The Xmas attack on climate change

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Thursday, 27 February 2014 20:04 by James Wight
Human-caused global warming is the single biggest threat facing humanity today. Solving it requires a rapid worldwide transition to renewable energy economies, leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. Preserving a habitable climate depends on decisions made in this decade. At less than 1°C of global warming, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives, including worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires. Under current policies we’re headed for 4°C warming or greater, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. Civilization has flourished over the past 10,000 years because a stable climate sustained us (global temperature varied but less than 1°C). An increase of 4°C would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt. 

Yet over the Xmas break while you were distracted with seasonal festivities and summer sports, the Abbott government quietly progressed policies which will exacerbate the problem, following a long-standing tradition of avoiding scrutiny by making announcements during the holidays.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt (who would be more appropriately titled the Anti-Environment Minister) approved Adani’s proposed coal export terminal, and dredging for two other new terminals, at the (appropriately named) Abbot Point. Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port and open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would export enough coal to produce potentially 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, almost twice Australias domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries. Hunt also approved four other fossil fuel projects: an Arrow coal seam gas processing facility on Curtis Island; a transmission pipeline to supply it; billionaire politician Clive Palmer’s China First mine; and the Surat Gas Expansion (the last two on the Friday before Xmas).

They joined two previously approved Galilee coal projects: GVK’s and Hancock’s Kevin’s Corner mine (approved in November), and GVK’s Alpha mine (approved by the former government in 2012).

In his press release approving the Abbot Point expansion, Hunt had the gall to say: ‘Today I am announcing new plans to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. His plan consists of ensuring dredging occurs close to the shore — never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering humans. The approval process ignores climate change because emissions from burning the coal will occur overseas. But denying responsibility for those emissions is like believing we won’t be harmed by cigarettes we sell to a chain-smoker in our lounge room.

The industry department released an energy issues paper early in December. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has accused the former Labor government of having ‘bungled its Energy White Paper process [by introducing] the carbon tax and mining tax, and new layers of regulation and red tape’ — code for saying it wasn’t fossil-fuel-friendly enough. Macfarlane’s issues paper outlines the Government’s energy policy priorities: fossil fuel industry growth, productivity, environmental deregulation, and marketing fossil fuels to the public. It foreshadows possible consideration of investing in nuclear power and dividing up the Renewable Energy Target (RET) into bands including emerging technologies, reinforcing the Government’s incorrect belief that existing renewables cannot provide 100% of Australia’s energy. It says the major contributor to electricity prices, network costs, will continue rising, revealing the Government’s hypocrisy in complaining about the relatively small price impacts of climate policies. Instead we should invest in energy efficiency and renewables, where prices are falling rapidly as technologies and scale improve. It seems the Government really wants higher electricity prices because that means greater profits for fossil-fuel-fired generators.

Also in December, the prime minister’s department released terms of reference for an agriculture white paper which failed to mention climate change. It is not clear how the Government expects Australian agriculture to prosper in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions and coal seam gas development promoted by the Energy White Paper. The Government has since announced a drought policy which also fails to account for climate change.

The Government’s budget update, MYEFO, cut funding to the Australian network of Environmental Defender’s Offices (which provide expert legal advice on environmental issues and are thus opposed by mining companies) and the Energy Efficiencies Opportunities Program (which actually raises public income, but is opposed by generators because reducing energy demand lowers their profits). There were no cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. The document contained no mention of the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of the climate Direct Action Plan. The only fully costed climate policy was $800 million over five years for the ‘Green Army’, which would employ 15,000 young people to take feel-good actions like re-vegetation and clearing rivers, which fail to target the main cause of global warming, the fossil fuel industry.

In an interview, Tony Abbott indicated the RET may be scrapped or weakened by an upcoming review, claiming it causes ‘pretty significant price pressures’ and he would consult with his business advisor Maurice Newman, a climate change denier who opposes the RET. In fact, the RET has reduced wholesale electricity prices: a 2012 review found the cost impact of the RET was minuscule, and the major factor in rising retail electricity prices was over-investment in poles and wires. Again, Abbott’s real concern is that the RET reduces profits for coal-fired generators. The RET review will be conducted by a panel including several climate change deniers. It looks like history is going to repeat itself: the last time the Liberals were in government, they colluded with the fossil fuel industry to sabotage their own Renewable Energy Target.

In the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks, Australia offered to agree to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in exchange for greater access to sugar markets, while Trade Minister Andrew Robb announced a Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement also including ISDS. Investor-state dispute settlement would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits in an unaccountable tribunal with unlimited powers. Any effective climate policy would threaten corporate profits, and hence could be overturned through ISDS. This represents an attack on national sovereignty and democracy at a time when we need accountable government more than ever.

The Government has refused to publically release the text of either agreement, even after the Senate passed a Greens motion ordering them to release the text of the TPP.* Robb says ISDS will not apply to ‘public welfare, health and the environment’, but similar safeguards in the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement failed to be implemented. It looks like free trade talks are being used as an opaque avenue to sneak through policies advancing corporate power which can’t be achieved through democratic domestic political processes. An Australia Institute survey found that only 11% of Australians know about the TPP, almost 90% want the details of such deals made public before they are signed, and 75% oppose allowing American corporations to sue Australian governments.

At the Council of Australian Governments, all states and territories signed up to take on responsibility for federal environmental assessment powers within 12 months (including Labor governments, despite federal Labor claiming to now oppose the policy). This made official what began in September as a secret agreement between the federal Government and the coal state Queensland. State governments are notoriously pro-development: that is, even more so than federal ones. As Greens Senator Larissa Waters pointed out, "If states had this power in the past, the Franklin River would be dammed, cattle would be grazing in the Alpine National Park and there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef.’

In Parliament, Labor helped the Government pass legislation through the lower house preventing Australians from legally challenging projects approved before 1 January 2014 on environmental grounds. (The bill is now before the Senate.) This effectively allowed the Government to dodge accountability for ignoring expert advice on the environmental impacts of any project approved prior to 2014.

Attorney-General George Brandis appointed the IPA’s Tim Wilson as ‘freedom commissioner’ at the Human Rights Commission (which the IPA want abolished). Unlike other commissioners, Wilson did not have to apply for the job; Brandis just rang him up and asked if he wanted it. Wilson argues he is qualified because ‘Private property is in itself a human right, and one of the things that I have always focused on is free trade which is ultimately an extension of private property’ and suggests that critics of his appointment ‘look at human rights as some sort of legal gift from government’. Wilson’s comment on Occupy Melbourne was ‘send in the water cannons‘. Brandis also announced a law reform inquirywhich will focus largely on the supposed infringement of corporate rights by environmental regulations. Destroying the environment we depend on apparently does not count as an infringement of freedom.

Finally, on 20 December the environment department released the Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper, which essentially remains the ineffective voluntary climate policy the government took to the election. Also announced was an Expert Reference Group to advise on the Fund’s design, whose members are almost all corporate lobbyists who oppose strong climate action. And of course Abbott continues to push legislation to repeal the carbon price, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Climate Change Authority.

With no remaining legal avenue to challenge approved mining projects, protestors blocked construction at Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine in NSW. Simon Copland from 350.org: wrote about it afterwards:

It is unfortunate that it has to come to this, but we have no choice. When the Government fails, as it has so drastically with this mine and with so many other coal and gas mines around the country, it is up for [sic] the community to take a stand.

This government is only a few months old and already its level of secrecy, deception, misdirection, and irresponsibility on climate policy is staggering. Abbott says, ‘Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics.’ But the game our future depends on is being played out in Canberra, as far from a public audience as Tony Abbott can get.

* The details of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) were finally released on 17 February and it does include the ISDS.