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Issue #1510      20 July 2011

CLIMATE CHANGE

Stronger action required

The Gillard and Abbott for-and-against carbon tax travelling road shows have turned the political landscape into a circus. Embedded media packs who ask no serious questions and do not press for real answers are playing a key role in promoting the big polluters whose only concern is profits. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is on a roll, whipping up fear, creating confusion, not letting truth or the urgency of addressing climate change stand in the way of his political ambitions. He is running an extremely dangerous political campaign based on rank opportunism, trying to bring down the government.

Former Coalition prime minister John Howard, speaking on the ABC Insiders program, summed up Abbott’s approach as: “If you don’t give me the job I’ll wreck the place.” Science has been squeezed out of the “debate”, as have serious policy alternatives to the market-based carbon tax being sold by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Gillard equates support for the carbon tax package with taking action to address climate change. Opposition to the carbon tax is portrayed as a “do nothing” position. You either support the carbon tax or you are a climate change sceptic or denier. Much of the media has run with these narrow, for-us-or-against-us parameters, shutting out voices calling for stronger measures.

Science and scientists are under vicious attack. Prominent climate scientists have received death threats. The situation has become so serious that the Australian National University has relocated climate researchers to more secure buildings.

The Murdoch gutter press and the likes of radio shock-jock Alan Jones have added fuel to the fire, running unchallenged Abbott’s lies, promoting climate change deniers and doing the dirty work of the mining corporations. Jones is the patron of a website group called the Galileo Movement of “scientists” in the pay of the mining corporations, advisers and other climate change deniers. They dishonestly portray differences between scientists on the specific details of climate change (eg rate at which sea levels are rising) as a divided scientific community without consensus on the fundamentals.

Jones’ line is “wait until the science is stronger”. Professor Peter Christoff of Melbourne University, himself a recipient of death threats, correctly pointed out that it is “actually a decision to consciously continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases and consciously to make the problem worse”.

“Securing a clean energy future” is the government’s “climate change plan”, a 135-page document negotiated with the Greens and the two Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The document provides strong warnings of the economic impact of climate change. It gives the example of the recent flooding in Queensland and Cyclone Yasi which are estimated to have cost the economy about $12 billion in lost output.

Sinking to a new low, Abbott dishonestly turned this example on its head, comparing the economic damage of flattening the coal mining sector under a carbon tax with the temporary flood/cyclone shutdown of mines. But nothing could be further from the truth. According to Treasury modelling, coal production is set to double under the scheme!

Market based

At present, “Australia’s carbon pollution is still growing by almost two percent each year. This is why the government has adopted a comprehensive plan to secure a clean energy future.” The stated target is for a five percent reduction by 2020 compared with year 2000 levels, but the scheme lacks concrete action plans to achieve this target.

The five percent target is only a fraction of what is required if Australia were to seriously meet its international obligations as an industrialised nation.

Australia is failing dismally to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol and played a leading role at Copenhagen in undermining the Protocol. The media has failed to challenge the inadequacy of the scheme’s targets and Australia’s abandonment of the Protocol.

The government notes that Treasury modelling estimates “Growth in domestically produced carbon pollution slows” under a carbon price. Growth slows! Growth must be halted, reversed. We need a reduction.

“The government will seek to negotiate the closure of around 2,000 megawatts (MW) of highly polluting generation capacity by 2020.” (Emphasis added) “Closing down some of our highest polluting coal-fired capacity makes room for investment in lower pollution plant – and kickstarts the transformation of our energy industry in a managed way.” A carbon price “will create economic incentives to reduce pollution in the cheapest possible ways.”

When the ETS (emissions trading scheme) comes into operation in 2015 there will be an annual cap on the number of carbon permits (for each tonne of emissions) issued by the government. The theory is that at some point it will become cheaper to take measures to reduce emissions or be economically unviable to continue operations. “… the market will determine the most cost-effective ways to reduce carbon pollution.”

When asked on a public outing whether new investments would be made in the communities where plants might close, Gillard ducked the question of location, speaking generally about private sector investments. That is the problem with the “plan”. It is left to the private sector when to close, what to close, and where to locate new investment. There are real grounds for insecurity about the future of whole communities and workers’ jobs if decisions are left to individual private corporations.

A scheme based on “incentives” and private sector markets will not work. The government rejects regulation as a mechanism. Instead it is phasing in the ETS. The big polluters pay to pollute and pass on the costs to the public in higher bills.

Businesses will also “have access to international carbon markets to buy permits which represent credible reductions in carbon pollution internationally.” This will NOT reduce carbon emissions in Australia. It is a business as usual, pay to pollute approach.

It is the responsibility of government to protect communities, to plan and regulate industry development, including closures, job creation and new investments.

Political and economic document

As pointed out in last week’s Guardian (“Carbon tax won’t work”, 13-07-2011), “the struggle for sustainable development is really a struggle to restrain and restrict capitalist corporations, to compel an end to environmentally damaging production processes.”

The package attempts to reconcile conflicting economic interests and political forces with provisions to:

  • Win the support of the Greens – Labor is dependent on the Greens to remain in office. Apart from the tax itself, there is the promise of industry assistance and loans for investment in renewable energy, the closure of coal fired power stations, energy efficiency and forest protection.
  • Win over the rural-based Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and their farming constituents – a number of exemptions from the tax and funding for environmental farming projects.
  • Reassure the electorate that they would not be out-of-pocket with rising prices – tax cuts, increases in pensions and family payments, exemption of car fuels from tax.
  • Bring the trade union movement on board to campaign in support of the package – household assistance, coal sector jobs package and funding for investment in new job-creating technologies.
  • Not upset the big polluters and resources sector –a long phase-in period, government assistance, steel industry transformation plan and coal industry subsidies.

It is an economic “solution” to an environmental problem. The package is far from what the Greens see as necessary but they do see it as a start. Greens leader Bob Brown described it as “a historic first step in building a cleaner, healthier, more secure economy”.

Reaching any agreement with Labor and the two Independents on climate change action involved considerable compromise in the current political context. Importantly, it acknowledges climate change science and the need to take action.

Political alternative

Those within the Liberal Party who are genuinely appalled by Abbott’s lies and rejection of the science of climate change are in a difficult position while opinion polls show Labor would be wiped out if an election were held now.

The danger now is that if Abbott’s scaremongering is successful and Labor as a result is thrown out of office in the next elections and replaced by a Coalition government, nothing will be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This makes the building of a left and progressive movement that can break the two-party system even more urgent than ever. The Greens with their recent electoral successes at the federal level and in state and local government have challenged this system. These cracks can be enlarged and a movement built that can see elected a government of a new type that represents the interests of the people and the planet.  

Next article – Editorial – News of the World’s biggest scandal

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