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Rudd's snow job on climate

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COMMENTS

10 November 2009 13:37

Fergus Green is co-author of a forthcoming Lowy Institute Analysis on the Copenhagen climate change conference. This is part two of his analysis of Prime Minister Rudd's speech to the Lowy Institute last Friday. Part one is here.

The Prime Minister's speech was about positioning the Government to weather the political storm brewing in the parliament and in Copenhagen. The PM can see that passage of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) before Copenhagen and the negotiation of a new treaty at the conference are looking increasingly unlikely, and it will be damned if it is going to shoulder any blame for either.

As the Government suits up for battle, however, we must be wary of its attempt to portray itself as a band of valiant warriors fighting for planetary salvation. We have every reason to be 'sceptical' of the PM's rhetoric.

The Prime Minister was right to say that in some countries, the forces of denial, by blocking domestic action, make international climate change negotiations more difficult. In the US, for example, the extraordinary level of conservative opposition to cap-and-trade legislation is hindering the Obama Administration's climate agenda, and is at least partly to blame for the slow progress of the climate bills through the Congress. The ever-decreasing probability of a bill passing the US Senate before Copenhagen in turn weakens the prospects of an effective international deal emerging by year's end.

This causal connection between domestic opposition and the Copenhagen process is particularly acute in the US due to its unique political system and its critical role in the international negotiations. The Obama Administration has little choice but to tie its international negotiating position to the legislation that emerges from Congress, for pre-empting the outcome risks incurring the ire of the Senate, which has to pass the climate bill and to ratify any international treaty. And a treaty without the US is about as good as, well, Kyoto!

But a similar analysis cannot credibly be applied to Australian politics. Sure, the Opposition can fairly be blamed for blocking the CPRS in the Senate, but the Australian Government's position at Copenhagen is decided by the executive, and the executive is free to propose and accept any targets, obligations and rules it wishes when negotiating a new treaty. Whether or not the CPRS is passed before Copenhagen will have no bearing on those negotiations whatsoever.

If the PM is genuinely worried about 'political momentum', he could unilaterally raise Australia's proposed emissions reduction target by another 10% or more, as he did in May this year, or he could make a concrete offer of financial assistance to help poor countries adapt to climate change and to invest in clean energy technologies. These two issues — weak emissions reduction pledges and insufficient financial assistance pledged by developed countries — are two of the main sticking-points that could cause the Copenhagen negotiations to fail. It is the Rudd Government, not Australia's climate sceptics, who will be complicit in that failure if it occurs.

Here are a few more questions begged by the Mr Rudd's Lowy Institute speech:

  • The PM lambasted the climate sceptics for their denial of the scientific evidence and claimed the moral high ground on science-based policy, yet the evidence the PM mobilises in support of his purportedly rigorous position is outdated and overly-conservative. The 2007 IPCC Report that the PM referred to in his speech is a comprehensive assessment of peer-reviewed scientific papers published up to July 2006 only. It is on the basis of this report that the Government formed its stated goal of forging an international agreement that avoids a temperature rise of more than 2°C by stabilising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 450 parts per million. More than three years of subsequent scientific advances have revealed the climate and the earth's other natural systems to be more sensitive to rises in CO2 concentrations, and 2°C warming to be vastly more dangerous, than previously thought. Is the Government's adherence to outdated science not itself a form of climate science denial? Why is neither the Government's international policy position nor the design of its CPRS informed by the latest science?
  • The PM stated that 'we choose action, and we do so because Australia's fundamental economic and environmental interests lie in action. Action now. Not action delayed' and that '(t)he sooner we act, the better placed our companies will be to benefit from new emerging global markets, and to benefit from the economic gains from improved efficiency'. If Mr Rudd thinks that action is so urgent and beneficial, why did the Government in May this year unilaterally delay the proposed commencement of the CRPS by another year, until July 2011 — almost four years after he was elected to power?
  • The PM stated that climate change is 'the greatest long term threat to us all'. If the PM believes this, why did he sign off on a Defence White Paper that blithely dismisses the strategic implications of climate change until at least 2030? 
  • Lauding his Government as protector of Pacific Island nations, the PM cited his role in crafting the Pacific Leaders' Climate Change Call to Action that emerged from the Pacific Island Forum in August this year, effectively endorsing the Australian Government's targets and objectives. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, why does the PM continue to insist that his Government's climate policies are in the interests of Pacific island countries?

These are precisely the sorts of pertinent questions that will be silenced if the climate change debate is reduced to a question of 'action' or 'inaction'. Sadly, as the Opposition looks set to revert to denier-fuelled nihilism, this is precisely the debate that we are likely to be subjected to, for all the Government needs to do to win it is project the appearance that it is trying to do 'something'. It seems, therefore, that in one of the most important domestic and international policy debates we are ever likely to have, 'action' will speak louder than substance.

Photo by Flickr user innpictime, used under a Creative Commons license.

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