Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 08:11:53 PM EST
A quick note to provoke thought and discussion, about perhaps the biggest challenge facing mankind over the next couple of decades.
There is surprisingly wide concensus among Serious People, all over the world, that putting a price on carbon is both necessary and urgent, in order to mitigate the risks of runaway climate change. (The fact that the US Senate is not part of this concensus, is both unsurprising and a major obstacle.)
This concensus notwithstanding, both major parties in Australia (Labor and the Liberal/National coalition) went into this month's elections with stated policies of no carbon pricing.
This is astonishing, for a number of reasons :
- Australia is on the bleeding edge of climate change. Its extensive agricultural sector is in decline, partly because of unsustainable land management, but partly from demonstrable effects of global warming. The major cities now all have expensive, energy-hungry desalination plants in operation or in construction, because of the dramatic decline in water resources.
- Climate change was the major political issue in the previous legislature. Public opinion was (and is) in favour of urgent action, including carbon pricing. Industry lobbied against it, but was expecting and preparing for it.
Kevin Rudd's Labor government prepared legislation on carbon pricing, but could not find a majority to approve it in the Senate. They needed the support of either the Greens or the right-wing opposition. Their proposal was too weak to win Green approval; thus, they counted on the Opposition accepting the inevitability of carbon pricing, and letting it through.
However, climate change was the reason that the leaders of both major parties got rolled, in the year before the election. When Coalition leader Malcolm Turnbull staked his leadership on allowing the legislation to pass, he lost to "climate sceptic" Tony Abbott. Then, after Rudd ignominiously shelved the whole question until after 2012, he was ousted in favour of Julia Gillard, who pledged that she would be introducing no carbon taxes.
At the time, I interpreted this as a heavy defeat for the fight against global warming, not only for Australia but internationally. But democracy is a funny old thing...
In the event, neither party won a legislative victory: after a week of horse-trading, Gillard patched up a majority with three independents and the one Green MP in the Lower House. In any case, she does not control the Senate : the Greens were the big winners there, and now hold the balance of power. This means that all legislation requires Green approval (or that of the Opposition) to be passed.
Interestingly, the agreement between Gillard and the Greens is very succinct, and contains very few guarantees : they will vote confidence and supply, and on everything else they will consult. They are holding the whip hand. Let's hope they play their position wisely.
So, why did Labor back away from climate change legislation? Why did the Coalition assume the "skeptic" stance?
It is not out of the question that both were bought off by industry. Australian politics can be extremely raw and crude, and corruption is endemic.
But as far as I can tell, both parties were pandering to supposed popular sentiment against any increase in taxes. If so, they badly underestimated the intelligence of the voters.
The Greens have imposed the creation of a climate change committee, which will prepare pricing options. Clearly, the Greens will be pushing for legislation as quickly as possible, and they have the means to impose it.
This is a complete turn-around with respect to the prospects of international agreement. A decade ago, Australia was Bush's sole ally in opposing climate change action; this was a natural position for them, as an extractive economy, they saw no reason to be on the leading edge of economic sacrifice (this position has since been inherited by Canada). After tasting the reality of global warming, decisive action seemed possible, then impossible, now possible again...
There is a distinct perspective of Australia joining the leading nations (notably Europe and Japan) on climate action. This could have far-reaching consequences on the possibility of moving forward internationally.
So, what's the moral of the story? The stupidity of politicians should never be underestimated. Especially when they are Australian politicians.