Australia: a country in desperate need of a climate change policy

Before someone puts Tony Abbott out of our misery, the Liberal Party should take a long moment to think about climate change and what its next leader should do about it. It is a process it needs to complete by December because its government will be representing Australia at the Paris Climate Change conference. That conference has the goal of containing “climate disruption” within a two degree upper limit and the adoption of an international agreement to move the world towards a low-carbon economy by 2020. Australia hasn’t the slightest hope of meeting any such commitment based on its current policies.

The working document for this conference is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report (or whatever will supersede it this year).The climate change science in this report is telling us we are in bad shape. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any decade since the 1850s. The last 30 years are likely to be the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The upper ocean temperature is warming and ocean acidification has increased by a quarter in the industrial era. Arctic sea ice is decreasingly by 4% a decade and the sea level rose 0.2% in the 20th century. This has resulted in large increases in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, particularly in the last 40 years.

The future the report is predicting is more rising sea levels, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more extreme weather events including cyclones, droughts and floods across the world. This is a dire scenario and if inter-generational theft means anything at all, then surely this is it. What then, is the government of Australia doing about it?

It’s actually hard to tell it is doing anything at all. While it is unsurprising to note Tony Abbott hasn’t mentioned climate change in a speech in over three months, it’s more surprising to note a search of the Liberal Party policies page has no official policy on climate change. That is, unless you think scrapping the carbon price, removing government oversight mechanisms, building highways and tunnels, and supporting the coal industry amount to addressing climate disruption.

The closest thing the Liberals have to an official environment policy is a $2 billion green army aimed at heritage and agriculture protection as much as the environment. The Green Army is a John Howard-style militia inspired by the motherhood vision for Australia where “individually and collectively, we can more often be our best selves” so they can “do the right things by those around them.” This army lacks the artillery to deal with bigger environmental problems especially in two industries Australia is vulnerable in: manufacturing and mining.

Then there’s “direct action”. Seen by almost everyone outside the government as a hopelessly ineffective solution, it does not even merit its own policy page on the Liberal website.  There is blurb on the Emissions Reduction Fund (the centrepiece of the policy) on the environment department website but is lacking in detail. Its reliance on big government intervention to meet targets is also stark contrast to the laissez-faire attitude the Coalition has in other areas of the economy. A market-based cap-and-trade approach seems a more logical approach but that would admit its opposition to Labor policy for the last four years was wrong.

This extraordinary inaction to the world’s biggest problem can only be explained one way. This government has been captured by those who do not believe the climate change science. When the government repealed the carbon price legislation last July, Liberal Senator Ian McDonald said what many in his party room would agree with. “If there is global warming, notwithstanding that in Brisbane on Saturday morning we had the coldest day in 113 years – but I have always indicated,” McDonald said, “I have an open mind on this.”  McDonald was incoherent but what he meant is he has a closed mind on this. Climate change is bunkum, he believes, or “crap” as his party leader once offered. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who was instrumental in wrecking bi-partisan agreement on carbon pricing, takes a similar view.

Joyce doesn’t have a vote on who should be the next party leader but he will be active behind the scenes. He is a fan of Tony Abbott because he knows Abbott will continue the ‘do nothing’ approach. But even Abbott’s one and only speech on climate change in the last three months admits that is no longer an option. On December 14, 2014, Abbott was dragged kicking and screaming into pledging $200m over four years to UN’s Green Climate Fund, despite it being what he called “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. Abbott did this not only because he was friendless on the issue but because he knows Paris is looming. Abbott admitted he needed a taskforce “to propose possible new post-2020 targets for Australia to take to the Paris Conference of the UNCCC in December 2015.”

That taskforce is yet to materialise leaving Australia no closer to effective action. “Direct Action” may or may not fluke its way to achieving Australia’s miserly 2020 target but is utterly useless beyond that. Abbott and his supporters can doubt the science all they like, but the world is moving on anyway. Australia needs a climate change policy before December. This is the problem Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and anyone else who would be prime minister needs to grapple with urgently.

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