Will world leaders do a climate change Nero?

Last week, two young women, concerned about the environment, made the telling comment on TV that those who will make decisions about climate change mitigation will be dead by the time their efforts at mitigation will be felt; they will not have to live with their decisions, good or bad.

The Government’s White Paper on its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is due soon, and after debate, legislation will be introduced.  How do the various stakeholders line up as decision day for Australia approaches? 

The majority of climate scientists are showing increasing concern, at times almost panic, as more and more adverse data accumulates that suggests climate change, CO2 accumulation and global warming are accelerating much faster than expected, and the outward signs of this, such as the threat to polar ice caps, permafrost and natural icons, are accumulating more rapidly than predicted.  Conservationists warn that ten of Australia's iconic places will be lost without a commitment to reduce carbon pollution by a third by 2020.  Don Henry of the Australian Conservation Foundation says this may be our last chance to get Australia into a strong leadership position on climate change so we can get a good international agreement that can save icons such as the Kakadu Wetlands, the Murray-Darling Basin, the Australian Alps and the Great Barrier Reef.  A Barrier Reef expert, University of Queensland marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, confidently asserts that sea temperatures are likely to rise 2 degrees C over the next three decades which would kill the reef.  Others, such as Tim Flannery, have strongly supported the need for urgent action.  He too exhibits the same deep apprehension that climate scientists are increasingly feeling. Some scientists say that in a worst case scenario the temperature rise may even be as much as a 6 degrees C, with catastrophic consequences for sea levels.

Ross Garnaut’s final paper pulls no punches in describing the effects that climate change is likely to produce, and what radical action is needed to mitigate them.  Although some have said that his recommendations are not tough enough, he denies this, saying that Australia should make a ‘proportionate response’ and aim for targets as high as can be achieved within the global community.  He is trying to balance optimal mitigation with what is achievable.  Garnaut prefers a 450 ppm target for atmospheric CO2, but concedes that 550 ppm may be all that is achievable, which Barrier Reef scientists say will destroy all but the northern part of the reef.  He recommends Australia aims for a reduction in emissions of 10 per cent by 2020, a carbon permit price of $34.50 by the same date, and a cut in emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.  He says the 10 per cent cut in emissions would be conditional on achieving an international agreement to stabilise carbon emissions at 550 ppm, and although this may not be achievable at the Copenhagen conference at the end of next year because it would be too soon after the new United States president is inaugurated, he is optimistic about the chances of a global agreement not too long after that. [more]

 He believes that doing nothing would lead to dangerous climate change and that among developed countries Australia would be hurt the most.  He emphasises that doing nothing is not an option, saying that if that happened the world would head for dangerous climate change at a rapid rate.  He also saw no reason to delay implementation of a CPRS.

With his British counterpart, Nicholas Stern, he believes Australia does have a crucial role to play in international negotiations because of the diplomatic relations it already has with the major developing countries in the region like China and India, and Stern also believes Australia has the capacity to influence the other countries which are high emitters per head of population, such as the United States and Canada.

Treasury modelling shows that the economic effects of mitigation need not be profound, quoting a dollar a day increase in electricity and gas costs, that a minimal slowing in economic growth would result, and that the opportunity existed for Australia to lead the way in developing alternative energy technology

Community opinion is in favour of the Government acting determinedly to put in place a mitigation process, although there is less inclination to pay the necessary price.  Nature conservation groups held Walk Against Warming rallies around Australia this weekend, the thousands attending urging the Government to protect Australia’s environment ahead of corporate profits.  Again, it was the young people who spoke up, saying that if they did not act, they would not be able to look their children in the eye to explain why they allowed climate change to destroy their environment  The groundswell of pressure from environmentally concerned groups to act quickly and meaningfully will increase as the decision point approaches, but households struggling with the effects of the economic downturn, conscious of the cost of mitigation and the threat of job losses, will be less enthusiastic.

Industry will act variably.  Heather Ridout, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, takes a typically balanced view – on the one hand industry needs certainty about the CPRS, yet is unsure and apprehensive about what the effects will be.  Brian Fisher of Concept Economics, previously head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics made a pre-emptive attack in defence of his industry groups - telecommunications, resources, financial services, health and energy.  Companies in emissions-intensive industries have insisted they need assistance.  Those that have missed out because their omissions are lower than the cut-off for assistance are threatening to close and move offshore, where they claim the carbon pollution will be much higher that it is in Australia.  A case in point is Nyrstar, which has zinc and lead smelters in Hobart and Port Pirie.  It has said these plants would become unviable under the Government’s proposed scheme and would move overseas.  Woodside, which produces LNG on the North West Shelf, has made strong representations to Government for special support.  Bluescope Steel chief executive Paul O'Malley says he's worried about the detail underpinning the Government's proposed carbon reduction scheme, which he insists must take into account that there is no global agreement yet on reducing emissions.  Other players, the coal-fired and the energy-intensive industries, such as aluminium production, are vocal in lobbying for special consideration.  Special pleading will continue unabated, no doubt on the grounds that the effected industries need to remain viable and protect shareholder interests.  The Government has consulted widely with these groups and says it will take their concerns into account.

What will be the attitude of the media?  It’s likely that it will be supportive of the Government, while reserving the right to criticize the details.  There have been several pieces already encouraging the Government to act quickly and resolutely.  The climate change deniers, the likes of Andrew Bolt, will no doubt continue their denial, insist the whole climate change saga is a furphy, and ridicule whatever is attempted to mitigate it.

 The Greens will be vocal.  They believe Garnaut’s targets are too low and have warned that even a target of cutting emissions by 15 per cent by 2020, which is above the option Garnaut recommends, would mean playing no part in preventing runaway climate change.  They will place great pressure on the Government to set much more ambitious targets, and will have a great say about this when the legislation reaches the Senate.

Where will the Opposition position itself?  So far it has insisted that it would be foolhardy for the Government to proceed in 2010, ‘just to satisfy Kevin Rudd’s ego’ and because a ‘rushed’ scheme would be necessarily flawed.  It supports an ETS, but prefers a 2011 or 2012 start.  Of course, those dates are not to satisfy Malcolm Turnbull’s ego, they are just inherently more suitable than an earlier date.  Coalition spokesman Andrew Robb direly insists that an early start will result in increased costs to households and loss of jobs, and will drive some industries offshore.  The Coalition believes the current GFC is a cogent reason for delaying a start, although Garnaut and Treasury point out that on the contrary delay will be costly.  The Opposition regularly castigates Rudd for even contemplating a 2010 start, asking why the hurry, insisting we have to get it right.  It hasn’t the same sense of urgency as the Government, the climate scientists and the environmentalists.  It didn’t while in Government, so perhaps it’s not surprising now.  The Government believes there are ‘climate sceptics’ still in Opposition ranks, who are putting on the brakes.  Turnbull, who initially was strongly supportive of an ETS, although at a later start date, and who urged signing Kyoto but was rebuffed by the Howard cabinet, has to cope with the sceptics in his ranks.  They ask why Australia should go first, but already 27 countries in Europe, 30 US states and Canadian provinces and New Zealand have operational schemes.  Turnbull may have to curb some of his ministers’ utterances lest the people see the Opposition once again being obstructionist in the face of the Government’s efforts to tackle yet another of the world’s greatest problems, climate change.  In view of its recent performance in opposing everything in the hope of gaining political advantage, it is not unreasonable to expect that it will trenchantly oppose the Government’s CRPS, no matter how even-handedly it is presented.  To introduce its CPRS, the Government looks as if it is in for a tough, ugly battle.  But maybe the Opposition will surprise us by collaborating with the Government as it tackles this world-changing problem.

So will Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong and the Government have the courage  to tackle climate change aggressively?  Will they set targets that can really make a difference – targets that the rest of the world can applaud as a serious attempt to abate emissions?  Will they be able to resist the calls of the industry special pleaders for more and more assistance?  Will they be able to satisfy the environmentalists and the Greens who will be pressing for even greater cuts?  Will they be able to calm their own ministers and backbenchers who are reported to be increasingly nervous about the political fallout from the introduction of a CPRS?  Will they be prepared to fight tooth and nail for what they believe is right?  Will they show leadership even if the rest of the world drags its feet?  We hope the answers will be universally ‘yes’.  

The response of the international community is less predictable.  The burning question is how much national self-interest, political opportunism or preoccupation with local matters will deflect attention from the pressing issue of climate change.  Will developed nations be prepared to lead the way, mindful of the fact that they have been responsible for most of the existing atmospheric CO2, and allow developing countries to continue to pollute a little longer so that they can pull their people out of poverty?   Will the Barcelona Conference be a turning point, or yet another indecisive wrangle about how to proceed?  Will political expediency set aside the sense of urgency of the environmentalists? 

We may get some inkling from the outcome of this weekend’s G20 meeting.  The communiqué from the meeting is encouraging, and if meaningful action follows a flicker of hope will be sustained.  The alternative is that world leaders will fiddle while the planet burns, and thereby become cataclysmic latter-day Neros.

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I have two politicians and add 2 more; how many are there?