Climate Hope Disappearing Faster Than The Murray Darling

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My 15-year-old cousin has a t-shirt that says "Green is the New Black". She’s more interested in partying than in politics, but, like the vast majority of young Australians, she cares deeply about climate change because she knows it will directly affect her future. Penny Wong will announce a decision on Monday that will affect her for the rest of her life: Australia’s emission reduction targets for the year 2020.

As we continue to wait hopefully for the Rudd Government to show some guts on climate change, I’m left asking the question: when will the Government get on with what they promised the Australian people at the last election?

Was it just me, or did things seem so hopeful at the start of the year?

It all began with Kevin Rudd receiving a standing ovation in Bali after Australia finally ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The appointment of Wong as Climate Minister was promising: she was one of the most intelligent and articulate members of the new Government, someone who clearly understood the significance of her portfolio not just to Australia’s environment, but also to our future economy. Her early statements gave us reason to hope that Australia would finally shed the vice-like grip held by the "greenhouse mafia" over Australia’s energy and climate policy. Similarly, Professor Ross Garnaut’s early statements indicating he supported much stronger carbon cuts than Kevin Rudd’s weak proposal of 60 per cent by 2050, was a sign of great things to come.

Or so we thought.

By the time the 2020 Summit came around in April, the shine had started to wear off. Despite the obvious commitment that I still believe Rudd and Wong have to the issue, I witnessed the "greenhouse mafia" in action: Australia’s biggest carbon polluters lobbying for funding for so-called "clean coal" and agitating against the mandatory renewable energy target, energy efficiency, and large-scale nation-building renewable energy investments.

The polluting lobby got into full swing after the 2020 Summit, when they realised that they had an opportunity to rort the emissions trading scheme. Groups like the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network will certainly be celebrating at this year’s Christmas parties for the role they’ve managed to play in watering down and destroying the initial hope of strong climate change targets and an emissions trading scheme uncompromised by vested interests.

Instead of the carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS) that we’re now likely to get — which will be full of holes, and include free permits and compensation to industry — it would have been better to go with a simple carbon tax.

One of the other features of this year has been the battle of the economic models, with industry groups firing off report after commissioned report to show that their arguments about the CPRS and its impact on the economy are correct.

When the financial crisis hit, it gave these business lobbyists the perfect excuse to encourage the Government to back away from strong targets. In reality, of course, a green economic stimulus package, focussing on new green jobs and green infrastructure projects such as public transport, is exactly what we need to solve both the financial crisis and the climate crisis.

But the courage and commitment the Government showed at the start of the year seems to have faded as quickly as the trend for tie-die t-shirts.

Now, the negotiations are grinding to a close in Poznan, where Australia’s refusal to announce targets has been condemned by senior commentators from several nations including China.

But Penny Wong isn’t the only Australian having her views heard.

The AYCC Youth Delegation, made up of 20 Australians aged between 16 and 26, achieved an extraordinary feat last night: negotiating an international statement based on the "survival principle" and getting over 80 countries’ senior negotiators to sign their countries up to it.

Countries including the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Norway, Tuvalu and Bangladesh — as well as eminent scientists including Australia’s Tim Flannery — signed on to the statement that a global climate change agreement should "safeguard the survival of all countries and peoples".

Minister Wong declined to sign Australia on to the statement, but surprised us all in the afternoon Environment Ministers’ Plenary when, in front of delegates from around the world, she concluded her speech with these words from the youth statement: "We must safeguard the survival of all countries and all peoples".

Back at home, as we prepare for Monday’s target announcement, the muddy world of climate politics is finally front and centre in the national debate about Australia’s future.

As I write, we have a team of high school volunteers in the office making kites to fly outside the press club on Monday that say "Aim Higher: 40 per cent by 2020". These are the Australians most affected by the decision Penny Wong will announce on Monday, and their opinions are just as valid — if not more so — than the demands of business.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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