David Spratt, The Age, January 29, 2009
The Government is jogging on the spot when it needs to take big
WHEN representatives of community climate action groups from around
Australia gather in Canberra for a meeting this weekend, discussion
will focus on understanding how the Rudd Government got climate policy
so wrong, and what can be done in 2009.
The proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme will allow Australia's
greenhouse gas emissions to increase, just as the scientific case for
reducing emissions towards zero as quickly as possible becomes more
compelling. While emissions permits will drop 5 per cent below 1990
levels by 2020, the Treasury modelling that underpins the scheme plans
on the large-scale purchase of permits from other countries, so that
Australia's total emissions, as opposed to domestic permits, will
And when coal flows from two new export infrastructure projects
announced in 2008, in the Hunter Valley of NSW and at Gladstone,
Queensland, the addition to global emissions from burning that coal
will be an amount each year greater than Australia's total greenhouse
gas emissions, cancelling out the planned reduction by 2020 many times
How did it come to this, when there was optimism after its election
that the Government would take a lead in climate policy in 2008, not
jog on the spot at the rear of the field? Was a mistake made in taking
the political pressure off in 2008 as the large climate groups
switched from mobilising people power to advocating policy detail,
assuming the Government was predisposed to listen? Did the Government
decide to give real access only to those climate advocates who were
prepared to support its "clean coal" policy, narrowing and
conservatising the range of voices to which it listened? Was the
Government always going to put the views of big business and the
fossil fuel lobby first?
It is not unreasonable to answer yes in each case.
The climate action movement's message is big and unsettling, so it is
easier for government not to want to listen. Many of the policy
players - business, unions, welfare groups - are sending mixed
messages about supporting action as long as it does not hurt their
constituencies in the short term, which quickly reduces to sectoral
self-interest and political equivocation.
It is also clear that the Government does not understand how big the
scientific imperatives are. If it did, its failure to act in accord
with the size and urgency of the problem could justifiably be
characterised as a failure to carry out its duty of care.
But the evidence points to another possibility. In a Rumsfeldian
manner, it seemingly does not know it does not know; it is ignorant
about the most recent climate science knowledge.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Europe's leading climate scientist and
adviser to the German Government and the EU, says that "we are on our
way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much
further than most people or their governments realise". Schellnhuber
says only concentrations of greenhouse gases close to the pre-
industrial levels may be safe, around 280 to 320 parts per million,
compared to the present level of close to 390 parts per million.
One sign of this problem in Australia is the way the Prime Minister
and Climate Minister have adopted a traditional Labor approach to
climate: something for the environment lobby and something for
business. But solving the climate crisis cannot be treated like a wage
deal. It is not possible to negotiate with the laws of physics and
chemistry, and believing that it can reflects only an ignorance of the
task at hand.
The planet cannot be traded off. There are absolute limits that should
not be crossed, and doing something, but not enough, will still lead
to disaster. This the Government appears not to understand at all.
Serious climate-change impacts are already happening, both more
rapidly and at lower global temperature increases than projected. We
have passed the tipping point for complete loss of the Arctic's sea-
ice in summer.
"The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coalmine for climate
warming, and now, as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died,"
says Dr Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist.
The Arctic sea-ice is the first domino and it is falling fast. Other
dominoes, including catastrophic levels of carbon release from warming
permafrost in Siberia, are likely to fall unless we stop emitting
greenhouse gases and cool the planet to get the Arctic sea-ice back.
When transformative national and global leadership on climate is now
necessary, the many thousands of Australians who work diligently in
their local climate action groups see a spectacular failure of
political imagination in Canberra.
And the conclusion to their four-day meeting in the national capital?
It will be back to doorknocking the neighbourhood, talking in local
churches and workplaces, engaging with local MPs and building an
enormous grassroots movement that aims to make our politicians
energetic advocates for transformative action on global warming, but a
movement also capable of inflicting political pain on those who
continue to taken them and the planet's health for granted.
David Spratt is co-author of Climate Code Red.