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Apr 08 2012

It’s the climate, stupid

It is now clear that the Australian Government’s main priorities for this year are getting the budget into surplus, and removing regulations to appease businesses. Both objectives are leading the Government to cut climate change and renewable energy policies. It seems they have chosen to completely ignore the climate crisis.

I should at this point restate a fact which should be obvious by now, yet is still denied by many: in the words of US paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, “global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” We need urgent and radical change to the global economy. The extent of climate impacts centuries and millennia from now will be determined by policy decisions taken in the near future. The Government’s own Climate Commission has identified the 2010s as the “Critical Decade” for climate change mitigation. To avoid passing tipping points for dangerous climate change, humanity must return the Earth to energy balance, which means reducing atmospheric CO2 to ~350 ppm. Because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, to reduce its concentration everybody needs to cut fossil fuel emissions to zero or near-zero within a couple of decades. We cannot afford to burn most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. The central solution is to switch to 100% renewable energy as rapidly as possible.

Credit where it’s due: last year, the Gillard Government legislated a carbon price (albeit one riddled with flaws) which will come into effect from July. Gillard has also promised a Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). These policies are a first step but more decisive action is urgently needed. But business groups are lobbying hard for the carbon price to be watered down or scrapped, and pushing even harder for the CEFC and all other non-market climate policies to be cancelled. And the government is listening.

Exhibit A: Wrong priorities

Neoliberals paint all governments as “wasteful” and oversized in order to win support for their free-market ideology. In reality, contemporary governments are constantly cutting spending and regulations, and the Gillard Government is no exception. The Government is obsessed with getting its budget into surplus, which will require more spending cuts than any Australian budget in history. In addition, Gillard recently announced a Business Advisory Forum where the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will consult businesses about which regulations they want abolished. In both cases, past experience suggests climate change and renewable energy policies are likely to be first on the cutting board.

Exhibit B: Bad behavior in Durban

Australia supported the US in promoting weak legal language and delay at the climate talks in Durban, South Africa in December. Meanwhile, Australia colluded with New Zealand on a creative accounting amendment which critics argue would reward Australia even if our land clearing emissions increase. If I understand correctly, Australia’s proposed amendment was noted but has not yet been adopted. Australia has refused to be bound by Kyoto commitment period 2 unless it gets its way on this matter. When an Australian journalist asked Climate Change Minister Greg Combet for an explanation, he did not satisfactorily answer the question, essentially saying we should just trust the Government to do the right thing. After the conference, Combet defended Canada’s appalling decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol.

Exhibit C: Energy policy

The main objective of any government energy plan in 2012 should be transitioning to zero-carbon energy sources, as is urgently needed. Yet the core aim of the Gillard Government’s recent Draft Energy White Paper is to ensure Australia digs up its fossil fuel resources. Australia’s already gargantuan fossil fuel exports could quadruple in the next decade, and the Government seems happy to sit back and watch the profits flow in. Another major focus of the document is on deregulation of the electricity market (enthusing at length that the market delivers the most efficient outcomes). It insists that new power generation should be privately funded, disadvantaging the emerging renewable energy industry. When it finally gets around to climate change, it recommends cutting non-market policies like state-level feed-in tariffs. The federal government has consistently refused to countenance a national feed-in tariff, despite most of the world’s renewable energy having been delivered by feed-in tariffs. The legislation to create CEFC is missing in action, and the funding will take years to ramp up.

Exhibit D: Cutting climate programs

The Government is desperately cutting to achieve its promised budget surplus. This week, the Climate Change Department announced it will lose 300 of its 900 employees. This is just the latest of a series of ill-advised cuts. In the 2010 election campaign, Labor raided then-existing climate programs to fund new climate policies for them to announce. In January 2011, the Government attempted to cut Solar Flagships to pay for the Queensland floods, apparently blind to the irony of cutting a climate change policy to pay for an extreme weather event. On 28 February this year, without warning, the Government cancelled its solar hot water rebate, effective as of the announcement. Solar companies have solar hot water systems in stock, expecting to be able to sell them, and now abruptly they can’t. There have been countless other examples.

Exhibit E: Missing rhetoric

The preceding Rudd Government, for all its faults, did get one thing right: its messaging. Rudd explained the scientific basis for action on climate change. But Gillard no longer talks much about climate change. A recent study concluded “media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the [US] public perception of the threat associated with climate change”. The Gillard Government is failing in this regard: by ignoring climate change, they are implicitly telling the public that it’s not a serious problem. In doing so they are shooting themselves in the foot. The public will not support climate action, even Labor’s meager policy, on the basis that it might not be bad for the economy; they must understand the reason why.

A note on the Liberal Party

I spend a lot of time criticizing the federal Labor Government, so I should point out the state Liberal governments are even worse. They are cutting climate programs at a faster rate than Labor. State feed-in tariffs have been slashed. Victoria and New South Wales have introduced highly restrictive exclusion zones for wind farms (there are no such restrictions on the mining industry). The new Queensland government’s first action is to start dismantling all of the state’s climate policies, and defund a federal Solar Flagships project.

The federal Liberal Party wants to repeal the carbon price and Clean Energy Finance Corporation, though it claims to support the Renewable Energy Target. When Gillard announced her Business Advisory Forum, Liberal leader Tony Abbott announced an audit of government spending. The party also promises to cut 12,000 government jobs, and abolish the entire Climate Change Department. (Although they don’t actually use the word “jobs”: Abbott calls it a “reduction of 12,000 in the size of the Commonwealth government payroll”. Funny how he doesn’t call lost mining jobs a “reduction in the size of the mining industry payroll”. But I digress.) The Liberals’ climate change policy is a non-policy, and one wonders how it will be implemented without a Climate Change Department.

Conclusion

Climate change is not just another issue: if we don’t solve the climate crisis, everything else the Government has achieved could be for nothing. It cannot wait until next year. Labor is looking likely to lose the next election anyway, so if they really are serious about climate change they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Here are a few ideas for what the Government could do:

  1. Stop obsessing over the mirage of a budget surplus. If the Government continues to insist on spending cuts, it can start by cutting the billions of dollars it spends annually on perverse fossil fuel subsidies, which are many times greater than the amount it spends on renewable energy. If Labor stops dreaming of a surplus, that money could be spent on climate change.
  2. Stop playing a destructive role in international negotiations. At the very least, agree to be legally bound and stop trying to distort the accounting rules. Or to be positively constructive: raise Australia’s emissions target, cough up climate funding for developing countries, and support a global goal of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm.
  3. Rewrite the Energy White Paper to plan for a 100% renewable energy future, and to phase out fossil fuel exports. Establish a federal feed-in tariff. Prioritize the CEFC and fund the construction of a solar power plant.
  4. Stop cutting climate policies.
  5. Acknowledge the climate crisis is serious, urgent, and necessitates radical change.

In 50 years’ time, nobody will care whether the Gillard Government’s budget was in surplus or deficit. Today’s governments will ultimately be judged on what they did, or did not do, about climate change. Who cares about budgeting when we face an enormous threat to civilization?

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