Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tony Abbott may yet be on the wrong side of history on climate change debate


Through history, generals have been criticised for basing their strategies on past experiences – the folly of fighting the previous war. It is a trap for market analysts too – missing the risk factors building in front of them as they ward off the causes of the last recession.

So why should politicians be any different? In Canberra this question should be front and centre particularly in relation to the issue Barack Obama recently called the urgent and growing threat of climate change.

In essence the question is: has the political battleground in developed economies changed since 2013, when running hard against the carbon "tax" in Australia was central to the result? Obama certainly thinks so.

"For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week – terrorism, instability, inequality, disease," the president told his special summit of world leaders in September, "there's one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate." The White House had noticeably eschewed such rhetoric post-Copenhagen in 2009 and on through 2012, correctly assessing that Americans wanted the administration to focus exclusively on defibrillating a flat-lining economy – getting America back to work.


Now with the US economy improving and the alarming evidence of global warming continuing to mount, there is again a sense of urgency.  

In the tightly scripted world of Team Abbott however, climate change remains strangely static – a fixed two dimensional feature. First and foremost, it is reduced to being little more than a preoccupation of the inner cities and the Fairfax-ABC complex.

Second, inasmuch as it can be made indistinguishable from the carbon tax, it is viewed as an electoral plus – the single factor that more than any other in 2013, delivered the coalition unto office.

Through this frame of reference, Bill Shorten's declaration last week that Labor remained committed to pricing carbon and would thus take a revised policy to the next election, is a net positive for the government.

Maybe that's right. Nobody should underestimate Labor's capacity to stuff things up. But it is also possible that this is precisely the kind of "fighting-the-last-war" thinking that will find the government flat-footed. After all, this particular political battleground has never been static, even on the coalition side. 

Three successive Liberal leaders, clearly propelled along by public concern, embraced strong market interventions: John Howard, Brendan Nelson, and Malcolm Turnbull.

It took the over-promising /under-delivering ineptitude of the Rudd government, the naive fundamentalism of the Greens, and the opportunistic percussiveness of Tony Abbott to wreck that consensus. Even Abbott, the fourth in that Liberal chain, had flip-flopped between private scepticism and what he and others worried was a community consensus they daren't ignore.

Who can forget what the freshly deposed Turnbull wrote in these pages in December 2009: "Tony himself has in just four or five months publicly advocated the blocking of the ETS, the passing of the ETS, the amending of the ETS and if the amendments were satisfactory passing it, and now the blocking of it," he wrote. 

"His only redeeming virtue in this remarkable lack of conviction is that every time he announced a new position to me he would preface it with "Mate, mate, I know I am a bit of a weather vane on this, but..."

Already it is clear that any Labor attempt at proposing carbon pricing risks being framed as a tax. But will it wash? Australians overwhelmingly believe in the science identifying global warming and have embraced alternative energies such as household solar in huge numbers.

When the world's leading economies meet in Brisbane next month for the G20, climate change will be discussed actively despite Abbott's insistence that it be listed only as "energy efficiency". He'll have the support of fellow sceptic and absentee at Obama's fore-mentioned leaders' summit, Canada's Stephen Harper.

US and European leaders want it thoroughly discussed. "Mr Obama's international adviser at the White House, Caroline Atkinson, said the G20 economies generated 80 per cent of the world's carbon emissions and should give a political push to 'specific steps' to reduce global warming," The Australian Financial Review reported last week.

To date the government has got by defending its bipartisan commitment to a 5 per cent cut by 2020 on year 2000 levels. The 2020 target however is not just pale, it is already old news. On top of whatever emerges from the G20, the international community will meet in Lima in December to discuss progress towards post 2020 emissions reductions targets.

The big players, the US, EU, and China, are preparing to set those targets in the first quarter of 2015 as they move towards the major climate change summit in Paris in December. Copenhagen may have been the dismal failure that gutted Kevin Rudd, but it did agree to limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels.

For Australia to meet its share of that based on our size, that means emitting no more than 8 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050 – the trouble is, on present emissions, we get to that by 2030. It is just more evidence of the parallel reality in which Australia is living.

Abbott began this week talking about coal as "essential for the prosperity of Australia and … the prosperity of the world … for many decades to come".

True enough, but he may end his first term talking about much stronger action on climate change whether he likes it or not after being "reverse Copenhagened" in Brisbane, Lima, and Paris.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's Chief Political Correspondent.

No comments:

Post a Comment