We'll Be Going To Copenhagen With A Phoney ETS


With the release on Sunday of the Coalition’s proposed amendments to the emissions trading scheme, the dysfunctional nature of Australia’s decades-long debate on the climate crisis has become starkly obvious.

At one level, Australia’s climate scientists — ranking among the world’s best — pursue sombre research-based discussion with overseas counterparts, leading to the latest consensus that the two degree celsius guardrail for relatively "safe" increases in global average temperature will certainly be exceeded this century — that three or four degrees is now the expected outcome — and that homo sapiens will probably not survive the resulting climate-caused stresses except in broken remnant populations.

Meanwhile, Australia’s mainstream political parties continue to fiddle, pretending that their prolonged debate about an ETS is serious. After the Coalition’s meeting on Sunday, the politics are now clear. There will be ETS laws by Christmas, accepted by most of the Opposition. Any hope of a Labor-Greens deal for a strong ETS is now extinguished.

These laws will be totally ineffectual in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in Australia. They are simply a massive cynical exercise in protecting the comfortable growth of Australia’s emitting industries, through a combination of weak targets, lavish compensatory paybacks, and encouraging phoney green compensation deals with poor countries like PNG — which everyone knows are unenforceable.

Australia’s denialist lobby will quietly celebrate this moment, because they have at least for now stopped any national movement to real decarbonisation. With the support of both major parties, Australia will go to Copenhagen with a phoney ETS, which it will proclaim as real. Though Australian NGOs will try in the wings of the conference to expose the hollowness of this, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull will get away with claiming that Australia is offering something meaningful. The presumption of integrity still works in favour of Australian governments, and truth-tellers are easily sidelined as extremists.

Rudd’s triumph is that not only has he wedged those to the "right" of Labor into 10 months of unproductive disarray, he has also — and this is much less obvious — wedged all those to the "left". (I put these terms in quote marks because we don’t yet have shorthand terms to represent environmentally responsible and irresponsible people and organisations — left and right will have to do for now.)

On the left, the Greens Party, Greenpeace, Climate Action, the Youth Climate Coalition and Get Up argue robustly for real decarbonisation policies. The political mainstream shrugs off their scathing and correct analyses of the ineffectiveness of the proposed ETS. This leaves environmental organisations like the Climate Institute, Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF Australia, Safe Climate Australia, and relief organisations like World Vision Australia, uncomfortably wedged. It is the old dilemma of powerless truth advocates in the face of complacent, ignorant power: do they swallow their scruples, stay in the tent in the hope of doing some marginal good, or do they stalk out? Wavering responses, confusion and despondency have abounded this past year.

Meanwhile, climate change chickens are already coming home to roost in populated southern Australia. It will be a long hot summer, with the usual water worries and worsening bushfires, more northern cyclones and floods, and continued desertification and human retreat from the Murray-Darling food basin. And of course we’ll see more video footage of collapsing polar continental ice sheets.

We need a new public frame of reference. We need to cut the Gordian knot, to break free from the ideological tyranny of ineffective market rationalism-based decarbonisation strategies at home and internationally. We need to recognise that the global climate emergency can only be addressed by individual governments moving as fast as they can afford to restructuring their national economies on a basis of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Technically and fiscally, Australia could do this now.

We only lack the mainstream political will.

How do we get decision-makers to actually realise what they pretend to know: that the truly existential crisis confronting homo sapiens will unfold in our young children’s lifetimes?

Tony Kevin will discuss his new book, Crunch Time: Using and Abusing Keynes to Fight the Twin Crises of our Era (Scribe) with ABC economics commentator Stephen Long at Gleebooks in Sydney at 6pm on Wednesday 21 October, and with Robert Manne at Readings in Melbourne at 6pm on Monday 26 October.

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