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Jul 01 2016

Australian election: say no to the polluting major parties

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for another election. It’s clear that neither of the major parties will act in the public interest. Still, it’s the one time in three years when we get a say about the future of our country, so here’s how I’ll be voting and you should too.

The most pressing issue facing Australia and the world is human-caused global warming. In 2015, atmospheric CO2 reached 400 ppm, the highest level in around 15 million years, and global temperature exceeded 1°C above preindustrial, around the warmest in 10,000 years. 2016 is on track to be even hotter, with February hitting a record-smashing 1.95°C above preindustrial. Coral reefs around the world are dying, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The rate at which human activity is changing the Earth’s climate is without precedent since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. We are already experiencing increasing extreme weather costing human lives and record-drought-driven war in Syria. Worse, we are already passing several tipping points which will amplify carbon emissions and warming, and flood island nations and agricultural river deltas.

An increasing number of the world’s top climate experts are warning we are in a climate emergency. 24 prominent Australians have called for emergency climate action, including scientists, business leaders, a former defence department secretary, and a former chair of the Australian Coal Association. (You can add your name to the petition here.) The statement read:

At the Paris climate talks, scientists and people from low-lying island states set 1.5ºC of warming as a red line that must not be crossed.

However, earlier this year, the global average temperature spiked past 1.6ºC of warming.

The bleaching of coral reefs around the world, increasing extreme weather events, the melting of large ice sheets and recent venting of methane from thawing permafrost make it abundantly clear that the earth is already too hot.

The future of human civilisation, and the survival of the precious ecosystems on which we depend, now hang in the balance.

There must be an immediate ban on new coal and gas developments and an emergency-speed transition to zero emissions.

We must begin the enormous task of safely drawing down the excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

We call on the new parliament to declare a climate emergency.

But you wouldn’t know it from the campaigns run by the major parties Liberal and Labor. They have barely mentioned climate at all, and that says all you need to know about their priorities.

The battlelines are most easily understood by comparing the targets set by each party. Their 2030 emissions targets relative to 2000 are respectively: Liberals 19-21%, Labor 40%, Greens 60-80% below 2000. And their 2030 renewable energy targets: Liberals 23%, Labor 50%, Greens at least 90%.

But it’s not just about the numbers. For one thing, I question the wisdom of focusing on targets 14 years away – because we are in a climate emergency, we should be aiming for substantial action within a single electoral term, and the Greens come closest to recognizing that. For another, the devil is always in the details of the policies that will be put in place to achieve the targets.

The Liberal government is notorious for having repealed almost every one of Australia’s climate policies, a direction which has continued under Turnbull’s leadership. Turnbull has continued to approve the fossil fuel mining projects that are causing the climate crisis. (Though Galilee Basin coal projects have been jeopardized by a grassroots divestment campaign, coal exports have still risen 250% since 1990 and emissions from them will now total a billion tonnes per year.) In his first budget, Turnbull defunded the $1.3 billion Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Having failed to pass legislation abolishing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Turnbull has raided it to fund a “new” Clean Energy Innovation Fund and a “new” fund for Great Barrier Reef projects. Turnbull has signed up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership which will allow multinationals to sue the government for lost profits. Turnbull has cut funding for climate science, even firing the world’s top sea level expert. And Turnbull tried to censor a scientific report on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Liberals’ only climate policy remains the Renewable Energy Target which the Senate prevented them from fully sabotaging, and the Emissions Reduction Fund which pays polluters for actions that would have happened anyway. This leaves Turnbull with no real plan to meet his emissions target, and if reelected he is likely to commission another review of the renewable energy target.

Some commentators have made much of the possibility that the Emissions Reduction Fund’s “safeguard mechanism” could be tightened post-election to turn it into a baseline-and-credit emissions trading scheme, which would force high-polluting companies to buy carbon offsets. This is something the green business press has long hoped for, but frankly I don’t care. Even if polluters have to buy offsets, the policy will still allow them to continue polluting at only a slightly lower level, to meet Australia’s pathetic target. All that trading does is ensure that emissions are cut in the “least-cost” way, and in our fossil fuel economy the least-cost emissions cuts are likely to be ones that don’t begin any fundamental change to the economic structure.

While Labor’s climate policies appear to have improved a bit since Labor was in government, they remain woefully inadequate in scale and sketchy in detail. Labor has no plan to meet its renewable energy target. Labor vaguely promises to phase out the dirtiest power stations, but have not named any timeframe. Labor will still allow international offsets to be used to meet its emissions target, which makes the target meaningless. Labor’s emissions trading policy is sketchy and I suspect the electricity section of it will follow the same baseline-and-credit model as Turnbull’s alleged “secret ETS”, with the same flaw that it will be unclear whether the purchased emissions reductions would have happened anyway. And I remain highly skeptical of Labor’s commitment to climate action – after all, Rudd’s climate policies looked okay before he was elected in 2007, but then fossil fuel lobbyists put the devil in the detail.

The Nick Xenophon Team’s policies are roughly similar to Labor’s.

There’s a reason why in this election Labor and Liberal are spending so much time attacking the Greens rather than each other, and why the Daily Telegraph backs Labor against the Greens – the Greens are their real enemy. Only the Greens have a comprehensive plan to meet their renewable energy target. Only the Greens want to ban new coal and gas projects. Only the Greens have a plan to phase out coal power stations while protecting coal workers. Only the Greens support an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

Only the Greens support banning political donations, publically funded election campaigns and a national anti-corruption watchdog. Over the past three years, the Liberals have accepted $2 million from fossil fuel companies, Labor $1 million, and the Nationals $200,000. Most Labor candidates have refused to sign a pledge against fossil fuel industry donations. It is mainly Greens and some independent and minor party candidates who have signed the pledge.

If you don’t like the Greens, I’d advise voting for one of the few other minor parties or independents with a serious climate policy. In my assessment, the only other parties strongly committed to climate action are the Save the Planet Party (the most committed), Renewable Energy Party, Socialist Alliance, and Animal Justice Party. Several other parties vaguely support some level of climate action within a broad suite of policies, though it is unclear whether climate would be a priority issue for them if elected so I can only cautiously endorse them: Science Party, Australian Progressives, Sustainable Australia, Arts Party, Pirate Party, and Australian Sex Party. From memory the Secular Party also has a reasonable policy, but I can’t check because their website is down for some reason. There’s also Health Australia, who say they support fossil fuel phaseout but seem unclear in their understanding of climate science and promote unscientific medical practices.

All other parties at best ignore climate change, or deny the science and oppose action. Denialist parties include Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Citizens Electoral Council, Family First, Christian Democratic Party, Australian Liberty Alliance, Australian Christians, and probably others.

The major parties are trying to make you think that voting Greens is a waste of time because they supposedly won’t do deals with the Greens. This is bullshit, as explained here. Voting for the Greens or another minor party is not a “wasted vote”, because if the minor party candidate is not elected your preference will flow through to your preferred major party candidate. I would advise preferencing Greens ahead of Labor, and Labor ahead of Liberal. Considering how close the election result is predicted to be, a Greens vote is more likely to make a difference than ever.

Personally I’m hoping for a hung parliament which would hopefully put the Greens back in the game. Better for policy to be based on deals done in public with elected Greens than by faceless people behind closed doors with unelected fossil fuel lobbyists. And if there is any lingering support for climate action within Turnbull’s psyche, it will not be brought out by the conservatives in his party but by the Greens through the Parliament.

The apparent battle between Liberal and Labor is mere theatre. Whichever of the major parties you vote for, the fossil fuel industry wins. Vote Greens, or for another party that takes climate seriously.

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