Monday, November 30, 2009

Money for nothing: the Climate Pollution Reduction Scheme and the ascent of Abbott

I’m writing about an emerging form of mental illness that has recently been identified by mental health professionals, and that I think I may be suffering from: politician induced depression, or PID. It’s been found in dictatorships for decades, but in recent years has turned up in increasingly endemic proportions in Western countries like Australia.

The main symptom is a growing despair that is activated every time the sufferer sees or hears a politician speak. Treatment consists of graded exposure to current affairs programs and radio news broadcasts, plus compulsory reading of books such as Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. Membership of the Greens is also recommended but not mandatory. As a final resort, sufferers are urged to run for parliament.

I’m only half joking. Australia these days is a hot place, and our capital cities are no exception. The evidence of climate change is everywhere, but all the pollies care about is keeping the coal industry onside.

I complained recently about a November heatwave in Melbourne – actually there were two mini-heatwaves, and the temperature reached 38.2 on 20 November before the cool change brought some rain.

But that was nothing compared to what the rest of the country was facing. In New South Wales, weather records were broken as some places reached 45 degrees. Meanwhile, South Australia’s equally giant heatwave saw eight consecutive days of over 35 degrees, between Sunday 8 November and Sunday 15 November. During the heatwave, maximum temperatures in parts of South Australia also nudged 45 degrees. On 19 November, Adelaide’s temperature reached 42.8 - the city’s hottest day ever recorded for November.

During these heatwaves catastrophic fire warnings were issued in both states. Dozens of bushfires swept across both South Australia and New South Wales, including Sydney’s northern outskirts; at different times in each state, at least 100 fires were burning.

There were also bushfires in Victoria and even one in Tasmania, which is known for its chilly weather compared with the rest of Australia.

And this was before summer had actually begun.

A climate scientist with the Bureau of Meteorology, Dr Harvey Stern, said that there was a ‘high chance’ that the hot weather that swept New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria was connected to climate change. As well as giving the world a sneak preview of what they can expect from global warming in the next few decades, Australia is currently the highest per capita producer of emissions in the world, so we really need to get our act together.

Climate capers
Meanwhile Australia’s politicians have been fiddling while the country literally burns. The two main party groups, the governing Australian Labor Party and the conservative Coalition (Liberals and the rural-based National Party) have been taking part in what amounts to a faux battle about climate change. The battle has resulted in zero action on climate change but huge media furore over the fall of Coalition leader Malcolm Turnbull (pictured above), yesterday replaced by the right-wing Catholic Tony Abbott.

Because he does not have a majority in the upper house, ALP leader Kevin Rudd had been trying to negotiate with the Coalition a deal that would enable the passing of his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) before going to the climate summit at Copenhagen. The CPRS is in the form of an emissions trading scheme.

Former Coalition leader Malcolm Turnbull and some members of the Coalition had been in favour of passing the Scheme, complete with amendments the Coalition had negotiated with the ALP, in time for Copenhagen. But a noisy minority of right-wing Coalition members were building up a simmering resentment towards Turnbull.

The fact is, in this sunburnt country, many of these renegades don’t actually believe that human-induced global warming exists, or they seem not to care, and they’ve publicly declared their stance. Basically they were trying to steal the glory from Rudd at Copenhagen, and to respond to Rudd's own move to the right by moving even further to the right than he has.

The anger of these renegades finally resulted in a dramatic change of leadership yesterday to Tony Abbott, who won by the narrowest of margins. This win was unexpected, as Abbott, a former health minister in the Howard Coalition government, is unpopular with voters, particularly women.

Turnbull was hoping to get the amended legislation passed in the Senate before his leadership showdown, but it wasn’t to be. With Abbott as leader, just hours ago the Senate formally rejected the legislation. This means that Rudd won't be able to take his CPRS to Copenhagen as a fait accompli. But it also enables the government, if it so chooses, to dissolve both houses of parliament and call an early election.

The great irony is that the ALP and all parts of the fractured Coalition have actually been on the same side all along – that of doing very little to mitigate climate change, and keeping the big polluters, particularly Australia’s powerful coal industry, happy. It’s difficult to understand how the international community could have been happy about the CPRS Rudd would have have taken to Copenhagen if the Senate had passed it. In fact, a recent article in The Guardian slams Australia’s record and current action on cutting emissions.

In negotiating CPRS amendments with the Coalition (Coal – ition?), and indirectly helping to precipitate their leadership crisis, Rudd made an extremely poor scheme even worse. He also demonstrated he would do anything to avoid negotiating with the Greens.

Disturbingly, the media have been reporting the leadership drama with the focus entirely on the politics rather than the planet. They’ve allowed Turnbull to portray himself as someone willing to sacrifice his prime ministerial aspirations for the principle of taking action on climate change. No-one in the mainstream media so far has directly challenged this breathtaking deception.

Meanwhile, the actions of the renegade Coalition members have enabled Rudd to pretend to the confused electorate that he’s their climate saviour, when the opposite is the case. Rudd might have got somewhere with his CPRS if he’d negotiated with the Greens, who have five members in the Senate, and independent senator Nick Xenophon, who at least believes in climate change (ironically, today in the Senate two disaffected Liberal 'wets' voted with the government on the amended CPRS; if these two Libs and Xenophon had supported a CPRS influenced by the Greens, it could have passed). Rudd chose instead to negotiate with a right-wing party that did nothing to mitigate climate change during its 11 years in office. And in the end it betrayed him, after giving him its word it was negotiating in good faith.

Despite all the spin, and the media focus on the Coalition in the last week or so, Fran Kelly reported on Radio National on 30 November that support for the ALP had dropped slightly, accompanied by a slight boost in support for the Greens. This suggests that at least some voters were unhappy with the further weakening of an already compromised CPRS that the Coalition's amendments would have led to.

Locking us into doing nothing
Even without the Coalition’s amendments, the incredibly complex piece of legislation installing the CPRS -- it will be reintroduced to parliament next year -- will lock Australia into targets so low they are laughable. The official target is 5–25 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, but the conditions attached to a 25 per cent reduction are so many that this higher target is unlikely to prevail. And Treasury modelling indicates there’ll be no actual reduction in greenhouse emissions until around 2033, because investment in offsets such as overseas carbon sinks will count towards the reduction.

The CPRS also not only offers, but locks in for the future, massive compensation to the big polluters. Importantly, the compensation figures included in the legislation assume that Australia cuts its carbon emissions by only 5 per cent by 2020. This means that in theory a higher rate of compensation to the polluters could kick in if the cuts are steeper than 5 per cent.

According to the Citizens Climate Campaign, Professor Garnaut, the Government’s own advisor on climate change policy, has criticised the CPRS, especially the compensation it offered the biggest polluters.

The deal struck with the Coalition on 24 November, before Turnbull’s defeat, would have watered the legislation down even further. Under the deal the government would have doubled its handouts to the coal industry, providing $1.5 billion over five years. Power generators would have received a further $4 billion in permits to pollute, bringing the total in permits to $7.3 billion. Further, $1.1 billion would have been spent on assisting manufacturing and mining businesses with higher electricity prices because of the CPRS. To top this off, $5.76 billion set aside to compensate consumers for the increased cost of living would have been cut.

Ordinary Australians were already going to be subsidising the big polluters, which would be able to go on with business as usual. However, these amendments would have made their subsidy even higher – $4 billion, rather than the original $2.5 billion, which was bad enough.

The dramatic turnaround in Coalition policy leaves many environmentally aware Australians feeling confused. On the one hand, they're relieved that we are not yet locked into a useless ETS; on the other hand they’re dismayed at both major parties’ refusal to really tackle climate change.

However, they shouldn't get too excited. The Minerals Council of Australia stated today that this was an opportunity to improve the CPRS legislation (read: throw more taxpayer money at the mining industry).

The proposed CPRS was complicated to start with and always had pathetically low targets. But when the global financial crisis struck, and even before it started negotiating with the Coalition, the government had heralded further industry-friendly changes, including moving the starting date from 2010 to 2011.

This cavalier approach to the planet, along with the Coalition’s changing position and the willingness of the media to air the views of climate change denialists in the interests of spurious balance, sent a message to the average Australian that climate change was not as dire a problem as previously thought. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute of International Policy found that Australians were less concerned about climate change than they had been two years earlier. According to the poll, on a list of 10 goals in 2009, climate change had slipped from its 2007 position, when it came equal first.

The Greens in Higgins
On 5 December a by-election will take place in my electorate, the House of Representatives seat of Higgins. The Liberals have a new candidate, Kelly O’Dwyer, to replace the one-time Liberal treasurer Peter Costello. The ALP isn’t fielding a candidate as Higgins is a safe-as-houses Liberal seat, but the Greens are. Their choice of candidate has been controversial though: Dr Clive Hamilton is a progressive economics academic and commentator, and one of Australia’s most committed climate change activists, but he has trouble connecting with the electorate and getting his message across.

Given the current Liberal Party furore it will be interesting to see whether Abbott’s leadership reduces the Liberal vote in Higgins. O’Dwyer claims to believe that humans play some role in climate change, but any policy must preserve our economy.

The Greens are the only party in the federal parliament with emissions targets that recognise the climate science – by 2020 they want a 40 per cut in carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels. Whether Higgins voters recognise the urgency of the situation, and send a message to both the ALP and the Coalition to get their act together, is yet to be seen.

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