June 2010

Comment

Rudd’s ETS backflip

By Tim Flannery
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Kevin Rudd’s decision to defer his emissions trading bill until 2012 represents an abrupt and dramatic policy reversal, the significance of which, both nationally and globally, will only grow with time. It’s a funk in the true sense of the word: a shirking of responsibility. And despite its profundity it’s easy to imagine the kind of arguments that might have led the prime minister to his decision. Advisers would have pointed out that action on climate change had already been delayed for years under successive governments – so where’s the harm in another delay? And, in any case, polling indicates the public is wearying of the issue.

Such calculations may be useful in tallying the political cost of lesser policies, but climate change is different. As Rudd himself said, it’s the greatest moral challenge of our time, and climate science is, month by month and year by year, revealing ever more distinctly what an enormous and growing danger it represents to all of humanity. While much uncertainty remains in the science, it’s absolutely clear that the longer action is deferred, the more expensive that action will be, and the less certain it is that anything we do will be effective in stabilising Earth’s climate.

One of the unsettling aspects of Rudd’s decision is its ambiguity. Will deferral of the scheme lead to its abandonment? After all, there’s not the slightest indication that 2012 will be any more propitious for action on climate change than was 2010. If action delayed really is action denied, the situation becomes disastrous. Rudd’s commitment to action on climate change was integral to his electoral victory. His government’s first deed was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and Rudd played an important role in the international climate negotiations. For all these reasons, the cost of a funk in climate policy is not mere short-term voter dissatisfaction, but a devastation of Rudd’s own moral authority.

The sense that Rudd doesn’t have the courage of his convictions is only highlighted by the position of Malcolm Turnbull. Despite appalling treachery and weakness within his own party, Turnbull stood by his beliefs – and lost his leadership by a single vote. He was never more admired than during the week of his testing; and now – courtesy of a back-flip on his decision to leave politics – he’s back, in a stronger moral position than ever.

Having met with and watched the prime minister in the lead up to the United Nations Climate-Change Conference in Copenhagen, I find his climate funk hard to understand. He worked hard, largely behind the scenes and unacknowledged, to secure a deal at Copenhagen, and his contribution was highly valued by almost everybody I spoke with. Moreover, it’s absolutely clear that at a personal level he is deeply concerned with the climate problem. Yet he refuses to lead on it. Instead, he pledged Australia would do no more, and no less, than other nations, presumably meaning that Australia’s emissions reduction target would reflect the world’s average. This effectively delegates responsibility for Australia’s greenhouse gas reduction target to other nations and leaders, which is an extraordinary way to approach the “greatest moral challenge” of our age. Now, by ditching the principal mechanism to reduce emissions, Rudd is leading the charge away from a solution to the climate problem.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the entire issue is that the prime minister had (and, indeed, still has) the opportunity to turn his emission-reduction scheme into law. He could call a double dissolution election as late as October, thereby sitting out nearly the full three years and so not shortening his government’s term. Judging from the consistency of polling results prior to his funk, it’s an election he’d almost certainly have won; following it, there may be a joint sitting of parliament – the House of Representatives and the Senate sitting together – in which any legislation that had served as a trigger for the election could be passed by a simple majority.

Why did Rudd blink at this? Can he really fear the buffoonery of Tony Abbott and his talk of a “great big new tax”? Does he think that the Liberals’ climate policy is anything but transparently laughable? Or has he traded the emissions reduction scheme for tacit approval from the mining companies for taxation reform? The government’s May proposal of the hefty Resources Super Profits Tax, which would effectively give them a 40% stake in resource ventures, suggests this may be so. Whatever the case, it’s clear who Australia’s de facto climate minister is; it’s the views of resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson, rather than Penny Wong, that are driving Labor’s climate policy.

Until it became too politically costly, Ferguson was an openly avowed climate sceptic. He believes Australia’s future lies in coal. That’s why we’ve invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in clean-coal technologies, but next to nothing in geothermal power and concentrator photovoltaics (a technology that allows large-scale harnessing of energy from the sun), despite Australia leading the world in research into both of these. These technologies are critical for our global medium-term energy future, but if you are convinced coal is the future, then it’s simply a waste of time supporting them. And, if coal is the future, the emissions trading scheme is, of course, nothing but a threat that has to be quashed.

The collapse of the emissions trading scheme is just the latest Rudd government failure in the area of climate and environment. The poorly administered home insulation scheme has become notorious, but was it really an environmental program? Its principal focus was job creation and there appears to have been no attempt to measure its actual effect on reducing emissions. Then there’s the promise of more money for low-emissions technology in the budget. It’s useful, but money has so often been promised and never materialised. Remember the Howard-era decision to build a huge solar plant at Mildura? It was canned on Rudd’s watch. Indeed, with the partial exception of the water buy-back scheme in the Murray–Darling Basin, it’s difficult to identify an effective Rudd government policy in the broad area of environment. Even the Howard government did better: it initiated water reform and extended protection of the Great Barrier Reef and important marine reserves in Australia’s southern waters.

The dynamism that the climate issue has injected into Australian politics is unprecedented. It’s forced Labor to transparently choose between the interests of unions and state-owned coal plants on the one hand, and the interests of the community at large on the other. It’s likewise forced the Liberal Party to choose between its climate sceptic and big mining backers, and its free-market principles. The rise of third party politics should serve as a warning to them and their political allies. This year has seen wholesale disenchantment with mainstream politics. In the UK the Liberal Democrats are in ascendancy and Australia has its first Greens minister (in Tasmania). The environment void created by the Rudd government was always a looming liability, but the Rudd funk has turned it into an Achilles heel. If the Greens can attract more middle-of-the-road candidates like Tasmanian leader Nick McKim, it stands a good chance of securing lower house seats at the forthcoming federal election. That would herald a major challenge to the status quo of Australian politics, wherein large mining interests effectively hold both major parties to ransom on environmental and climate policy.

Will Turnbull rise again? Will we see a Green resurgence? Will Rudd’s funk trigger a cascade resulting in the collapse of an ice shelf – and a once great leader? There is a further possibility: an honourable backflip by the prime minister on his decision to defer the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He should take heart from the fact that the scale of the coal industry’s victory on the CPRS has left some in the mining sector worried. The veil of secrecy that previously hid their political interventions has been stripped away and, despite their publicly professed scepticism, the more intelligent understand that climate change will not go away. BP’s environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico has surely focused their minds on their growing public and legal liability – and the possibility that coal’s catastrophic equivalent could be the entire world.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

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