way.” He could have been talking about climate action.
But he wasn’t.
Diana Elliott.

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