13 August 2009

Climate change: a plague on both their houses

Earlier today the Senate rejected the Government’s emissions trading legislation - predictably and deservedly so.

This legislation was doomed a long time ago, and for two reasons.

The first is that the Opposition is a refuge for climate change denialists, and so the only way the Opposition can find a flag around which everyone can rally is by finding that the Government’s proposals are too deeply flawed to be countenanced – no matter what those proposals might be.

The second is that Senator Wong has been unravelling Professor Garnaut’s tightly reasoned policy framework from the moment she came to office – the moment she uttered the words “Well, the Garnaut Review will be just one input into the Government’s thinking”. And when some bright spark decided that the emissions trading scheme should be retitled a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, it was clear that it was in trouble. This was going to be all about the sizzle, not the sausage, another example of the dreadful modern naming rite which decrees that the titles of government bodies and programs should not tell us what they do (e.g. “emissions trading”) but what they are going to fail to achieve (“carbon pollution reduction”, “work choices” or whatever).

Just for the record, the last Government into whose thinking Professor Garnaut made “an input” was the Hawke Government (he was Hawke’s Economic Adviser), which did a few little things like float the dollar, liberalise the financial system, eliminate the tariff on all but the motor vehicle and TCF industries, and introduce enterprise bargaining. No lack of political cojones there.

For my money, in the present instance Professor Garnaut produced, after a year or more of prodigious labour and extensive consultation, one of the highest quality pieces of public policy analysis that Australian Government has seen. And if you read the submissions to the Review from major players like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, you will see that there was a chance to get everyone inside the tent. Of course there would be some significant adjustments to be made, but Garnaut provided rational mechanisms for compensating low income houselholds and trade exposed industries, and a mechanism by which our rate of emissions reduction could be calibrated against what was happening elsewhere. And anyone who tries to tell you, as Government and Opposition are doing in effect, that we can make a fundamental transformation to a new energy economy without anyone experiencing any pain, is selling snake oil.

Viewed from this perspective, it begins to look as though getting Garnaut’s powerful intellect onto the job (an initiative of the then wall-to-wall Labor State Premiers and Chief Ministers) was a wonderful stunt when John Winston Howard was in office, but when the unexpected happened and Labor found itself holding the Commonwealth reins as well, this started to look like a distinctly uncomfortable idea, because Professor Garnaut has a track record of calling it as he sees it and is not likely to stop now.

The bind we are in has many causes, but at the root of it all is a wilful confusion between three distinct domains of knowledge and skill that are required to implement a successful response to climate change.

First, there is the science. This is the domain of scientific specialists in many fields – physics, chemistry, life sciences, geology, oceanography, palaeontology and many more. A couple of myths need to be dispelled here:

(1) While no scientific story is ever “complete”, and there is still much to find out about the consequences of global warming, there is no doubt about the core science – “radiative forcing” due to man-made emissions is warming the planet. The underlying theory enables the construction of mathematical models which seek to predict what the consequences of the warming will be – not just in a single parameter but in an array of parameters like paths of storm tracks, which parts of the planet will warm by how much, etc. Many such models have been constructed, by different groups of reputable researchers, and they all provide a reasonable fit with what we observe going on around us. The models don’t prove the theory, but as Jo Bjelke-Petersen was fond of saying, “If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck”.

(2) The science embodied in the Assessment Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change is not “consensus science” in the sense that the denialists would have us all believe. The thousands of contributors to the Assessment Reports - essentially stocktakes on the state of knowledge in the hundreds of sub-specialties that have a bearing on this complex picture – make a contribution only in relation to their particular field. There is no massive “consensus” process whereby they all vote on the totality of it, and there is no massive international conspiracy to garner research funding by frightening us all about a problem that doesn’t exist.

The second domain is analysis of the economic consequences of the science. Professor Garnaut wisely confined himself to that subject, saying from the outset, in effect, “I am not a scientist, I am an economist; the wisest starting point for me is to accept the mainstream science as a given, and explore the economic consequences of the science and the most economically efficient means of dealing with those consequences”. Denialists who say “Ross Garnaut is not a scientist, so he is not qualified to comment” have either failed to read the introductory pages of his report, or are making deliberate mischief.

The third domain is the political skill and will to sell to the Australian population both the nature of the problem and what has to be done to solve it. I believe that with skilled political leadership the Australian public can be persuaded to face up to what needs to be done when new challenges arise, and if need be endure a lot of pain – the acceptance of the economic reforms of the Hawke Government is a case in point.

The problem in this particular case is that a one hundred per cent political animal like the Minister for Climate Change does not seem to see the relevance of the science and the economics: for her, all problems are addressed by finding the right political fix. So when an issue arises, you consult all the stakeholders (who in this case have already had their say), and ask them whether they see any problems with the proposed solutions. Of course they insist that it will be the end of civilisation as we know it, and as soon as the various interest groups realise that a policy auction has commenced they are all in with their hands out. One of the attributes of good government is the wit to know when to stop consulting the stakeholders and make a decision. In this case, that time was when Garnaut handed in his report.

As a final comment, no doubt all readers recognise the paraphrase of “a plague a’ both your houses” which heads this post, and most probably remember where it came from. For those who don’t, it was a line uttered by Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet. He was dying when he said it.

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