ABC The Drum Unleashed

By Tom Switzer

We all know climate change was a major issue in the 2007 election. So much so that both Labor and the Coalition pledged to implement an emissions trading scheme in order to reduce the nation's carbon footprint. But those days are over: Copenhagen, the GFC, Tony Abbott's rise, climate-gate and glacier-gate have changed the politics of global warming. In 2010, although the media has dedicated much time and interest to both Labor and the Coalition's climate platforms, the issue itself is not an overriding priority for the broad cross-section of the electorate. The idea of paying substantially higher energy prices when the rest of the world is doing very little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is hardly a voter winner, especially in those marginal seats where voters are mortgaged to the hilt. No wonder neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott are campaigning on an economy-wide cap-and-trade scheme. Now, many environmentally conscious people slam both major parties for jettisoning plans to price carbon. But the politics is far more complicated. However much there may be a scientific consensus on man-made global warming, the fact remains no policy or global consensus exists. None whatsoever. Without these conditions, unilateral action to price carbon would inflict collateral damage on the Australian economy, in terms of higher energy prices, lost jobs and lower growth. When I made this point on the ABC1's QandA on Monday night, the response from the other four panel guests and much of the progressively-minded studio audience missed the point. "You're a denier," (Graham Richardson), "You think it's a vast left-wing conspiracy," (Penny Wong), and "no wonder John Howard thinks you're the authentic voice of the Right" (Christine Milne). But the lack of policy consensus is important. Indeed, it is striking how many prominent warmists Al Gore, James Hansen and James Lovelock advocate quite different ways of going about things such as emissions trading, a carbon tax and nuclear energy which indicates less than unanimity among even the so-called alarmists. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, among other US environmental lobby groups, oppose the ETS as an effective way of reducing greenhouse gases. Even the intellectual architects of cap and trade such as American professor Thomas Crocker have repudiated the concept of cap and trade, saying it rewards big polluters while failing to tame global warming. In Australia, the Greens and the Coalition have completely different policy responses, and Labor, having ditched the ETS, does not even have a climate policy beyond election stunts, sound bites and symbolic gestures. A citizens' assembly is widely regarded as a joke. If Labor truly believes in putting a price on carbon, then their spokespeople should sell their pricing policy - an ETS or simple carbon tax - to the electorate. Moreover, the policy disunity in virtually every other nation outside the European Union and perhaps New Zealand is just as evident. Even in Brussels, the EU is widely regarded as a public policy disaster: the carbon price has collapsed and carbon emissions increased during the first three years of its implementation in 2005; and the recent cuts in emissions have had more to do with sluggish economic growth than anything to do with the ETS. Meanwhile, the US Congress can't even agree to a policy bill to debate on the senate floor before a vote; so president Obama has effectively shelved the ETS. With likely Republican gains in the Congress in November's mid-term elections, the odds of any cap-and-trade scheme in the US in the few years are very long. There is, moreover, no global consensus on climate change. The Copenhagen fiasco merely reflected this reality and the next climate change circus in Mexico promises more of the same. A legally binding global agreement to reduce emissions, frankly, is a chimera, because different states have different interests. If Washington, where the Democrats control the White House and hold big majorities in the House and Senate, can't even legislate a tiny 4 per cent cut to emissions of 1990 levels by 2020 (with loads of loopholes and pork to the big polluters), why would trade competitors slash emissions unilaterally? On Monday night's QandA Malcolm Turnbull insisted China is leading the world to a low-carbon future. But if this is true, why did China's leaders, in Kevin Rudd's colourful language, "rat@!#*" the Copenhagen talks last December? Why won't their leaders sign up to a legally binding, enforceable and verifiable deal to reduce emissions? The answer is obvious: they want to grow their economies and reduce poverty on the cheapest form of energy, which happens to be carbon. Nothing particularly wrong with this: China is quite rightly protecting its national interests. And although Beijing is investing in alternative energy measures, any efforts to reduce carbon emissions are outweighed by its meeting the demands of its rapidly industrialising economy. To put this in some perspective: Beijing is building more coal-fired generating capacity per year than virtually Australia's entire power output. So, if the experts can't reach a policy consensus on how to slash carbon emissions, and if the prospects of a genuinely global deal are virtually zero, the only real policy option is, as the leading British Conservative Lord Lawson points out, to adapt to whatever changes in temperature may in the future arise. As Lord Lawson points out: "This enables us to pocket the benefits of any warming (and there are many) while reducing the costs... And adaptation does not require a global agreement, although we may well need to help the very poorest countries (not China) to adapt." In this environment, it seems to me that Tony Abbott has got climate change about right: do as previous generations have done and adapt to climate change, but also make the case for modest, increased public investment in technological research and development (carbon sequestration, geo-engineering, renewables.) Not perfect, but a much better alternative to the crippling economic prescriptions and futile grand gestures that have defined Labor policy. Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.