Thursday, 14 January 2010

Poor climate for real action

Canberra Times
Monday 11/1/2010 Page: 9
Opinion - Jim Douglas

Voters know that switching to the Opposition would replace a policy of futility with one of stupidity.

The Copenhagen circus has folded its tent, leaving disappointed those who - naively, perhaps - had begun to think that enough national leaders might have become sufficiently worried about global warming to venture a global rather than parochial vote on this issue. Among the realists, argument will continue as to whether the glass is now half-full (any multilateral start on the road to emissions reduction is good) or half-empty (lowered expectations have now been locked in).

In Australia, it is likely that significant numbers of those people who are seriously concerned about climate change will have been appalled by the performance of both the Government and the Opposition on this issue. The Rudd Government was content to sit by for months prior to the Copenhagen conference, allowing the opposition to wedge itself on the issue of the carbon pollution reduction scheme (a tactic which, ironically, revealed an Opposition politician, Malcolm Turnbull, as possessing genuine political courage).

The effect of the Government's strange lassitude has been that debate on the nature of the CPRS in the Opposition ranks has reverted to questioning of the fundamental reality of climate change itself. This has allowed the unscientific nonsense being peddled by climate change denialists to gain access to a political and public audience that they probably could not have dreamed of reaching a year ago.

So here we are, two-thirds of the way through the Government's first term and after all the money spent on policy reviews from Garnaut onwards, and yet genuine understanding of the nature of the CPRS remains at a low ebb amongst the general public in Australia. This is not helped by the fact that the Government has heavily compromised the potential efficacy of the cap-and-trade system through massive subsidies to offset financial hardship amongst the heaviest polluters, increasing public suspicion that the whole CPRS proposal is a hoax. Just try opening a conversation on the climate issue at any normal social gathering, and see what happens.

Initially, there will be genuine statements of concern about climate change. However, these will soon be displaced by expressions of frustration at the impenetrably ambiguous stance of the Government, and concern - building in many cases to anger - about what is taken to be the likely ineffectiveness of the CPRS itself. When the Government does bother to talk to the public about how emissions reduction will work in Australia, it inevitably mentions clean coal technology, but anyone following this matter will know that this is many years away from implementation, and likely even then to be fiendishly expensive to operate.

Has the Government even asked itself the question of how to reduce - now-the amount of coal-fired power that is used to serve peak period demand in Australia? This is demand that could be met (and is, to a minor extent) by lower emission gas-fired plants and by the range of renewable options, including wind and sun.

Think where we might be if the enormous amount of money the Government intends to lavish on the high emitters (compared to the tokenistic levels of funding being provided for renewable energy development) was directed instead to competitive grants aimed at replacing coal-fired energy during peak demand periods. At least this would look like a start, rather than the present unseemly reverse. The reality that dares not speak its name in the corridors of Parliament House is that significant progress towards emissions reduction in Australia must include de-commissioning some coal fired power plants - permanently, and soon - rather than waiting around for some sort of technological miracle to solve the problem.

The retreaded Opposition under its new leader is even less likely than the Government to address any of this. Tony Abbott's only strategy is to milk the negative sentiment which has built around the climate issue during the long absence of the Government from the scene. His stated approach, of directly funding low emission technologies without any other market mechanisms to change incentives, is economic nonsense - as he must know (and as his climate spokesman, Greg Hunt, certainly knows very well). Combine this with the steady drumbeat on doubts about the realities of climate change emanating from the denialist heartland of its ranks, and the Opposition's approach to the climate issue is revealed as shameful and cynical populism, nothing more.

Both sides refuse to discuss the counterfactual to an adequate response to climate change - that is, what it will cost us not to act on this now. It seems we are being asked to forget whatever Lord Stern, Professor Garnaut and others have had to say about paying an affordable price for climate change mitigation now, or facing ruinous costs in the not-too-distant future: costs which will make the "great big tax" Abbott imagines will be the price we pay for climate change mitigation look like the tiniest of imposts.

There is another more immediate political counterfactual possibility which is also being ignored by the Government at present: many moderate Australian voters who supported Labor last time around remain genuinely concerned about global warming, and see themselves now as having nowhere to go: being offered a choice between a Government that will do almost nothing about climate change and an Opposition that will do even less. Obviously, these people would see transferring their vote to the Opposition as simply replacing an act of futility with one of stupidity, and no doubt the Government knows this.

However, what would happen if a sizeable proportion of these people voted informal, thus withholding their vote from the Government and from minor parties whose preferences would flow largely to the Government? This could be an effective threat if the Government knew in advance of their intentions (through polling or direct advice) and perceived that there seemed to be enough people considering this to pose a real electoral problem. The loss of some marginal seats might not cost Labor government but would certainly make its life - and that of Rudd in particular - much more difficult in the next term.

The Government might at least be forced to consider whether to take this risk or to modify its CPRS stance. People who are really concerned about Australia's response to climate change will probably not consider a strategic informal vote a terribly attractive option, but some of them may conclude it could be the best on offer right now.

Jim Douglas has worked with the World Bank, UN agencies and international environmental organisations on forests and natural resources, and is now a consultant on rainforest and forest carbon issues.