A treacherous spot under the sun: Can Australia rise to the challenge of climate change?

The sunlight reaches Earth in just under 10 minutes; equally, it took the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison more-or-less the same amount of time to bury the notion of his country emerging as a global leader on climate change, bringing even more gloom and doom to Australia’s neighbors.

Combating global warming needs a concerted international response, but the impact of climate change will not be distributed ‘equally’ or ‘democratically’, with the Global South bearing the brunt, and with the Pacific Island nations facing an existential crisis any time soon. If climate change knows no national boundaries, then it is worth reminding Morrison that even though China is the largest carbon emitter as a nation-state, all western highly industrialized countries taken together outperform China to date. This is not to imply in any way that any Australian leader can be blamed in isolation for any man-made genocide in the Pacific and beyond. However, if environmental concerns are not sufficient to prompt the Australian government to move more swiftly toward a ‘green economy’, good neighborly relations certainly present a pretty persuasive case for action.

If nature starts losing patience with Mankind, and our ecosystems are bracing for impact, why then is it so difficult for our societies to formulate and enact policies adequately addressing ‘anthropogenic climate change’? More to the point, how can it be explained that Australian society just 30 years ago ranked as one of the most highly informed and educated countries in the world on the subject has turned into a polity ripped apart by ideological strive and raging ‘climate warfare’? What happened to this energy superpower which, back in 1990, had a national Emission Reduction Target?

By delving deep into the public record, analyzing hundreds of newspaper articles, scientific briefs and government documents, Maria Taylor tries to pinpoint the array of corporate and ideological forces instrumental in changing the narrative surrounding climate change. If not outright denial of human agency as a cause for global warming, attempts to confuse the scientific evidence turned out to be a well-honed strategy, relying strongly on a complicit media, opportunistic politicians and intense lobbying by ‘moneyed interests’. Assessing the evidence, Taylor doesn’t mince words.

The story for public consumption changed dramatically While some reporters continued the story of risk to society, the overall narrative was changing dramatically by the mid-1990s. Communication from Australian policymakers, amplified by the media, had turned the story into a confused and conflicted political debate that reflected a loss of will to act. The state-based response plans would soon wither as deregulation focused the energy sector on competitive sales and profits rather than managing demand for efficient use. Where once there had been a clear narrative about risk to the whole society and a global responsibility to act, Australians were now told not to worry. The whole debate was too uncertain and prompt action was not in Australia’s national and market interests.

Global Warming And Climate Change: What Australia Knew And Buried … Then Framed A New Reality For The Public, Maria Taylor.

Australian novelist and political thinker Amanda Lohrey, examining the origins of the Green Party and assessing its role in contemporary politics in her essay Groundswell, thinks along similar lines; in her estimation, the Greens, having grown out of a grass-roots environmental movement, are a distinct force with the potential to endure. The party’s current electoral strength suggests that its loyal and highly motivated support base will ensure its longevity, setting it apart from other parties of protest like the Democrats or One Nation.

Recent elections suggest that the Australian Greens Party is about to supersede the Democrats as a third political force in Australian politics. The reasons for this are both various and compelling. Though the fortunes of the Greens have fluctuated in federal elections over the past decade, it nevertheless remains the case that taken overall their support has grown steadily. Unlike both the Democrats and One Nation, the Greens are an organic party in the sense that they have evolved over a lengthy period of time and out of several community campaigns organised at the grass roots. Although for some years they have had strong personal leadership in the form of Bob Brown, unlike the Democrats and One Nation the Greens Party was not founded through the personal fiat of one individual. It has a strong history and folklore that pre-dates its leader and was a forceful influence in shaping him and the character of his leadership. Though Brown is not to be underestimated as a factor in the success of the Greens Party, even more telling is the broadening out of its base and the fact that over the past two decades it has evolved into a real constituency, something more than just a broad-based protest vote. This constituency has been shaped by certain social and political changes of the last 30 years that have led to the emergence of a new political sensibility. Within this sensibility is a spectrum that ranges from right-wing tokenism to radical pantheism, but the extent of it is reflected in the no doubt perfectly sincere if somewhat risible remark of former federal Liberal Minister for the Environment Robert Hill to the effect that ‘Everyone now is an environmentalist.’ Corporations are for the most part routinely called upon to present Environmental Impact Statements, however fitted up, and no local council debate is complete without some genuflection towards the clean and the green.

Groundswell, Amanda Lohrey.

Peter Hay, author of Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought has coined the term ‘ecological sensibility’, placing environmental concerns firmly in the pre-rational, a constant aesthetic desire to live in harmony with our natural surroundings. Depending on the overall political climate, this ‘ecological sensibility’ manifests itself very differently, competing constantly with other ideologically prevalent norms.

In the early 1970s Australia underwent a major cultural and ideological realignment going far beyond the political; the policies pursued by the Whitlam government were indicative of ‘pressure from below’ as civil society reasserted itself. Indeed, the forces unleashed by the end of post-war consumerism which had been so instrumental in shaping the Menzies era led to a redefinition of nationalism itself, giving birth to a national environmental movement. Rhetorically at least, the new government in Canberra was in favor of transforming rural Australia from a ‘dead heart’ into a ‘red centre’. The Lake Pedder controversy was the ground zero for a cohort of activists who would push environmental concerns into the political mainstream just 10 years later. The Franklin River blockade did not just succeed because of grass-roots activism, but rather because it culminated into a powerful critique of post-industrial societies as a whole. Unlike 1972, the campaign to save the Franklin River was a success story, and environmental concerns were now central to the overall national outlook. All too frequently it appears forgotten these days that the first Green Party emerged in Australia, even though it took until 1992 for the various Green forces to merge and form a national party. With the environment having become a major issue throughout the 1980s, Labor proved capable to capitalize on the Green vote in order to retain power, and this is by no means an exaggeration. Up until 1990 it was common wisdom that Labor could neither win nor retain government with a primary vote below 40%. However, in 1990, the party won just about 39% of the primary vote, but the preference flow from both the Greens and the Democrats proved sufficient to keep the Hawke ministry in office. Therefore, the 1990 election has become known as the green election. Even three years later, despite the mood of the times having changed significantly, Keating could still bank on enough Green preferences to scrape over the line. But, following the collapse of communism and as a consequence the conflict between labour and capital reseeding, neoliberalism and rational economics had become the dominant forces in the national discourse, further reinforced by the ‘recession we had to have’, as Keating once so colorfully put it. In Bob Brown’s own words, for environmental activism the 1990s were a ‘drought’, but largely due to its committed base the Greens continued to poll respectively, only to surge again in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, policies seemingly related to the environment had become intensely politicized by then and would have no mainstream appeal until 2007.

Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government and instrumental in bringing about the Paris agreement on climate change, has his own story to tell regarding Canberra’s attitude toward global warming, proving how toxic the ‘climate wars’ had become under then Prime Minister Abbott. King recalls how, at the Pacific Islands Forum Leader’s Summit in 2015, then Australian Prime Minister Abbott who had once described climate change and global warming as ‘crap’ advised his colleagues, whose nations are under threat of disappearing under water fairly soon, to ‘grow their economies’ and worry later. Except for New Zealand’s head of government, Pacific leaders took great exception to this statement, and so did Sir David. Putting a call through to Number 10 via the British High Commission in Fiji, he advised the government to support the Pacific island nations by accepting the proposed goal of keeping any temperature rise at 2C above preindustrial levels. The agreement eventually went even further, containing provisions to work toward a rise of just 1.5C. If not from its immediate neighbors, the Pacific island nations at least could take heart from the actions of Sir David and the British government.

Jared Diamond has established a correlation between environmental decay and social collapse, arguing that the inability of social elites to prepare their societies for changing environmental conditions is nothing new and has led to the demise of some civilizations proceeding ours, citing as prominent examples the Easter Island and Maya societies in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Seemingly rational behavior of political leaders can lead to dire consequences, particularly when the upper strata in society believes it can insulate itself from the economic, political and social fallout of ecological disasters. We might have an instinctive hunch as to what our world will look like one day if climate change persists and gets completely out of control, but it is to the credit of John Lanchester who, in his dystopian, fictional book The Wall, puts a lurking fear into words, reminding us that the societies we live in today may decide to go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves from the geopolitical fallout brought about in a world ravaged by climate change. In a world with hundreds of millions of climate refugees looking for shelter, hope and a life worth living, it is anyone’s guess how our societies would deal with such a historically unprecedented calamity. The challenges and potential risks associated with digital technology and corporate power, compared to what awaits us if temperatures continue to rise and wreak havoc with our ecosystems, seem just that, benign.

Kevin07: A tentative consensus that didn’t last

The ecological sensibility, postulated by American political philosopher John Rodman and expanded upon by Peter Hay, manifested itself once again during the federal election campaign in 2007. In the lead-up to her essay ‘Groundswell’ in the early 2000s, Hay told author Amanda Lohrey that, since the Green vote is a soft vote, the ALP could win back this particular constituency by returning to environmentalism without, however, stepping away from its legacy or ‘economic rationalism’. In 2007, after almost 12 years of conservative rule and inaction on the environment and climate change, the political national mood seemed conducive for such an undertaking, and Kevin Rudd, the Labor Leader taking the party into the campaign, embraced the environmental agenda wholeheartedly.

Going into the campaign, Labor promised to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and press ahead with a Carbon emissions trading scheme. Having recognized, somewhat belatedly, that a new public consensus had emerged on the need to do something about global warming, even the Coalition government presented its own version of Carbon trading. How tone deaf the Howard government had been on environmental issues became evident when, despite having negotiated the most generous terms possible, the government could not bring itself to ratify Kyoto. Therefore, Howard’s sudden commonsense on the environment smacked of opportunism and wouldn’t save him. The environment was not the only policy area troubling Howard’s prime ministership by then; apparently, the PM, representing the protestant values of an era gone by, had lost his political antenna and lacked the skill to craft messages resonating with the public in the early 21st century. His campaigning also revealed an inaptitude to operate effectively in an emerging digital information society. However, because the Liberal Party had signaled its preparedness to legislate to bring down Carbon emissions, a national by-partisan agreement seemed possible. So, when Rudd took office and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the politics in regard to Labor’s environmental agenda seemed to be working. Yet, Rudd’s overly ambitious campaign rhetoric had already sown the seeds of impending disaster, leading to his early demise in 2010.

By having married its political fortunes largely to the passage of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Labor government had effectively robbed itself of a credible fallback position in case the legislation wouldn’t pass. Not just the technical complexities of the bill, but the politicking surrounding its inception did it in. Rudd’s biographer Nicholas Stuart astutely observed what was happening at the time.

Controversially, Rudd decided to ignore the possibility of making a deal with the crossbenchers. There seemed to be two reasons for this: the first was tactical; the second strategic. The government understandably didn’t want to waste its time negotiating an agreement only to find that Fielding (a highly unpredictable character lacking any credibility, whose mind appeared to change from hour to hour, perhaps depending on the direction of each new gust of wind) had suddenly pulled out at the last moment. Yet, it was Labor that had been responsible for installing Fielding, giving him their preferences rather than allocating them to the Greens. Since it had last been in government, Labor had largely forgotten the delicate process necessary to get its legislation through a chamber that it didn’t control. Right at the beginning of the term, in the brief interregnum until procedures were established to smooth the path of controversial issues through the upper house, the tactical problem of achieving agreement with the crossbenchers appeared too difficult for Rudd to resolve. As well as this, there was a more significant strategic issue at stake: The Greens would almost inevitably demand more action on climate change than the industrial wing of Labor was prepared to give. Rudd might have been honest when he declared that the link between global warming and CO2 emissions was ‘beyond doubt’. But this didn’t mean that everyone in the party felt the same way – quite the reverse. Human-induced climate change remained a controversial issue in some sections of the party. Although most politicians had by now learned to keep any heretical views to themselves, every now and then a broad Australian accent from the party’s union base would be heard making comments that demonstrated they either didn’t understand or, worse, had completely failed to believe the new political orthodoxy. For these people, the idea of dealing with the Greens was anathema. The strategists had another concern as well. They knew that the environmental party would hold out for major reductions in emissions and, as negotiations continued, they’d be publicly emphasising that Labor was not cutting hard enough. The party would have had to fight on terrain that was ‘owned’ by the Greens; the hardheads believed that no matter how much Labor gave, it would never be enough to satisfy the Greens.Attempting to do a deal with the Liberals offered two advantages: firstly, power lay with the weight of numbers. Even if the Nationals abstained or the Greens voted against the legislation, Liberal support would push it through. The Greens would be pushed to the margins and denied a public platform on which to mount their arguments. The government would also be able to emphasise the nascent split within Coalition ranks between sceptics and those who believed in climate change. Perhaps most importantly, it would be the government that made the final decision on how far it was prepared to compromise; it would own the new political environment.

Rudd’s Way, Nicholas Stuart.

Essentially, Rudd had initially made all the right noises but then botched the delicate negotiating process necessary to get his legislation through. By having rightly declared climate change to be the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’, Rudd had effectively removed the issue from the normal political process; by presenting his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as the only means of salvation but then quibbling about its details as negotiations with stakeholders and then the Coalition got underway, a public backlash was inevitable. Also, by relentlessly hammering home his political advantage over then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull who was prepared to reach an agreement on Carbon trading with the Labor government, Rudd may not have wielded the assassin’s knife himself, but certainly helped to weaken his leadership, paving the way for one of the most destructive characters in Australian politics (Tony Abbott) to scrape his way back into the nation’s history. Naturally, heads of governments tend to take refuge in foreign affairs when facing political problems at home, but even on this front the stars didn’t align for the Australian PM. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference ended largely in failure and must have disillusioned Rudd, even though he was no innocent bystander as the Danish text,, a handiwork of deplomatic amateurs from the ‘developed world’, was drafted. Its leaking understandably infuriated the ‘developing countries’ and left the summit in limbo. His style didn’t help matters either. Maybe due to his background as a technocrat and diplomat, Rudd was never a great persuader. His constant lecturing and preaching didn’t endear him to the broader public, and, as the majority consensus on climate change evaporated, it seemed his political maneuverings had more in common with that of a statesman in the 19th century than with those of an Australian Prime Minister operating within the constraints of democratic government. The dishonesty of the Labor government didn’t end there though. Bringing to bear all her expertise and sharp intellect, Australian journalist Lenore Taylor dissected exactly what was happening, and how the government walked away from its commitments on climate change; though it did so without being upfront about it and with Rudd in denial. To this day Rudd has never acknowledged that his own political missteps were at least partially responsible for his flagship legislation on climate change having failed. In fairness to the former PM, however, his personal commitment to combating global warming is beyond doubt. In a powerful interview just recently, he accused current Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a dereliction of duty and lamented a lack of leadership on the issue both from the US and Australia. The overall picture looks ‘grim’, Rudd told the ABC, but he acknowledged that developing countries particularly China have come a long way since Copenhagen.

Gillard’s gamble: A tax or not a tax?

If the Lodge is the only price worth pursuing in electoral politics, then Tony Abbott was right on the money.

By relentlessly attacking the government in general and its Carbon tax in particular, Abbott had mounted one of the most devastatingly effective but also cynical and reckless campaigns in Australian political life, ratcheting up temperatures well beyond what is bearable for any decent human being, poisoning the national discourse to this day. The scorched earth left in Abbott’s wake makes it virtually impossible for any politician harboring national leadership ambitions to willingly set foot on this particular minefield again.

The old saying that what goes around comes around even applies to the political process at times. The chickens Abbott had created would soon come back home to roost. Remaining a prisoner of his own negativity and divisiveness, he never made the vital transition from leading the opposition to being Prime Minister; in fact, he destroyed his own credibility more quickly than either Rudd or Gillard were ever capable of doing. The government was in such disarray in September 2015 that his colleagues felt compelled to dispose of him by choosing much hated and maligned Malcolm Turnbull as his successor. When the political heatwave finally reached breaking point in his seat of Warringah earlier this year, the electorate threw him to the wolves for good. As Julia Gillard wrote in her autobiography the success of Abbott’s campaign can largely be explained against the backdrop of the Global Financial Crisis, leaving the Australian public anxious and uncertain.

For the most part, history is a profound and wise judge of human affairs and will likely look at Gillard much more favorably than her contemporaries do. The forces Gillard was up against were enormous and troubled her Prime Ministership right from the start. There was not just the constant stalking and sniping by Rudd backers in Labor itself, but there was also a largely hostile Fourth Estate which had sacrificed its independence for the benefit of quick, superficial and juicy stories. If circumstances had been different at the time, perhaps she would have made good on her promise to bring back moral leadership to the nation. As a conviction politician she meant it when she said upon becoming Prime Minister in June 2010 that ‘a good government’ had ‘lost its way’. The diabolical policy problem, as Ross Garnaut once described climate change, bedeviled the government right from day one. Her insistence on a Carbon trading scheme would put her government at odds with powerful vested interests in this fossil fuel dependent economy. Even so, Gillard’s problems were at least in part also of her own making, but, had the national consensus on climate change not fallen apart by then, she might have been able to weather the storm. One such mistake was her mantra prior to the 2010 federal election that there would be no Carbon tax. In essence, Gillard had surrendered valuable strategic space to her opponents. With the 2010 election having produced a hung parliament, and with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, the tactical environment had shifted, turning Carbon pricing into a viable legislative project.

Thus, when history came knocking Prime Minister Gillard was ready to heed its call. The Carbon trading scheme, which had eluded the Labor government for almost 5 years, finally became a reality and made it onto the statute books. Initially fixing the price of Carbon for a period of 3 up to 5 years, it would eventually have led to a market-based trading arrangement. The initial fixing of the price would allow the government to quickly intervene according to need, but it was the fixed price, coupled with moderate increases in electricity bills that allowed its opponents to orchestrate a major scare campaign. The nightmare of any political operator unfolds when the public has simply switched off, and, no matter what the leader says or does, he or she is not getting through. As those skilled in the dark arts of politics fully appreciate, under such circumstances the game is up, and Gillard, burdened by the baggage of the Rudd years, had no chance to reverse the trend by reconnecting with a disillusioned public. Her attempts to mollify the opposition were commendable, and in her proposed compensation package she went so far as to prompt criticism from Ross Garnaut, one of the most authoritative and prolific voices on climate change both internationally and domestically, who argued that some constituencies in the community were ‘overcompensated’. Even Gillard’s earlier proposal to address the deep divisions on climate change by setting up Citizens’ assemblies proved that she had the right instincts. Had Labor chosen such an approach right after the 2007 election win, the history of this era may have played out very differently. It is the tragedy of Gillard’s premiership that she was either too far ahead of her times or emerged too late as a national leader.

With a keen eye on all the politicking surrounding climate change, Australian journalist and incisive observer Philip Chubb chronicled Labor’s many policy blunders as well as short-lived successes in this particular area. Assigning considerable significance to personal leadership, he asks why, despite their few similarities and many differences, Gillard’s and Rudd’s leadership ended in failure.

The ultimate reason for Gillard’s inability to minimise the amount of political capital required to achieve action will, on one view, have been the same as Rudd’s. For all of her qualities, qualities that were essential for her triumph in October 2011, she will have joined Rudd in paying the penalty of failed communication with voters. Gillard’s errors sprang from a different place to Rudd’s. Nobody ever accused her of hubris. While the reasons for failure were different in the two cases, the outcome was similar. There was one other major and related mistake that Rudd and Gillard made, and it cost them both dearly. Like Rudd, Gillard became absorbed in the detail. This applied even more so to Combet. The development of the CEF package was a major achievement, but it was done without thinking through the political strategies needed to minimise the political capital being spent. It was as though the development of a good policy would be enough. Paul Keating was fond of saying that good policy is good politics,and Gillard and Combet obviously believed this. But Keating also liked flicking the switch to vaudeville, which neither Gillard nor Combet enjoyed so much. The question that remains is why the modern crop of Labor politicians – after Hawke and Keating – has been so bad at communicating with voters. As one adviser put it: anthropology holds the key. The senior figures in today’s ALP got there through factional deals and branch-stacking. Too often this deprived them of the experience of banging on doors, asking for support, argueing about policies and learning how to talk through complex ideas with ordinary people. They lost the opportunity for that experience largely because of the demise of the grassroots Labor organisation. It is an existential challenge for the Labor Party to see whether it can find leaders possessing two fundamental qualities. The first of these Gillard possessed. This was her ability to use the tools of collaboration to deal with wicked problems. The second was possessed by neither prime minister. This was the ability to sustain a rapport with ordinary people over an extended period of time, to understand how these people think and feel, and to explain issues to them, along with what should be done about those issues.

Power Failure, Philip Chubb.

Chubb’s overall outlook remains grim, but hope is the currency the future trades in best.

Direct action versus Carbon trading

Whenever Tony Abbott dwelled on his government’s achievements even while still having been Prime Minister, he would proudly tell his interlocutors that he had successfully axed the tax, referring to the repeal of Julia Gillard’s Carbon trading scheme. But the Australian PM was not just keen on wielding the axe. Not lacking in style, his counterrevolution also required the guillotine, and so his government set about decapitating the Climate Commission as a cost saving measure. Having perhaps underestimated the widespread opposition to its actions, the Climate Commission relaunched shortly afterwards as the Climate Council, a non-for-profit, independent body funded exclusively by public donations. Yet, even the most sophisticated execution apparatus at a cultural warrior’s disposal may eventually grind to a halt. The Coalition government, despite its best efforts, failed in its quest to behead the Climate Change Authority, a statutory agency established under the Climate Change Authority Act 2011. Where Labor had been trying hard to take the heat out of setting Carbon reduction targets, the Coalition did everything it could to re-politicize the process, being confident that it could win the ideological battles that still lay ahead. It even reduced the Renewable Energy target considerably, sending a clear message to industry and the community that priorities in relation to combating global warming had changed.

Going into the 2013 federal election campaign, both Labor and the Liberals agreed in principle on the scale of emission cuts, and even the Liberals accepted the science on climate change. But the means by which to reach this end differed sharply. It is not without irony that Abbott, specializing in three-word sloganeering, assigned his policy on climate change only two words. The new buzzwords were Direct Action, and its centerpiece was the Emissions Reduction Fund, subsequently having been renamed the Climate Solutions Fund by Australia’s political marketer in chief Scott Morrison. Prior to the federal election this year, the government injected additional $2 billion into the scheme. But its effectiveness has been questioned by many experts in the field, with Australian researcher Paul J. Burke providing a detailed analysis, concluding that the scheme mainly funds projects that would have been in operation even without government intervention. Burke argues that funds of this type have one structural problem: information. Even internationally, Australia’s policy came under unfavorable scrutiny early on particularly from other large emitters like China, the US and Brazil. In light of these findings, it is difficult not to conclude that, like in the early 2000s under Howard’s leadership, complacency and inertia are once again determining environmental policymaking in Australia.

The National Energy Guarantee

Having chronicled the ruin of the Abbott government and the plotting and eventual overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull, Australian journalist Niki Savva believes that, at least initially, Turnbull had a lot going for him. Though his prime ministership had been compromised right from the start by a never ceasing political insurgency mounted by the Abbott forces and the conservative media. In an intriguing twist of fate, it was Rudd versus Gillard playing out on the other side of the political divide, although the differences between Abbott and Turnbull were much more profound than those between Rudd and Gillard. Fundamentally, they were ideological, with Turnbull and Abbott inhabiting different political universes, yet having the misfortune of belonging to the same political party. Even some of Turnbull’s more balanced critics had to concede that on policy at least, Turnbull was often the smartest and best informed politician in the room, and grudgingly he earned recognition and respect for his intellectual abilities. But displaying intellectual superiority breeds resentment, and Turnbull appeared to some of his colleagues arrogant and condescending. As one of his associates pointedly told him ‘The smartest kid in the room didn’t always get the bag with lollies’. If Turnbull hadn’t drawn the wrong conclusions after losing the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009 to Abbott, he might have overcome these difficulties, but Turnbull’s attempts to placate his critics in the hope of political survival meant that Australians never got the Prime Minister they had bargained for. Constant policy shifts and flip flopping eroded public confidence into his leadership, and, as events in August 2018 would demonstrate, his critics came after him anyway and got him in the end.

Energy policy is inherently political. Given the ideological limitations of a Coalition government in this area, settling on the least bad option rather than dreaming up the supposedly perfect might be good politics too. With the South Australia blackout in 2016, constantly rising electricity prices and an outdated infrastructure requiring new investment and innovation, the truth hit home that Australia has no credible national policy framework on energy beyond 2020. In addition, Australia also has to ensure that it meets its obligations under the Paris Agreement, though the prospects for this happening have been diminishing ever since the Coalition won government in 2013.

Responding to growing concerns and heightened anxiety, the Turnbull government set up the Finkel review to make recommendations to secure Australia’s energy future. With its terms of reference largely built around reliability, its recommendations on emission reduction and renewable energy were disappointing particularly for environmental groups. As Ross Garnaut pointed out, the Finkel review was a step in the right direction, but only in as far as it addressed energy reliability. While it did propose emission cuts at up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030, these targets were viewed as far less than would be required to meet Australia’s international commitments. Worth noting in this context is also that these emission targets only applied to the electricity sector and not to the whole economy. The emission reduction targets agreed upon in Paris apply to a country’s overall emissions, including other sectors in the economy such as transport and agriculture. Since the electricity sector produces a large chunk of emissions, however, and with renewables becoming cheaper, it is this particular industry that will have to do much of the heavy lifting in this area. Beyond emission reduction, the review did include a new Clean Energy Target, suggesting that renewables should make up 42% of the energy market by 2030. As this newly proposed Clean Energy Target would have replaced the Renewable Energy Target, which mandated renewable energy at 20% by 2020, these recommendations fell short of public expectations as well. Additionally, the panel redefined clean energy by including coal and gas working with Carbon capture and storage. The previously agreed upon Renewable Energy Target did not consider coal and gas, even if less polluting due to Carbon capture and storage, to be means of energy generation by renewables. This is particularly striking, since the technology necessary to operate coal and gas plants with Carbon capture and storage has proven to be enormously expensive, and its economic viability has been questioned repeatedly. Especially in Australia, where most coal plants are ailing and will be phased out over the next two decades, it remains puzzling that the review argued in favor of new investment into coal and gas. For all its important contributions regarding reliability, the Finkel review did little to advance policies designed to help combat global warming. In fairness to Finkel and his team though, we must remember that their work was clearly meant to focus on reliability, and any terms of reference for an enquiry are profoundly political.

In keeping with Finkel’s recommendations, the government’s attempt to bring energy reliability and emissions reduction in Australia’s National Energy Market into one policy framework was laudable. In a less fractured Coalition party room, the policy’s selling points, reliability and projected falling electricity costs, would have ensured smooth sailing for Turnbull’s ambitious legislation. Tragically perhaps, it was the final straw that pushed his party internal enemies over the edge, leading to his overthrow in August 2018. The National Energy Guarantee (NEG) demanded of energy generators to provide a certain amount of dispatchable energy to meet peak demand and would have created an unambitious emissions intensity regime, requiring cuts up to 26% below 2005 levels by 2030. These very modest targets, as modeling suggested at the time, would have been reached anyway because of the impact of renewables which will have lowered emissions by 24% in the early 2020s. Thus, the NEG would have had no significant impact on emissions reduction in Australia and was therefore portrayed by many of its critics as having been ‘bad news’ on climate change. However, within the legislative framework, States would have been given enough scope to set more ambitious targets for themselves, and any new government in Canberra could have decided to amend the legislation to force higher cuts as well. Turnbull had even gone as far as to drop the Clean Energy Target to satisfy his opponents on the right of the Liberal Party, but it was of no use. In a last ditch attempt to save his job, he did offer not to legislate any emissions intensity targets at all, but only to put them into a regulatory framework which would not have required legislation to change it, making it easier for any successor to change or even completely abolish them. After losing his position, the NEG went nowhere. With the country back to square one, industry uncertainty continues, and the Morrison government has so far not come up with any national energy framework of its own.

A policy blueprint for the future?

How on the current trajectory Australia intends to square the circle and meet its Paris obligations by 2030 requires plenty of creative imagination at present. Perhaps it was this belated recognition that prompted some Coalition MPs to push and subsequently secure a new parliamentary enquiry charged with looking into the feasibility of going nuclear, and this despite the continuing decline of nuclear power throughout the world. The pros and cons of the subject have been debated many times before, having led to the conclusion both by experts and politicians that going nuclear is neither necessary nor desirable. Australian economist Ross Garnaut has made the point that, leaving aside safety concerns and nuclear proliferation, establishing a nuclear industry in Australia now, particularly as the push toward renewables leads to a restructuring of the National Energy Market anyway, would lack any economic prudence. However, he does concede that at least for a short while, nuclear power will likely play a role in some countries such as India and China. But, as most plants are approaching the end of their lifespan anyway, he believes that, given newly emerging storage technologies for renewables, using nuclear power will eventually become obsolete, even in the most densely populated areas of the world.

Australian scientist and environmentalist Ian Lowe has perhaps put forward one of the most persuasive and compelling cases against nuclear power in Australia and has implored the global community not to consider going nuclear to be an effective way of reducing greenhouse emissions. But his essay Reaction Time goes much further than just debunking plenty of myths in relation to the usefulness of nuclear power as a means by which to bring salvation to mankind. By placing environmental concerns into the broader context of a global movement for economic and social justice, he advocates a wholistic approach.

The notion that we need nuclear power to provide energy for the developing world runs parallel with the notion that we should introduce genetically modified food crops to feed the hungry; these purported solutions presume that we accept the present inequality of distribution and propose instead an increase in supply. If the sink won’t fill because the water is running down the drain, it isn’t very clever to keep turning the tap. Putting in the plug is a better course of action. We should also recognise the link between ecological systems and human health. We rely on natural systems to provide the essentials of life: oxygen, water and food. We also need those systems to process our waste. When the natural world’s capacity to provide these essential is run down, this has direct, systemic effects on our health. More broadly, the natural world provides us with our sense of place, cultural identity and spiritual sustenance. We are healthier and more fulfilled when such needs are satisfied. An investment in the health of our natural systems is also an investment in the health of the human community.

Reaction Time, Ian Lowe.

The idea that we in the ‘developed world’ should live simpler so that others on the planet can simply live is a principle not just Lowe can happily support. The proponents of nuclear power have not made the mental leap necessary to move swiftly toward a low-Carbon economy, believing that energy consumption and waste can go on as before. The blind faith in a technical fix for a man-made problem is reminiscent of a gambling addict in a casino being enchanted by the siren song of ‘placing your bets please’. This will go on until nature suddenly raises its mighty voice by declaring ‘No more bets please!’. Once the bouncers have shown us the door and humanity’s betting table is no more, the world we will find ourselves living in, even if temperatures have only risen by 2C above pre-industrial levels, will be a grim one indeed.

The debate surrounding the recently proposed Green New Deal in the US demonstrates the scale of transformative change required in order to decarbonize our economies. Such an undertaking would far exceed the time horizon of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, meaning that only governments can provide the longterm investment required for a project of such magnitude. Back in Australia Tim Flannery who previously chaired the Climate Commission never hesitates to name the big elephant in the room. Where, he asks, are the emission cuts supposed to come from? In light of the current political stalemate the Grattan Institute, always taking the long view on policy matters of public urgency, has attempted to chart a way forward, making any successful energy transition contingent on three essentials. First and foremost, energy policy must be incorporated into a broader public policy framework. The far-reaching changes necessary can only be achieved if governments, agencies and the energy industry work closely together. It goes without saying that this requires a robust national consensus. Second, the authors advocate a profound but inevitable restructuring of the National Energy Market. Lastly, when politicians intervene in the market, and facing constantly rising electricity costs and confronting a need to drastically reduce emissions they have an obligation to do so, they better get it right. Promoting and supporting an infrastructure that relies primarily on renewables will be of the utmost importance. These are noble sentiments, but the overall political picture isn’t encouraging, and no silver lining has appeared on the horizon thus far.

At the time of concluding this piece, more disturbing news on the subject of global warming came through. A group of 11 thousand scientists published a report once again sounding the alarm, warning all of us that climate change has been accelerating and that dealing with this ‘diabolical policy problem’ can no longer be deferred. Indeed, satellite imagery has shown that the previous month has been the warmest October since records began. It is one of the grave tragedies of our times that the conservative side of politics has never truly owned the issue of climate change, even though it was one of its most distinguished leaders who first alerted the global community to this existential problem. If conservatives can come up with their own version of credibly tackling this challenge, well, good luck to them. As long as our present political universe is not shaped by alternative facts and scientific reason informs policymaking, there will always be hope for both the people living ‘Down Under’ and for the globe as a whole.

One thought on “A treacherous spot under the sun: Can Australia rise to the challenge of climate change?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s