Stop saying yes: Where we’re at today

This is the seventh in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

Throughout 2011, the Say Yes campaign uncritically sucked up to Labor, and now we will pay the price. Labor may have been a temporary ally in the battle for a carbon price, but in the larger war they are not our friend. More decisive action (in Australia and worldwide) is urgently needed to stop global warming from spiraling out of control, but now Australia has a carbon tax the Gillard Government is completely ignoring climate change.

The main priority in this year’s budget was returning to surplus. In the Durban climate talks, Australia advocated delay, weak legal language, and creative accounting. The core aim of Labor’s Draft Energy White Paper is to ensure Australia digs up its fossil fuel resources, which would render the carbon tax no more than window-dressing for expanding the fossil fuel industry.

Australia’s largest contribution to global warming is our fossil fuel exports, responsible for more emissions than all domestic activity. Those exports continue to expand relentlessly regardless of any domestic carbon price, which will not cover emissions from the burning of fossil fuels after they leave our borders. This April Newcastle exported 11.8 million tonnes of coal, a new monthly record. National fossil fuel exports could quadruple in the next decade, making Australia’s exported emissions twice those of Saudi Arabia. In Queensland alone, mining companies are planning mines and infrastructure to extract nearly a billion tonnes per year of coal and gas and ship it through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The excuses for fossil fuel exports don’t stand up to scrutiny: our exports are our responsibility. Yet the Government seems happy to sit back and watch the profits flow in.

Labor politicians passionately defend the fossil fuel industry against any attack. Last month, Labor’s National President, Jenny McAllister, told a hostile audience at the Climate Action Summit 2012: “My judgment is that starting a fight with mainstream Australia about shutting down an industry that they believe is essential to economic prosperity is not the right fight to pick at this time.” This justification ignores that Labor actively promotes the belief the industry is essential, and raises the question: when does McAllister believe is the right time to pick that fight?

Predictably, Labor is now using the carbon price as an argument against any additional action. Environment Minister Tony Burke said in March the carbon price is “the way to make sure that as a nation and as a planet that we do the right thing by the atmosphere. I’m not supportive for a minute of further actions on top of that, that are simply designed to undermine people who are doing their jobs and doing them legally.” Climate activists have played into Labor’s hands by failing to be effective advocates for more ambitious action.

Even our meager achievements are at risk. The fossil fuel lobby is like a Hydra: every time you think you’re beginning to beat them they come at you from another direction with a different strategy. While their plan to lock in inadequate emissions targets appears to have failed, their latest strategy is to kill all green policies. Business is waging a multi-pronged attack on Australian climate policy: lobbying hard for the carbon price to be weakened or scrapped; while steadily chipping away at other federal and state-level emissions reduction policies, renewable energy incentives, and environmental regulations, on the justification they duplicate the carbon price. There is a very real danger Australia could soon end up with no limits whatsoever on greenhouse gas emissions.

Business is acting most obviously through the Liberal Party, who, if it wins government (which at present looks frighteningly likely), has pledged to destroy practically every climate policy (though it claims to support the Renewable Energy Target of 20% by 2020). Liberal state governments are already taking the razor to state policies. However, Labor too is constantly cutting green policies. At April’s Business Advisory Forum, Labor promised business it will review the remaining climate policies with a view to axing them, as well as abolishing some or all federal environmental protection powers so projects only need to be approved by state governments. Independent MP Rob Oakeshott has threatened to renege on an agreement to include a price floor in the emissions trading phase (though he was fortunately defeated in his attempt to make native forest burning eligible for renewable energy subsidies). The legislation to create CEFC is yet to go through the Senate, and its funding will not begin flowing until around the time of the next election. Meanwhile Kevin Rudd, should Labor ever reinstate him as Prime Minister, may try to lock in emissions targets without independent advice from the Climate Change Authority, though he’d need to get legislation through Parliament to do that.

A Liberal Government would similarly need to pass legislation to abolish the carbon price and Clean Energy Finance Corporation. A typical Australian federal election includes all House of Representatives seats but only half the Senate seats. If the Liberals win control of both houses at the next election, they should have no difficulty passing legislation. If the Senate blocks government legislation, the constitution allows the government to call an election for all seats in both houses of Parliament. It would take time for the Liberals to follow this process to its conclusion; estimates of how much time vary widely; but it can be done. Furthermore, the issue of whether cancelling emissions permits is an acquisition of property may not be an impediment, as the Liberals argue it will not be necessary to cancel the permits: businesses would keep their permits but wouldn’t have to pay for them anymore. The Clean Energy Future, instead of being a first step, would become a footnote in Australian history.

I hope I’m wrong, and our pragmatic victory will act as a wedge to change the Australian political landscape. But that won’t happen by itself.

In my conclusion I consider: where to from here?

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  1. […] series is up to seven parts, James noting: Predictably, Labor is now using the carbon price as an argument against any additional action. […]

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