A Brutal Week In Climate Politics


What an inglorious week in the short history of Australian action to tackle climate change.

In a brutal 48 hours the new federal government abolished the Climate Commission, which had been set up to give information to the public about the global warming problem and potential solutions, and started a process designed to close down the Climate Change Authority, the body that gives advice to government on emission reduction targets.

These two announcements came hot on the heels of new Treasurer Joe Hockey’s instruction to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the $10 billion "green bank" that gives loans to help renewable energy projects get off the ground, to immediately stop operating.

Oh, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott told bureaucrats to start preparing the necessary paperwork to repeal Australia’s carbon price.

To the casual observer it might seem like years of careful work by former PM Julia Gillard and her climate change minister Greg Combet – and by the Greens and independents in the last parliament – had been flushed down the toilet in a couple of days, but it’s not that straightforward.

Sadly, the Climate Commission, fronted by Tim Flannery, the man Australian climate sceptics love to hate, was not established by an act of parliament, so an incoming environment minister can abolish it with a phone call and a press conference. However, the other changes won't be that simple to implement.

I’m sad about the Climate Commission's passing because in its two-and-a-half years it has released some very solid, useful information about climate change and its implications for Australia. 

The Angry Summer report, released in March, brought together a wealth of information about the floods and heatwaves Australians experienced last summer and explained the influence of climate change on these extreme weather events.

As Professor Flannery reflected this week, the Climate Commission was doing a job not being done by other bodies, not even universities or the CSIRO.

“The Bureau of Meteorology puts out advice and information on weather events, but doesn't cover the economics or international action happening around climate change,” he said.

What does it say about Australia in 2013 that we don’t even want to hear about the damage we cause to the planet we all share, to the life support systems that underpin our economy and our lifestyles?

Rather than listen and learn, we shoot the messenger. Vale Climate Commission.

But getting rid of the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) won't be as straightforward. Both bodies were established by legislation and they cannot be unwound so casually.

Legal advice prepared this week by Stephen Keim SC for the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Environment Defenders Office of Victoria addressed the question of whether or not the CEFC’s operations, which are established by law, can be halted by the direction of a minister:

“A direction to cease activities or cease investments, or to cease payments, would frustrate the legislative purpose of the CEFC Act, would be inconsistent with the CEFC Act and would not be authorised by s 64(1) of the CEFC Act … The CEFC’s activities cannot be terminated by executive action … If given some unlawful direction by the responsible ministers (or anyone else) to cease operations or some aspect of its operations, the board would be obliged to ignore that direction.”

In other words, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is obliged, by law, to ignore the new government’s instruction to stop investing in renewable energy projects – at least until the law is changed or repealed. 

And that might not be possible, for some time at least. The Greens and Labor have both indicated their preparedness to defend the climate infrastructure, meaning Abbott might have to rely on the support of a new unpredictable Senate, which doesn’t sit until July next year, to kill off the Climate Authority and the CEFC.

It might eventually manage to do that, but even if the new government does get rid of all the legislated bodies and mechanisms that were helping Australia’s economy gradually de-couple itself from climate-damaging pollution, it’s not going to stop climate change, is it?

There will be more angry summers, more record heatwaves, more Black Saturdays.

There are glimmers of hope. Most of them come from the grassroots. More than a million Australian houses now have solar panels on their roofs. Community renewable energy projects, like Hepburn Wind, are showing how whole localities can break away from pollution-based energy.

Cutting greenhouse pollution and investing heavily in clean energy is in Australia’s national interest, even if our elected representatives seem to be leading us in a different direction.

Maybe we, the many Australians who are deeply concerned about climate change, are – to borrow a line from this week’s legal advice – “obliged to ignore that direction”.

I take heart from a line attributed to Gandhi and often used by Australian Conservation Foundation president Ian Lowe: when the people lead, the leaders will follow. That’s how action on climate change might have to proceed in Australia in 2013. 

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