Thursday, May 26, 2011

Guest Post:: Climate Politics in Australia

Thanks to Dwight Towers for this very useful and comrehensive guest post on climate politics in Australia, a hot topic in more ways than one. Incidentally, a few people have told me they've not been able to leave a comment in the last few days. Apologies. Hopefully everything is back to normal now though so do give it another try.

Climate Politics in Australia seem to me, a recently returned ex-pat, both fascinating and depressing. The Labor Government, only in power with the agreement of a small band of independents and a Green, are trying to push through a carbon tax that will morph into an emissions scheme. The Opposition, led by a man whose position on the reality of climate change changes from day to day, is calling for an election on the issue. Meanwhile, the “climate movement” is punching below its weight and is – by the admission of knowledgeable participants – all at sea.

As little history as I think you'll read.
The history of White Settlement in Australia is a litany of careless extraction. Whether it was cutting down trees in, extracting the value of the soil via sheep and cattle or mining and exporting gold, the economy and mindset has always been one of pillaging natural resources and worrying about the consequences later, if at all. If you look at topsoil loss, salination and extinction of species, Australia has a record to shout about.
Australia avoided recession during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2010, partly because the thirst for Australia's mineral and energy exports in Asia seems unquenchable (though it's a myth that China burns much Australian coal – the majority is actually send to India?), and the “must export every last lump of coal or we will all starve” perception remains. Guy Pearse, a forming mining lobbyist, refers to this as Australia's “Quarry Vision.”

At the same time, water and fertile land are scarce “commodities,” and the recent floods in Queensland and parts of Victoria are only the latest indication of economic vulnerability to ecological events. A very long drought has only just broken.

Climate change politics from the 1990s to now, in two minutes

The Hawke-Keating governments of 1983-1996 (think Blair/Brown only the ambitious Treasurer, both luckier and bolder than Gordo) made some of the right noises but basically kicked climate change into the long grass. There were, as remains the case today, many votes in coal and virtually none in solar panels. Liberal Prime Minister John Howard's attitude to climate change was pretty much exactly George Bush's, and he was an eager participant in the extra-UNFCCC “spoiler” outfit known as the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (which, as of 5 April 2011, has “concluded its work”)

Howard went into the 2007 election with a proposal for a domestic cap-and-trade scheme, but at the time Australia was in the grip of a long drought, and Howard's credibility on climate change (and other issues) was not high. Labor’s Kevin Rudd came to power, signed Kyoto and went to the Bali negotiations as the great new hope. Before the election he had said “Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.”
He bargained intensively with the (conservative) opposition about bringing in an emissions trading scheme. Their leader, Malcolm Turnbull, was unable to convince the mix of climate skeptics and mining interests of the merits of the case and he was overthrown in December 2009 by Tony Abbott.

Months later, Rudd was faced with a choice of either dumping the attempt to bring in an emissions trading scheme or calling an election. He dumped the scheme and his poll numbers collapsed (the mining industry had also been up in arms about a proposed new tax, and spent heavily on scare-mongering). He was replaced, in an internal Labor Party coup, by Julia Gillard, the current PM. There was an election in July last year that resulted in a hung Parliament. Gillard runs a government with a very, very slender majority which is dependent on the support of the Greens (who have been eating away at the Labor Party's vote for a decade or so).

Gillard is worried about losing votes to the Greens, so has been slagging them off as “not understanding family values” (this is completely unrelated, of course, to the fact that Greens leader Bob Brown is gay).
Tony Abbott had the best comment on this “if they're so extreme, why are you in coalition with them?”
The Greens take the balance of power in the Australian Senate (which is not  at all like the House of Lords) in July.

Why do I tell you this soap opera? Well, partly because it's a soap opera. And to make the point thatthe politics of climate change in Australia have already toppled two party leaders. As I write this, the media is reporting that Turnbull has criticised Abbott's climate policies publicly. (Abbott's policies, so-called “direct action” amount to faith in technology and government subsidies for polluters, with households bearing the cost!)

Business as Usual

Meanwhile, business lobbies are split, as they are in the rest of the developed world. The most exposed sectors (the so-called “emissions-intensive trade-exposed” industries) are muttering about lost jobs and moving their businesses overseas (though they're less clear on how exactly you move a coal mine!)
Gillard is wooing the more “pro-action” sections of the Business Council of Australia (the Australian equivalent of the CBI) and asking them to speak up for her scheme

The Australian media is not doing a great job in reporting this, to put it mildly. The business press (I'm thinking specifically of the Australian Financial Review) is noticeably more partisan than the UK Financial Times which, while unabashedly pro-capitalist, eschews ideology-drench opinion dressed as news). The Murdoch press (The Australian, the (Melbourne) Sun-Herald, the (Sydney) Telegraph, the Adelaide Advertiser to name but the most embarrassing) is full of scare stories and denialist memes (which sits oddly with Newscorp’s proud boast of its carbon neutral status, and James Murdoch's much vaunted conviction that climate action is essential).

The main attention of political economic and media elites is at the moment focussed on the carbon tax, specifically on what price per tonne it would start at. (Analyses by the pro-renewables thinktank “Beyond Zero Emissions”  and the Climate Institute agree that a carbon price of anything less than 50 to 70 dollars a tonne would see at best a shift from coal to (“cleaner”) gas-fired power stations). A shift to 100% renewable energy in the next ten years is, according to BZE, both technologically and financially possible. But given the current parlous state of the climate movement in Australia, it does not seem politically possible.

Climate Movement soul-searching
The "treetops' climate outfits have banded together in a loose and issue-based coalition as the "POP Eleven"  (POP standing for Price on Pollution) to push for a carbon price.  There are, inevitably, tensions in that coalition, but for now they seem to be managing to keep their show on the road.

Meanwhile, the grassroots are pondering their place and their power. Two excellent pieces have recently been written by knowledgeable participants within the climate movement about the failures of climate activism. The first is by Holly Creenaune, a member of Friends of the Earth Sydney (much more radical and grassroots than the UK version).

In part she writes...

“Bad policy aside, it's the debate – or lack of it – that is the real problem. The public cannot participate in a discussion about a perfect price or the market that could work magic: the debate is inaccessible, ignores concerns about justice, and is not relevant to our daily lives. We've been stuck for decades in a media and policy vacuum of neoliberal market mechanisms and a contest over complex science. Real solutions, community voices, or the elephant in the room – our coal exports – are locked out. It suits government and industry to keep the debate on this limited terrain – but we desperately need to build a message and a movement that can reject false solutions like carbon trading, halt privatisation of energy infrastructure, and put forward new ideas.”

The second is by Anna Rose, one of the founders of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (a more mainstream lobbying outfit – sort of like “Stop Climate Chaos,” only effective.)

“But the time has come to be honest. We are failing because as a whole the Australian environment movement does not understand power, has not built power, and has failed to effectively exercise the power we have built.
"To win campaigns we have to make it harder for those in power to continue with business as usual than it is for them to give into our demands. Yet currently, it’s easier or politicians to continue with business as usual, and to give in to the demands of industry lobbyists from the coal, gas, mining, aluminium, cement and electricity generation industries — everyone, that is, except us.”
Meanwhile, the real elephant in the room, as Holly calls it, is the carbon in Australia's exports of coal (and liquified natural gas). These exports are set to expand rapidly in the coming decades. Legally, according to the UNFCCC, the emissions are the responsibility of the country that burns them. That argument is unsatisfactory to some, such as the direct action group Rising Tide Australia, which recently installed solar panels on the office of the Federal Climate Change Minister.
They're doing their best, but the issue is just not “thinkable” yet.

My predictions? 
Well, with the usual caveat that their value is extremely limited, I think that, barring accidents, some sort of tax/emissions trading scheme will come into play, but with so many loopholes and get-outs as to be useless (think the European ETS in its first phase). There will not be a shift away from coal – there is too much inertia in the political and economic and cultural systems for that.

The opposition will continue to make political capital out of it, and the denialists and culture warriors will not go away until the effects of climate change are literally undeniable.

Lastly, I don't see the climate movement reflecting and innovating and creating the forms of political and social pressure and space that make any other alternatives possible. On this last point I hope I am wrong, will act as if I am wrong, and try to act so that I make myself wrong.

See also

Guy Pearse Quarry Vision

Club Troppo

Larvatus Prodeo

Journal of Australian Political Economy issue 66 (December 2010)


dwight said...

An honour (and I am not being sarky) to be guest-posted! I take responsibility for the couple of typos that I didn't tidy up before sending you - sorry!

This post, about economists and climate change, may be of interest...

Next week I have the dubious pleasure of going to Ross Garnaut's first public lecture after he hands down his final report on climate change and Australia. I'll blog it...

Best wishes

Dwight Towers

Jim Jepps said...

It's no problem - thanks so much for the post.

I'm in a bad connection spot at the moment which explains why I didn't spot all the typos as I was struggling with the computer a bit and was just relieved I was able to post it up.

thanks again!