This Time the Sky Really Is Falling


It’s a "diabolical" policy issue which presents possibly the greatest challenge Australia has faced since World War II. But so far, Australia is not dealing well with the implications of climate change.

It has been less than a week since the release of the most sustained and detailed policy response to the problem of anthropogenic global warming yet published by the Australian Government – the Draft Report of the Garnaut Review — and we’ve already had the NSW Labor Treasurer proclaim the sky is not falling, the Liberal Opposition signal they will line up solidly on the side of big polluters, and a national broadsheet newspaper publish a grab-bag of ill-informed quotes from discredited non-experts under the heading of "science".

Welcome to climate change: Australia, 2008.

First, let us examine Professor Garnaut’s mammoth draft report itself. Economics journalist and blogger Peter Martin put it best when he called it "clear, evocative, sobering and persuasive". The document is a tour de force of reasoned policy analysis — a large, thoughtful and considered response to the massive global problem of climate change. Like the UK Treasury report by Sir Nicholas Stern, which it in some ways builds on, Garnaut starts from the straightforward axiom that anthropogenic climate change is no longer in serious doubt.

The key sentence, repeated several times in the Draft Report, is this one: "The Review takes as a starting point, on the balance of probabilities and not as a matter of belief, the majority opinion of the Australian and international scientific communities that human-induced climate change is happening, will intensify if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, and could impose large costs on human civilisation." [my italics]

Of course, Garnaut is an economist, not a climatologist. This means he is like the vast majority of informed non-experts, who have only two choices in the debate on the science of climate change: to agree or disagree with a vast body of observed evidence as interpreted by thousands of climate change experts.

Denial strategies range from cherry-picking data in sophisticated smokescreens to claiming that climate scientists are engaged in a vast conspiracy. None of them are credible. The earth is warming up, and humans are causing it.

It’s worse than that, actually — as anyone who has followed the scientific debate closely will know. Not only is the earth heating up rapidly, but global greenhouse gas emissions are actually growing faster than even the worst-case scenarios of the International Panel on Climate Change. Far from getting out of the way of the oncoming train, we’re actually running towards it.

The result, as James Hansen and other leading climate scientists are arguing, is that atmospheric carbon concentrations are already dangerously high, and that the kind of emissions reductions promised by rich nations are not going to be enough to stabilise the atmosphere. The Rudd Government’s 60 per cent carbon emission reduction target is too low. We’re going to need to mitigate more aggressively. If we can’t turn it around, to quote Hansen, "we’re toast".

After examining the science, Garnaut turns to the economic costs of climate change – in particular, the costs of doing nothing as opposed to beginning to mitigate that change now. These are massive. For starters, say goodbye to the Great Barrier Reef, irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling and Australia’s alpine skiing industry. Get ready for dramatic increases in the number and severity of bushfires and droughts, more deaths from heat stroke and tropical diseases, and vast influxes of refugees from collapsing states in the Pacific. If the world can somehow mitigate climate change, many of these risks will be reduced. Garnaut models the benefit at approximately 5 per cent of GDP.

The Emissions Trading Scheme that Garnaut proposes has already been examined in by Anna Rose, but briefly, it works like this: the Government sets a cap or limit on the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, nationally. Those who emit carbon will need a permit from the Government to do so. The Government sells these permits, which can also be traded in an open market. The result is a steadily decreasing number of permits for carbon emissions, combined with a big new source of revenue for the Federal Treasury. We’re still waiting for the economic modelling from Treasury on this vital topic: just how much will a tonne of carbon cost?

What no one disputes is that carbon emissions trading will make just about everything more expensive: petrol, food, electricity and transport. On the other hand, it will also give the Government a big windfall with which to compensate those affected: chiefly poorer people, electricity generators and so-called "trade-exposed, carbon-intensive industries" like cement manufacturers and aluminium smelters.

Garnaut proposes distributing the revenue windfall in a 50:30:20 ratio – 50 per cent to households, 30 per cent to carbon-intensive export industries, and 20 per cent to renewables research. It’s a politically driven formula, and Greens have criticised it for being too friendly to industry and not giving enough to research. From the opposite perspective, Alan Kohler in Crikey has questioned the giant new bureaucracy such a permit system will necessitate.

On the other hand, it might just work.

Garnaut’s intelligent and well-resourced report has already drawn howls of misguided criticism. Among the most ignorant is this contribution from NSW Treasurer Michael Costa, who used the ever-willing op-ed pages of The Australian to paint Ross Garnaut as "Chicken Little". Such invective is unsurprising from Costa, a well known climate change sceptic whose patchy intellectual background I explored in earlier this year.

But in Ross Garnaut, Costa has encountered a willing opponent. Garnaut struck back on Monday, pointedly calling Costa a "denier of the science". While many in his own party will be pleased to see someone take a stick to the profane and disputative NSW Treasurer — who has sadly refused to debate Garnaut on the issue this Thursday — the controversy also illustrates just how poorly the Rudd Government has performed in selling this huge reform.

As Lenore Taylor wrote recently in a fine column: since the budget, the Rudd Government’s media strategy has been scattered and multi-messaged. This has allowed a scare-mongering Opposition and its cheerleaders in the Murdoch press to seize the agenda on climate change with populist calls for petty reductions in petrol excises and short-sighted attempts to delay the start of the ETS. The Prime Minister was finally on the front foot yesterday in The Australian with an opinion piece explaining why we need to act now. It’s a step in the right direction, but Penny Wong, Peter Garrett, Wayne Swan and Anthony Albanese also need to lift their game. The Government needs all of its hands on deck.

Meanwhile, Brendan Nelson is leading his party ever further into the wilderness of climate change denialism, arguing that Australia should wait for India and China to act before we do. As Bernard Keane observed yesterday in Crikey, it’s a dangerous strategy.

The polls demonstrate that the Liberals are losing the climate change debate: Australians want action and favour an emissions trading scheme. The Libs risk defining themselves on the wrong side of the debate, which will define Australian public policy for the next generation.

On Friday Ben Eltham will report from Ross Garnaut’s public briefing in Sydney.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.