The great moral challenge of our generation – junked

The behaviour of the Rudd Government during the last couple of weeks has been, simply put, erratic. There’s been a whole lotta junking going on. The election promise to build 260 new childcare centres in schools has been junked. The Prime Minister’s commitment to hold three, independently regulated debates during the election campaign has been junked. Any further talk from the government regarding a possible federal bill of rights has been – that’s right – junked. And to cap it all off, the policy that Federal Labor framed as its response to the “great moral challenge of our generation”, its carbon pollution reduction scheme or ETS, has been rather ingraciously junked, until 2013 at least.

There are a number of plausible political reasons as to why we are seeing this pattern of behaviour. The first is the fact that this is all happening relatively early in the election year. There is undoubtedly a push from strategists close to the Federal Cabinet to get any bad news the government has out the door now, presumably a good six months from any federal election. Secondly – we are very much in pre-budget territory. It is highly likely that pressure from Treasury and Lindsay Tanner’s Department of Finance and Deregulation has driven the government’s decisions in relation to childcare centres and emissions trading. For various reasons, neither proposal appeared to be going anywhere fast in terms of implementation. This being the case, it obviously didn’t make a great deal of sense for the funding for these proposals to be incorporated into this year’s Budget, which is already comfortably in the red due to the government’s stimulus measures. Thirdly, these announcements have been made during a period when the Rudd Government was finalising the central plank of its re-election strategy for later this year: health reform. Despite the intrastringence of Western Australia’s Barnett Government, Federal Labor came out of the negotiations with the states looking like it has achieved something quite worthwhile. One would imagine that some advisors would be of the view that the good news on health had the capacity to “absorb” a bit of bad news from other quarters, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned.

The government’s decision to delay its emissions trading scheme further may prove to have been a scuttle too far. It looks set to alienate some of its base. I don’t always agree with Paul Kelly, often finding him too dogmatic once he has made up his mind, but I find myself agreeing with a lot of his combative column in today’s Australian:

In truth, Rudd has lost his nerve. This is a political and policy retreat. He says the ETS remains “the most effective and least expensive” means of combating greenhouse gas emissions. His tacticians will call this smart and they may be right. But it betrays a government weak to its core. Understand what this is about: it is giving Rudd a political strategy to maximise his re-election by removing the only mechanism he had to deliver his ETS policy. He has chosen safe politics over policy delivery. Any voter who believed Rudd was genuine about climate change needs to reassess.

The rhetoric from the government – in particular the Prime Minister – has been just too big on this issue for it to be credibly delayed for three years. A good government does not delay its response to the “great moral challenge of our generation” merely because it can not get its legislation through parliament. A good government fights for such a cause using all the legitimate tools of persuasion and negotiation at its disposal, including mechanisms like double dissolution triggers should they prove necessary.

Truthfully, I can abide the other disappointing announcements mentioned above, but on climate change, the Prime Minister has effectively asked its supporters to defend the indefensible. This transcends the question of whether the government has the courage of its convictions – does the Rudd Government really even have the conviction to decisively act on climate change?

Is climate change a burning issue and a call to action, or is it merely a launchpad for rhetorical flourishes?

ELSEWHERE: Even Dennis Shanahan is making sense.

Whither Mr. 5%?

It has been a desperately interesting week for the environmental movement and indeed the fortunes of the Rudd Labor Government. On Monday, the Prime Minister delivered a speech at the National Press Club, releasing his government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) white paper into the spotlight. The result was not pretty. The unconditional 5% by 2020 carbon emission reduction target promised by the government was immediately attacked as being a paltry figure, particularly given what the science currently tells us about climate change. Even the government’s proposed 15% carbon emission reduction target for 2020, which is conditional on a global agreement being reached, did not nearly meet the expectations of many observers and environmental activists.

We now have a situation developing where the broader “green” movement in the non-party-political sense of the term may choose to part company with Federal Labor. After its ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the Rudd Government was given the benefit of the doubt on environmental issues by many supporters of the Greens and members of the Labor Left. There is little doubt that some Liberal voters have been attracted to the new broom the Rudd Government ushered in on environmental issues immediately after its election; voters who may after this week decide to reconsider where their loyalties lie. Let’s also not forget that there are a number of inner-city marginal seats that Labor may struggle to retain at the next poll if the local Green campaigns are fought primarily on the climate change issue, which is looking increasingly likely.

My own view is that the climate change issue is one that is going to need to be addressed, discussed, and revisited almost perpetually over the course of the coming decades, and that in the immediate term, there is nothing particularly wrong about the initial targets that the government has set. Firstly, it is worth re-iterating that the government’s 5% target refers to a reduction in overall national emissions, without considering population growth. The white paper seems to suggest that this 5% target equates to a per capita reduction of some 27-34% below 2000 levels, and 34-41% below 1990 levels. This seems to compare quite reasonably with the commitments offered by both the United Kingdom and the European Union at the present time. While we might observe say that the per capita reduction numbers are somewhat besides the point with respect to the requirements implied by the climate change science, population growth is something that can not simply be ignored in a policy sense. In essence, significant per capita cuts are going to be required in order to meet the national 5% target. It is not the gimme it appears. It is all very well for folks sitting on the sidelines to demand that the Prime Minister puts Australia out on an economic limb by going bold on climate change and hoping that others will follow; they of course will not be held responsible for the repercussions that follow in an economic sense, and of course an electoral sense when an even more enviro-pragmatic Turnbull Opposition is returned to office in 2010 should the economy be wrecked by the Rudd Government’s actions.

Secondly, the economic outlook is extremely uncertain at the present time. It is little wonder that not a great deal has been achieved in the way of commitments to emissions reduction at the Poznan conference, coming as it does in the midst of a quite severe global economic downturn. What sane government is going to make a commitment to cut carbon emissions massively during a time when the world is on the brink of global recession, and the world’s major polluters are not really even close to coming on board and signing up for a new multilateral deal? What average punter who has just lost their job (an there are an increasing number of them by the month) is going to invite any potential for more imposed self-harm through aggressive government action on the climate change issue?

Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that the 5% target is fundamentally speaking, less than that which the climate change science demands of the Rudd Government (and the rest of the world) at the current time. Unfortunately, there is no realistic sense in which Australia announcing a more aggressive target this week at Poznan was going to “save the world”. This is a problem that does not have any quick and easy solutions. No sweeping hand of any single government has the authority or power to resolve the issues that activists seem to want resolved, and resolved now. We are as a nation and a society are going to go two-steps forward and one-step back on this until momentum gathers further, the imperative to act is even greater, and the stars align in such a fashion that a global deal on carbon emissions is not as intractable as it might appear at first blush.

Earth Hour and dumbass contrarianism

As an Australian I am sort of proud that the Earth Hour event has now taken off all over the world. Practically speaking of course I am not sure the event achieves all that much, but if it continues as an annual event it will serve as a potent global reminder of the importance of tackling climate change issues. I think its interesting that folks like Matthew Warren at The Australian and of course perennial climate change sceptic Tim Blair have quickly jumped back on the contrarian bandwagon. Unfortunately, the event embodies enough symbolistic bonhomie to attract satire and ridicule from anyone with a bone to pick with either the mainstream acceptance of the climate change science or symbolism in politics more generally. There is a target on its back as wide as a barn because of the way it is framed.

I suppose a slightly broader question is whether events like this are really worthwhile, when all things are considered. Regular readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to hear that I think they are, although I think its healthy to temper one’s view of symbolic events like Earth Hour with a dose of scepticism. I think the positives we can take out of Earth Hour mostly relate to increasing public awareness of climate change issues, and the marketing of environmental issues more broadly as being somewhat relevant to us all. Any reduction in overall carbon emissions resulting from Earth Hour is of course likely to be on the inconsequential side of things, as several critics pointed out in relation to last year’s inaugural event. However, critics who focus entirely on the raw carbon emission reduction from the event are missing the point. The event provides an avenue to people who ordinarily would not give two hoots about climate change issues to be part of something bigger themselves and make a small difference. Many people now doubt see that powerful corporations and other Australians they respect and admire are taking the event seriously, and decide to participate, or in the very least, think a little bit more for a moment about what climate change may eventually mean for the planet.

The professionalism and success of the campaign is an interesting contrast to the sheer juvenilia exhibited by some climate change science deniers. But then for some of these people, “denier” is too strong a word; they haven’t bothered to engage with the science, and only seem interested in letting off some steam with some faux-cool contrarianism. These guys are to climate change issues what kids taking mobile phone pictures up women’s skirts are to clothes shopping. Offensive, irrelevant, and just plain pathetic.

UPDATE: Tim Blair’s entirely predictable and brain-free snark in response to this post is here. I feel gratified to be the target of a re-run of the “Al Gore catches a lot of planes” gag. Maybe it is a summer programming thing over there – who knows?

Balancing economics with all our environmental concerns

The Rudd Government’s credibility on environmental (and perhaps, by association) economic issues is likely to depend to a significant extent on the eventual outcomes of the Garnaut Climate Change Review, and of course the government’s reaction to the report’s findings. Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol so soon after being elected ensured that the new government got off to an excellent start from a symbolic perspective, although its stance on emission cuts was left somewhat undefined at the UNCCC meeting in Bali last December. Climate Change Minister Penny Wong nevertheless articulated Australia’s position quite clearly; namely that the Rudd Government would, having announced the Garnaut Review prior to the election, await the review findings and recommendations before setting any interim targets. It obviously wasn’t quite as forthright a position as the environmental lobby would have liked, but in process terms the position made eminent sense.

Since then there have been some pre-emptive ad hominem attacks on the “green” credentials of Professor Ross Garnaut, mostly centred on the fact that he is an economist, and therefore that he is likely to focus on the economic impacts of emissions cuts, rather than the disastrous consequences if emissions cuts are not adopted, according to the climate change science. Considering these attacks, it is quite interesting to observe Garnaut’s recent comments from a conference in Adelaide yesterday (as reported by Penelope Debelle in the SMH):

On the eve of the release today of his interim report on climate change, Professor Garnaut told a conference in Adelaide yesterday that without intervention before 2020, it would be impossible to avoid a high risk of dangerous climate change. “The show will be over,” he said.

The Government’s existing target is to cut greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050. Professor Garnaut said Australia would need to go “considerably further” as part of a global agreement, with full participation by developing countries, to keep climate change at acceptable levels.

These are strong words in a “green” sense for someone who has been typecast in some quarters as the stereotypical “grey” economist. I look forward to the outcomes of the Garnaut Review, and I certainly have a strong level of confidence that Garnaut will get the balance right between the economic aspects the nation will need to deal with and the potential environment repercussions. The man’s economic credentials are unquestionable. These recent statements reinforce the fact that he is cogniscent of and ready to accept the implications of the science. The early indications are that this appointment, made in Opposition by Federal Labor, was an excellent one.

UPDATE: Details of how you can make a submission to the Garnaut Review if you are so inclined can be found here.