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Rudd's climate speech: All 'action', no substance

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9 November 2009 09:52

Fergus Green is the co-author of a forthcoming Lowy Institute Analysis on the Copenhagen climate change conference.

Just when you thought Australia's debate over climate change and emissions trading couldn't get any more surreal, Prime Minister Kevin 'Action Man' Rudd, in a speech delivered at the Lowy Institute last Friday, mounted a brazen attack on the forces of climate scepticism in Australia and abroad.

Delivered one month out from the Copenhagen conference and less than three weeks before the Government will reintroduce its emissions trading bill into the Senate, this was a calculated attempt to reframe the climate debate in such a way that, should they both fail, blame will be laid squarely at the feet of the opposition and the 'sceptics' in their ranks. We should, dare I say, be sceptical.

In responding to climate change, we are told, 'there are two stark choices – action or inaction.' We are left in no doubt that the Government is on the side of action. The speech was literally action-packed: the word 'action' (including its variants and its antonym 'inaction') is mentioned 75 times.

But not once did the PM seek to differentiate between the myriad different types of 'action' that could be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Australia and internationally or to explain why the CPRS and the UN process are the right forms of 'action' to address the problem. The obvious reason for this omission is that the PM knows that neither the CPRS nor the Government's input into the international process is anywhere near proportionate to addressing the problem of climate change.

By framing the debate in Manichean terms the PM has reduced a complex issue to an absurdly simplistic contest, and by pitching this contest at the abstract level of action/inaction rather than at the level of specific policy detail, he aims to preclude all criticisms of his Government's climate policies.

The PM identified his enemy as 'opponents of action on climate change'; the 'do-nothing climate change deniers'. He posits three sub-groups of such sceptics: those who deny the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change; those who exaggerate the economic costs of pricing carbon in order to stymie attempts to impose such a price; and those who say we should delay action on climate change until other countries act.

Such a categorisation is perhaps a little crude, but the naming-and-shaming is largely fair enough: one doesn't have to look far to find powerful representatives of each of these groups in Australia, whose contributions to the public debate over climate change policy tend to be corrosive and misleading.

But climate science deniers, economic fear-mongers and policy nihilists are not the only contributors to this debate. Plenty of Australians want meaningful policies to reduce emissions in principle, but oppose certain types of action – including the Government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) or critical parts of it – for perfectly sound reasons. The PM's speech becomes problematic when he excludes such critics from his political battlefield by constructing a false dichotomy between the do-nothing sceptics on the one hand, and his Government on the other.

The Government has long played this game of 'you’re with us or you're against us' on climate change, albeit never so starkly as the PM did on Friday. The more noteworthy aspect of the speech is that it appears the PM is preparing the ground to blame the failure to reach a binding international agreement at Copenhagen, along with the blockage of the CPRS, on the 'do-nothing sceptics' opposed to its 'action'.

According to the PM, the 'danger' posed by such sceptics is that 'by collapsing political momentum towards national and global action on climate change, they collapse global political will to act at all…By hampering decisive action at a national level, they aim to make it impossible at an international level'.

The PM is trying to draw a straight line between climate deniers and the Copenhagen outcome. Reading the speech, one could be forgiven for thinking that a battalion of deniers had captured the city of Copenhagen and was forcibly preventing world leaders from attending. But the causal linkages between climate denialism, domestic politics and the success or otherwise of the Copenhagen conference are far more nuanced than the PM allows.

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