Will Turnbull act on climate?

As I write this, it looks like Malcolm Turnbull may replace Tony Abbott as Australian Prime Minister tonight. (Update: Turnbull is now PM!)

Abbott has spent his two years in government doing everything he can to dismantle every climate change policy, and most recently was caught on tape joking about rising sea levels with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. On the other hand, at least Abbott is an obvious enemy of the climate – with him in charge, it’s obvious nothing is being done.

Turnbull may be the most popular politician in Australia. Almost everybody I speak to seems to adore him. Whenever his name crops up in political news and commentary, he’s usually presented in a positive light. Most importantly, he is perceived as a rare green Liberal. He is now much more popular than when he previously led the Liberal Party in 2009, probably because the circumstances in which he lost the leadership made him look like a sort of green martyr. So when I tell people I am distrustful of him, they are astounded. Surely Turnbull would be far preferable to Abbott?

In the past Turnbull has painted himself as a champion of the climate, and for years many in the climate movement have dreamt of him becoming Prime Minister. Yet today, he said he will hold the party line on climate policy mechanisms and targets (and also on same-sex marriage, his other major point of difference with Abbott). He described Abbott’s climate policy as “very well designed, a very, very good piece of work”. In today’s press conference announcing his leadership challenge, he made not one mention of climate. Not one. Rather he talked of “economic leadership”, “economic confidence that business needs”, and free trade agreements – the buzzwords of those who oppose climate action.

Let’s look systematically at the various incarnations of Turnbull that have existed over the years and the various positions he has taken on climate. Which if any of them is “the real Malcolm”? Is he really any different from Abbott? And if Turnbull plans to change climate policy despite his denials, what kind of changes might he make?

Turnbull’s background

Much as he plays the everyman, Turnbull holds the dubious honour of being Australia’s second richest parliamentarian after Clive Palmer. Unlike Palmer he didn’t make his fortune on coal, but his wealth does make one question his willingness to challenge the status quo. He has known Abbott since university.

Turnbull’s business career included defending media mogul Kerry Packer against accusations of tax evasion and organized crime; chairing Axiom Forest Resources which was accused of routinely breaching logging practices; and chairing the Australian branch of controversial investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Turnbull worked for the right-wing Menzies Research Centre during 2002-2003, and was first elected to Parliament in 2004. In his maiden speech he expressed concern that Westerners would die out due to low birth rates, which seems at odds with any green worldview.

Turnbull as Howard’s environment minister

In 2007 Turnbull became the Howard government’s final Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. To be fair, one genuinely good thing Turnbull did was launch the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, though in opposition his party would help the irrigation lobby derail it. Less nobly, Turnbull also gave a $10 million grant to a “rainfall enhancement” company part-owned by his next-door neighbor and campaign donor, despite an independent review concluding the technology didn’t work.

Otherwise, Turnbull was known mainly for his laughable excuses for the Howard government’s inaction on climate change:

The Howard government took to the election an emissions trading scheme (ETS) designed by a taskforce stacked with polluter lobbyists, which shared the flaws of Labor’s ETS. Howard later admitted that his ETS policy was intended to make it look like he was doing something on climate without threatening the fossil fuel industry, yet Turnbull continued to sing its praises for years afterward.

Turnbull did lobby behind the scenes (unsuccessfully) for Howard to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but his argument was not based on the (non-existent) climate impacts of failing to ratify. He reportedly argued “we are going to meet our [Kyoto] targets anyway so it wouldn’t impose any burden on us that we haven’t committed to anyway” but it would increase their vote by 3%. Howard refused (Turnbull allegedly complained “the little c-nt is too f-cking stubborn”). If Turnbull had won the argument, the Liberals might have succeeded in greenwashing themselves enough to win the election.

Turnbull as Liberal Party leader

After the Liberals lost the November 2007 election, Turnbull went on to be elected as leader of the Liberal Party in September 2008. The 15-month period in which Turnbull served as Liberal leader presumably provides the best indication of what Turnbull really stands for, because at that time he did not need to follow another leader’s party line. This is when we would most expect to have seen “the real Malcolm”. Let’s see what Turnbull did with that opportunity.

Turnbull gave the energy and resources portfolio to denialist Ian Macfarlane, the emissions trading portfolio to denialist Andrew Robb, and the environment portfolio to Greg Hunt (now Abbott’s Environment Minister). As his office’s chief of staff he appointed Peta Credlin (now Abbott’s chief of staff) and subsequently denialist Chris Kenny. Turnbull described his position on climate as “the same that we had in government”.

Turnbull announced his first climate policy in a speech in January 2009 as an alternative to Rudd Labor’s ETS, which Turnbull was at that time trying to delay. He followed in Howard’s footsteps by avoiding any mandatory restriction on emissions. Instead he advocated a handful of voluntary programs targeting soil carbon (sound familiar?), energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage (which he again described as “the area of greatest importance”).

Midyear, as Labor pushed ahead with its ETS legislation, Turnbull suddenly changed his tune. The Liberals and independent Nick Xenophon jointly commissioned Danny Price from economic consultant Frontier Economics to model an alternative type of ETS. The Frontier report proposed a baseline-and-credit scheme for the electricity generation sector. Baseline-and-credit is an ETS with no emissions cap – instead companies who pollute below a business-as-usual baseline are credited, while companies who pollute above their baseline are penalized, and they can trade credits with each other.

An ETS is meaningless without an emissions cap (ie. target), because it’s the cap that actually cuts emissions. The trading element does nothing to cut emissions, it merely reduces the cost for polluting companies. Accordingly, Turnbull was able to spin the Frontier scheme as a cheaper option than Labor’s ETS because it incorporated even more international offsets than Labor’s ETS. International offsets allow Australian companies to go on polluting and only appear cheap because international emissions trading schemes aren’t working. Baseline-and-credit is a terrible way to design a carbon price – but it is presumably Turnbull’s preferred model considering it was the first one he proposed. Turnbull enthusiastically championed the Frontier scheme.

Meanwhile, Turnbull successfully lobbied to get waste coal mine gas included in Labor’s expanded RET. This created a perverse incentive for coal mining.

The Liberals became increasingly divided between Turnbull and supporters who wanted to negotiate with Labor on an amended ETS, and opponents who continued to oppose any carbon price. Around this time Turnbull famously said “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.” (This is a quote to remember if he is reinstated, as the Liberal Party is obviously not committed.) Eventually in October 2009 the party room approved a set of amendments to propose to Labor. The amendments included, among other things, applying a baseline-and-credit approach to electricity generators in line with the Frontier proposal.

After a month of negotiations, Rudd and Turnbull announced a compromise. The full agreement is no longer available online, but the essentials are summarized here and technical details explained here. The baseline-and-credit idea had vanished, but otherwise the Liberals got most of what they wanted. The changes (unfortunately later resurrected in the 2011 Labor-Greens carbon price legislation) included:

  • An extra $3 billion in free permits and loan guarantees for coal-fired power plants allegedly to prevent the lights going out. This compensation was dependent on their continued operation, a perverse incentive for the plants to stay open.
  • An extra $1.5 billion in cash and free permits for coal mining companies so they wouldn’t pay for gas leaks.
  • An extra $1.3 billion in free permits for “emissions-intensive trade-exposed” industries as a supposed “global recession buffer”.
  • A $600 million compensation package for liquefied natural gas, which they didn’t even bother to justify.
  • All this was funded by reducing household compensation.
  • Finally, Turnbull secured an amendment clarifying that fossil fuel exporters definitely couldn’t be held liable for carbon embodied in their exports.

It was Turnbull’s one big chance to collaborate with the Labor government to design an effective climate policy, and what did he do with that opportunity? He weakened a piece of legislation that was already worse than nothing. Recalling him and Rudd shaking hands on that dirty deal makes me wonder why so many thinking people seem infatuated with the two of them.

You probably know what happened next. After a year of flip-flopping from one bad climate policy to another, Turnbull’s environmental reputation was suddenly elevated when his party revolted against even the pathetic policy he’d agreed with Rudd. Turnbull’s green rhetoric in response convinced many of his sincere commitment to climate action. Not so impressive were his exact words (my emphasis): “We must retain our credibility of taking action on climate change. We cannot be seen as a party of climate sceptics, of do nothings on climate change. That is absolutely fatal.” (It’s interesting to compare this with something he said this year about government budgets: “It is vitally important, both as a matter of social justice and political reality, that structural changes are seen as being fair across the board.”) Turnbull also bizarrely claimed his amendments had made the ETS “more environmentally effective”. Still, Turnbull became cemented in the public imagination as an environmental martyr when he lost to the openly denialist Tony Abbott.

Turnbull as outspoken backbencher

A week after being demoted, Turnbull wrote a strongly worded opinion piece rightly saying Abbott denies the science of global warming and any climate policy he devised would be “bullshit”. Perhaps Turnbull guessed this by drawing on his own experience of designing bullshit climate policies for the Liberals. Ironically, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) which Abbott announced soon afterward was designed by the same person who modeled Turnbull’s baseline-and-credit policy: Danny Price of Frontier Economics. It is similar to the Turnbull/Xenophon/Frontier scheme, except with government funding contracts instead of tradable emissions permits.

In February 2010, Turnbull crossed the floor to vote for the ETS. He made a speech in which he said many of the right words, but failed to recognize the legislation’s fatal flaws. It’s worth exposing some weaknesses and contradictions in his argument. Firstly, he argued an ETS is the best policy because it will ensure emissions cuts occur where they are cheapest, displaying a faith in market mechanisms which he openly attributed to his neoliberal bias. I have argued that because the cost of a carbon price is paid by polluting companies and an ETS equates non-equivalent actions, actions which appear cheapest are likely to be illusory, and any imperfectly designed ETS is likely to do more harm than good. Turnbull also claimed the legislation had “the flexibility to enable us to move to higher cuts when they are warranted”, when in reality its worst flaw was that its years of future emissions caps locked in meaningless targets.

Turnbull went on to criticize Abbott’s climate policy, which certainly deserves it, though unfortunately he essentially agreed with Ross Garnaut’s misguided description of the ERF as socialist, which I’ve debunked here (socialism would give money to the poor, not to rich powerful industries who don’t need it). He also correctly argued:

If a scheme operates whereby the Government pays the firm to reduce its emissions intensity, leaving aside its impact on the budget and taxes, there is firstly going to be a substantial and contentious debate about what the correct baseline is, then whether it will be actually be reduced… Arguments, of considerable ferocity, will arise as to whether a new piece of equipment would have been bought anyway with the risk that the Government ends up funnelling billions of dollars to companies to subsidise their profits without achieving any real additional cuts in emissions.

I agree, but isn’t Turnbull being hypocritical here? If Turnbull is so (rightly) concerned about dodgy baselines, then why did he propose a baseline-and-credit scheme just a few months earlier? And why didn’t he criticize Labor’s ETS for allowing international offsets from baseline-and-credit schemes? If he (rightly) opposes handouts to polluters, why did he demand billions of dollars’ worth of ETS compensation? And if he is concerned about the budgetary impact, why was his first climate policy funded from the budget? Turnbull insisted his arguments were “no different to those I have made, and stood for, for the last three years”, but I see considerable inconsistency.

Up until the August 2010 election, Turnbull continued to make public appearances talking about climate change. To his credit he even spoke at the launch of Beyond Zero Emissions’s Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan, where he admitted he was becoming pessimistic about carbon capture and storage but insisted that technologies should be chosen by the market in a context of a carbon price. The problem with this is that if the carbon price is too low or badly designed, investment will flow toward the wrong technologies.

Turnbull as Abbott’s shadow communications minister

Despite having initially been a strong critic of Abbott, Turnbull became much quieter after the election. Maybe it was because he had been promoted to the communications portfolio, or Abbott had become too popular to challenge. When Gillard Labor and the Greens announced they were negotiating a fixed carbon tax in February 2011 and the BBC asked Turnbull to comment, he said he would wait for the decision of the Shadow Cabinet. He said he still supported an ETS but anticipated that any scheme agreed between Labor and the Greens would be “a very extreme economically damaging model”. He also rejected the obviously true accusation that the mining industry has too much influence over the Liberal Party and Australian politics generally, and even claimed “the Greens [are] running the show”, which they were obviously not.

In an interview in May 2011, Turnbull advocated switching from high-carbon to low-carbon fossil fuels, whereas we need to move to renewables ASAP. He declined to offer a personal opinion on Abbott’s climate policy but said he would describe it. He went on to imply it is not a long-term policy because it is designed by a party in denial about climate change. In a follow-up post on his blog, Turnbull passive-aggressively made two more criticisms that I disagree with: that it doesn’t allow emissions to be traded across borders (in my view that is the best thing about it) and it will become a drain on the budget if it continues beyond the 5% target (contradicting his own observation that it’s not a long-term policy, which made it obvious this would never happen).

On ABC TV’s Q&A in August 2011, Turnbull waxed lyrical about the potential impacts of coal seam gas, but refused to specify any policy position.

Despite having crossed the floor to support the ETS he negotiated with Rudd, in October 2011 Turnbull voted with his party to oppose the Labor-Greens carbon price, even though he named flexibility as a reason to support the former and the latter was designed to be more flexible. Then, despite his aforementioned opposition to Abbott’s ERF, on Q&A in November 2012 Turnbull praised the policy based on the decision to cap its cost. Notice this is consistent with his previous criticism that it would cost too much. If Turnbull believes so strongly in climate action, then why was he apparently more concerned about the ERF’s possible cost to the budget than its effectiveness? Why did he withdraw his support for Labor’s policy when it was strengthened, and renounce his opposition to the Liberals’ policy when it was weakened?

In the same Q&A episode, Turnbull also spoke against the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) established by Labor and the Greens, claiming it is “exactly the same” as the ERF and “there is far too much money being thrown at this in a very inefficient way”. Actually the two policies are very different – whereas the ERF will pay polluters to supposedly pollute less than they otherwise would have, at least half of CEFC funds are directed to renewable energy technologies. Again, Turnbull was overlooking renewable energy and seemed most concerned about the government budget, echoing talking points used by the business lobby in its campaign against effective climate policies.

When asked if his party was right to say it would scrap the carbon price, Turnbull pointedly responded: “Well, scrap the carbon – repeal the carbon tax.” He went on to say “I have never supported a fixed price on carbon ever”, because the floating price of an ETS limits the cost of cutting emissions. In reality, the higher the carbon price the better, because it means a more stringent penalty for pollution and a stronger incentive for investment in zero-carbon technology, energy efficiency, and lower consumption – and thus a policy more effective at mitigating enormous costs from climate change. Some interpreted Turnbull’s weasel words to mean the Liberals would scrap the carbon tax but not the ETS it was designed to soon morph into. We now know Abbott kept his promise to repeal the whole shebang, but perhaps a reinstated Turnbull would indeed introduce an ETS (likely a baseline-and-credit one, now that the ERF has replaced the carbon tax).

Most tellingly of all, throughout the entire lengthy discussion Turnbull neglected to answer the original question asked of the panel: why is Australia expanding its fossil fuel exports as global warming accelerates?

Turnbull returned to the topic on another Q&A in July 2013. He praised Abbott’s policy of delegating environmental approvals to the states, and misleadingly promised Green Army workers would be “adequately paid”. This time he admitted that “emissions trading schemes to date have worked better in theory than in practice” (on which I agree with him). But he said he still hopes we will eventually end up with a global ETS because he thinks that is the only way to cut emissions “over the very long-term – by which I mean 50 years or something”. Turnbull clearly still sees decarbonization as a process which will take decades, which was a reasonable position in the Howard years but the latest science has made it increasingly clear we must act faster than that.

Turnbull as Abbott’s communications minister

Since the election of the Abbott government two years ago, Turnbull has been the Abbott government’s Communication Minister. He has voted for every single one of the Abbott government’s terrible policies, and made no significant public criticism of them, so surely he must be considered to have some responsibility. Thus Turnbull has been complicit in dismantling nearly every climate policy Australia had and approving massive expansion of the coal and gas industries, not to mention the government’s systematic effort to make Australia a less equal society.

If Turnbull is really such a progressive environmentalist, if he’s really so different to his colleagues, why doesn’t he leave the Liberal Party? Why associate himself with all the horrible things the Abbott government is doing? He’s popular enough that he’d have a decent chance of getting re-elected as an independent or a member of another party. Many have argued he should form his own party. When this suggestion was put to him directly in 2012, he said: “I’ve had thousands and thousands of people propose that, you know, I should set up a new political party and I’ve always said to them the same thing that I’m saying to you, that I am committed to the Liberal Party.”

Turnbull said in 2011: “It’s always open with any member of the shadow cabinet if they can’t live with the collective decision to resign.” That means Turnbull can live with all the collective decisions made by the Abbott government. Indeed he says so: “I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the budget.”

Nevertheless, it remains possible that Turnbull is plotting a minor change to climate policy. In May 2014, Turnbull had dinner with Palmer, along with Liberal vice president Tom Harley and outgoing Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson. The meeting was just a few weeks before Palmer announced a so-called alliance with some incrementalist greens who are deluding themselves that the Abbott government can be reformed (see here on why Palmer can’t be trusted). Five months later, Palmer and Xenophon passed the ERF legislation with amendments moving it partway toward a baseline-and-credit ETS. Turnbull claimed the amended ERF is “certainly capable of achieving those reductions”. In reality, the amendments are not worth getting excited about.

On Q&A in November 2014, Turnbull defended Australia’s indefensibly pathetic 5%-by-2020 emissions reduction target, and said Australia should not make any further reductions until there is a global agreement. Turnbull ignores the obvious fact that if every country waits nobody will ever act, and the internationally agreed principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” obligating the world’s richest and highest per-capita emitters to show leadership. He also said the government is already spending “so many funds” on climate change – but just like in the Howard years, climate spending is dwarfed by fossil fuel subsidies. And he claimed those who call Abbott a denier are “creating a caricature… and assuming that that is the real person”.

In February, Turnbull was asked if he would seek to reinstate the carbon price, and said “the idea that we would or should suddenly reinstate something we’ve just abolished is ridiculous”, and “it was replaced by the [ERF]. We have got to work with that, leave it as it is. And as is consistent with our Liberal policy, in the event of there being a new global agreement we will review that existing policy.”

Turnbull’s most recent comment on climate that I could find was from May, when he cautiously defended the science on The Bolt Report.


Based on past experience, Malcolm Turnbull is a politician who says most of the right words on climate but takes the wrong actions. To his credit, Turnbull has a good understanding of the basic climate science and is effective in responding to arguments denying the science (for example, on one episode of Q&A he correctly explained how global warming drives extreme weather). Yet this only looks impressive in comparison to the obviously denialist Abbott; merely acknowledging reality is necessary but not sufficient for climate credibility. I remember other politicians who said the right words but took the wrong actions: Rudd and his Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. Just like them, Turnbull’s actions suggest he is merely in a more sophisticated stage of denial, denying it is necessary to phase out fossil fuels.

To be fair there are three possible interpretations of Turnbull’s behavior, but they all make it foolish to support him. The first (which I consider unlikely but still possible) is that he is serious about effective climate action but was undermined by his colleagues even in the position of party leader. The second is that he is well-meaning but misguided by policy advice from vested interests. The third is that he is the same as the rest of the Liberals, and his supposed commitment to climate action is a complete fraud intended to greenwash the government.

Even supposing he’s serious, the Liberal Party is almost certainly beyond saving. Its connections to the fossil fuel lobby and far-right think tanks are well-documented; indeed their stranglehold has arguably become even stronger since Turnbull was leader. Election donations data reveal the Liberals received a 350% increase in funding from mining companies including contributions from Adani, Santos, and Hancock. They are ideologically invested too: Abbott’s extreme opposition to environmentalism has given the Liberals a new raison d’être. If Turnbull was unable to counter the denialist influence in 2009, he seems even less likely to succeed today. Leader or not, he has little hope of persuading his party room to support any remotely sane set of policies.

Supposing Turnbull is a well-meaning reformist, what might he do? Judging by his words and actions to date, it seems likely that if he makes any change at all, he’ll tweak the ERF toward a baseline-and-credit ETS. The height of his ambition is a cap-and-trade ETS like Labor’s with massive compensation to polluters. Both designs are deeply flawed and may be worse than nothing because emissions trading can actively hinder climate action, especially considering Turnbull has no objection to international offsets. And it is likely to be an ETS only, as the business lobby has always advocated. Turnbull is unlikely to introduce any new policies and might abolish CEFC because he opposes government spending on climate. It’s difficult to say what he would do about the RET, but remember he’s previously diluted it with fossil fuel technologies and enthused about the pipe dream of cleaner fossil fuels. In climate talks he might give an appearance of greater cooperation, but is unwilling to show true leadership by acting faster than other countries. He’s shown no understanding of the need for urgent action so is unlikely to increase the 2020 or 2030 target, particularly now most countries have misguidedly turned their attention to setting post-2020 targets. Also remember that target only covers domestic emissions, and Turnbull has previously opposed any restriction of fossil fuel exports, by far Australia’s largest contribution to global warming.

But I fear Turnbull isn’t serious even about incremental change. According to the Australian Financial Review, Turnbull is so inclined to placate his colleagues and wait for other countries to act that he may change nothing at all. The report says his priority would be fixing the budget. In other words, Turnbull’s agenda is not fundamentally different from that of the Abbott government.

In a way Turnbull could actually be worse than Abbott. I fear a Turnbull-led Liberal government could give Australians a false sense of security on climate (and perhaps politics in general). At least under Abbott, most people realize Australia is going in the wrong direction. Turnbull is articulate enough to potentially attract the votes of thinking people who easily see through Abbott’s laughable and outrageous statements. Reviewing the above quotes, it’s clear Turnbull’s arguments are wrong but not as obviously wrong as Abbott’s. And Labor might more often vote with Turnbull than Abbott, further marginalizing the Greens in parliamentary debate.

I would be the first to celebrate if the popular perception of Malcolm Turnbull as a green politician and a generally sensible guy turns out to be correct. But if my fears are accurate, Turnbull’s charisma and skill at greenwashing may make him the most dangerous man in Australia.

2 pings

  1. […] that consensus, often finding myself the only Turnbull critic in a room full of Turnbull fans. I pointed out Turnbull had never supported any climate policy that wasn’t friendly to the fossil fuel industry, […]

  2. […] that consensus, often finding myself the only Turnbull critic in a room full of Turnbull fans. I pointed out Turnbull had never supported any climate policy that wasn’t friendly to the fossil fuel industry, […]

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