Abbott can run, but can’t hide from climate

So far it’s been all bad news on climate change from Australia’s new Liberal/National Coalition government. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is in the process of tearing down Australia’s climate policy regime at a hectic pace.

The first casualty has been the Climate Commission, an independent government-funded body set up by the previous government to communicate the science of climate change to the public. It was officially abolished on 19 September. Environment Minister Greg Hunt claimed the Climate Commission was unnecessary and that his department will now provide advice on climate change. I’ve been slow to comment on this because, well, it should be pretty obvious that it was a stupid decision. Shutting down an independent source of information is like cutting out part of the country’s brain.

But I’m pleased to report that this particular part of the sad tale has a happy ending. Today the Climate Commission was reinstated in the form of the Climate Council, a non-profit organization funded by donations. By this afternoon, 7,200 people had donated $218,000. You can donate here.

The would-be second casualty is the Climate Change Authority, another independent government-funded body set up by Labor and the Greens during the last parliament, to periodically review the government’s climate policies. But in another silver lining, yesterday Hunt admitted the Climate Change Authority (CCA) will be able to continue its work until the Government can pass repeal legislation. This means the CCA’s current Caps and Targets Review will be allowed to release its draft report next month.

The Climate Commission and CCA are just two of many environmental institutions and policies in the sights of the new government, which is preparing to consolidate 33 climate programs into just three. Friends of the Earth provides a handy summary of the Abbott government’s announcements on the environment so far. Many of these points could be topics for whole other blog posts, but the following is just a quick overview of what the Abbott government has been doing:

  • 9 Sep: Abbott instructed the public service to begin drafting legislation to repeal the carbon price. (More info.)
  • 10 Sep: The Government confirmed cuts to its own proposed climate policy (the “Direct Action Plan”) which were announced shortly before the election. (More info.)
  • 11 Sep: After the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) ceased loans in a plea to be spared, Hunt reaffirmed the Coalition intends to abolish it. (More info.)
  • 17 Sep: Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the government wants to ensure “every molecule of gas that can come out of the ground does so”, threatening to remove mining permits from those who do not use them. (More info.)
  • (Not listed by Friends of the Earth:) 22 Sep: Hunt announces a downward revision in the estimated amount of emissions it is necessary to avoid (relative to business-as-usual) to achieve Australia’s emissions target of a 5% reduction by 2020. (More info.)
  • 23 Sep: Macfarlane backflipped on an election commitment to support NSW’s laws preventing coal seam gas exploration within 2km of a residential area. (More info.)
  • 23 Sep: The Government announced its intention to outlaw environmentalist consumer boycott campaigns. (More info.)

Another important point not mentioned by Friends of the Earth: The Coalition remains open to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other free trade agreements, and Abbott has already discussed this with Obama.

In a recent conversation, a friend of mine compared Abbott’s behaviour to a spoiled child throwing a tantrum whenever he can’t get his way. But I think Abbott’s conduct is more method than madness. In a previous post, I identified a number of tactics which I believe the right-wing uses to manipulate the perceived political centre in their favour. Three of the tactics I named were:

  • Persistent opposition to all policies proposed by your opponent. This will make your opponent appear unwilling to compromise. The Republicans have used this tactic against Obama to great effect (not that I’m a fan of Obama either). In Australia, the Rudd Labor government used it against the Greens.
  • Starve the beast: Defund your opponents, or change the rules to restrict what they can legally do. This strategy can be seen in right-wing attempts to restrict the activities of organizations that are either left-wing (eg. trade unions) or perceived as being so (eg. scientists).
  • Echo chamber: Create your own media universe insulated from reality. In the US, conservatives have built what Rachel Maddow calls “the alternate self-contained right-wing media universe”, in which there is no global warming, the world is less than ten thousand years old, and Obama is a socialist with a fake birth certificate. They are also constantly fighting to have schools indoctrinate children in the same propaganda.

The Abbott government’s actions are consistent with these tactics. Indeed, the move against consumer boycotts is an attempt to prevent environmentalists from starving their opponents, namely companies destroying the environment.

No matter what Abbott does, he can’t wish away the reality of climate change. Later this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its fifth assessment report (AR5). The report is expected to be weak and out-of-date, and there has already been much misleading reporting from the Murdoch media, but it will reaffirm with greater-than-ever confidence what climate science have known for almost two decades: that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet. And the Climate Council will be there to explain it to laypeople.

Abbott’s actions may succeed in advantaging the right-wing, but in the long run shutting out reality will not end well for anyone.

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