30 November 2009

Reflections on the climate change debacle

Perhaps I have been around politicians for too much of my life, but for what it is worth this is my take on the cynical machinations on climate change policy to which we have been witness over the last couple of years:

- When in April 2007 the Labor Premiers and Chief Ministers of all the States and Territories, plus the then Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, commissioned Professor Ross Garnaut of the Australian National University to undertake a review of the impacts of climate change on Australia and produce medium- to long-term policy recommendations, this was seen as a wonderful way of putting pressure on John Howard in an election year. John Howard, you will recall, relied on people like Cardinal Pell, Alan Jones and Janet Albrechtsen for his climate change thinking, and harnessing the powerful intellect of Ross Garnaut to the cause was bound to help position the ALP as progressive and forward-looking on climate change (not that any of the State and Territory Administrations had actually done much, but they are all prepared to position themselves at any time as people who are about to do something about the issues du jour).

- At this stage Kevin07 was not expected actually to win the election; the hope was that he would get Labor close enough to the line for someone like Bill Shorten to get them over the line in the following election.

- By this time, however, everyone had stopped listening to John Howard. His promise to spend billions saving the Murray-Darling Basin (as he had every election since 1996) had sunk without trace, and it rapidly became clear that Kevin Rudd was in with a chance. In fact things became so desperate for the Coalition that even John Howard was prepared to promise an emissions trading scheme, if that was part of the price of getting back in. The rising star Malcolm Turnbull was badgering him about it, and we all know that Malcolm can be quite persuasive on occasion.  Besides, there could always be masterly inactivity once John Howard was safely back in Kirribilli House.

- Once Labor actually made it and found itself holding the reins of office, the idea of having a hard-edged and forthright intellect like Ross Garnaut preparing the policy framework suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea any more, and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong was quickly assuring all and sundry that this well resourced 17-month study by one of the best policy minds in the country would be “just one input into the Government’s thinking”.

- The Government’s insistence that its emissions trading legislation had to be enacted prior to the forthcoming Copenhagen meeting was a stunt which had more to do with wedging the Opposition than any substantive need for the purposes of the negotiations. The normal process with complex multilateral negotiations is for the parties to meet and thresh out the deal (“forge” is the term preferred by politicians and journalists, a Freudian slip if ever there was one) and then come home and pass whatever legislation is necessary to implement it. If everyone passed their legislation first, there would not be much left to negotiate. Following the normal procedure would have put the Government in a much stronger position to get its legislation passed. If the Government came home from Copenhagen and said, “This is what everyone else is doing, and this is the best deal we could get” (which was what happened after Kyoto, and what has happened in the wake of every multilateral trade round) it would be very difficult for the Opposition and the minor parties to stand in the way of giving legislative effect to the international undertakings that the elected Government had negotiated in good faith.

- Malcolm Turnbull probably understood all this, knew that some of his backbenchers were recalcitrant denialists, and also knew that there were deep flaws in the legislation. Overall the Liberal Party put the position that the legislation was not acceptable in its present form.

- Penny Wong responded by demanding specific amendments, no doubt confident that the Coalition would be unable to come up with an agreed set, and could thus be held up to ridicule and contempt.

- Malcolm Turnbull and Ian Macfarlane managed to get the Party Room to agree on a slate of amendments. It was an ambit claim, no doubt intended by many in the party to be unacceptable to the Government, so that the legislation would fail but this could be sheeted home to the Government’s inflexibility.

- If this was the thinking, it failed to come to grips with how keen the Government was to get anything that could be described as an emissions trading scheme across the line. Also, the Government members involved no doubt sensed that if they gave Mr Macfarlane a good deal of what he had been briefed to seek, this would really expose the fault lines in his party on the issue. So to the surprise of many in the Liberal Party, and the horror of some, Ian Macfarlane returned with a deal that he had negotiated with Penny Wong, a circumstance that blew the Liberal Party of Australia into tiny fragments.

No-one comes out of this saga with much credit, because on both sides it was always about politicking and had very little to do with climate change. This behaviour is not unique to Australia. As Secretary to the Department of Primary Industries and Energy I attended the Conference of the Parties in Geneva in July 1996 (COP2) and the Kyoto negotiations in December 1997. There was a lot of political posturing and we were lectured a lot by people (the Americans, the Canadians, the British and numerous Europeans) who signed up to heroic cuts and then either did very little, or were able to make significant reductions at very low cost to themselves because of their particular circumstances.

The fact is that Western democratic governments are so absorbed in managing the 24-hour media cycle and getting themselves over the line at their next election that they have a very short attention span and have no intention whatsoever of inflicting any measurable pain on their electorate for the sake of preventing something from going wrong in the distant future, however predictable that something might be. The politics is served by looking as if they are seriously preparing to do something, without ever actually getting around to doing it.

It is this concern with posture rather than action that explains why there has been so little attention given even to the sorts of no regrets or low regrets measures that would be worth doing in their own right – measures like improved energy efficiency in buildings and transport, improved public transport, reafforestation etc. Taking any action on anything requires a commitment to getting something done (a risk which all contemporary politicians seem determined to avoid, who knows what might go wrong) and a commitment to spend money which is then unavailable for bribing the electorate.

The posture without action approach also explains why expectations for the Copenhagen meeting have collapsed so dramatically in recent months, as it became more and more evident that the preparatory work required for the meeting to achieve anything simply had not been done. No doubt Copenhagen will produce a ringing “we’ll do it next time, you can depend upon it”-type declaration, and we will flop into another inadequate outcome in a year or two’s time.

We are poorly served.

For earlier posts see Climate change: a plague on both their houses and Climate change: a plague a’ both your houses (still).

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