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August 01st 2010 print

Jennifer Marohasy

Least-worst climate policy?

Tony Abbott, says Ms Gillard must drop the Citizen’s Assembly and take real action. But there is nothing in his $3.2 billion ‘Direct Action Plan for Climate Change and the Environment’ that will seriously address the issue.

Who has the least-worst climate policy?

A centrepiece of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s revised policy on climate change is the creation of a 150-strong Citizens’ Assembly to “examine the evidence on climate change, the case for action and a market based approach to reducing pollution”.

Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute, has described it as the single worst idea that has ever been floated by an elected government in a federal election. According to John Chen, University of Sydney, it is simply a short term strategy aimed at kicking the climate change issue into the long grass for the length of the campaign.

The electorate is polarized on the issue of climate change and the Citizen’s Assembly would provide a venue for people to talk, including about their fears and aspirations. This is perhaps not a bad solution for the biggest so-called moral issue or our times and perhaps a good fit particularly for so-called aspirational politicians.

Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, says Ms Gillard must drop the Citizen’s Assembly and take real action. But there is nothing in his $3.2 billion ‘Direct Action Plan for Climate Change and the Environment’ that will seriously address the issue.

Former Chief Government Climate Advisor, Professor Ross Garnaut, says Abbott’s plan is delusional – and I concur.

Of course there is much support for one of its key policies, the sequestration of 10 million tonnes of soil carbon at $10 per tonne including from Michael Keily’s deep-green carbon coalition and also Barnaby Joyce’s deep-brown farm lobby. But there is no easy, inexpensive way to, accurately measure soil carbon, or the amount sequestered. The only way the program could go ahead would be if the government was prepared to trust that farmers were sequestering carbon when, where and how their paperwork said so.

Much of the rest of Tony Abbott’s climate change plan also reads like something Julia Gillard’s Citizen’s Assembly might have drafted. Under a heading explaining how their proposed Emissions Reduction Fund will work it is explained that, unlike Labor’s emissions trading scheme, the Coalition will not penalise businesses for continuing to operate at business-as-usual levels. If Mr Abbott becomes Prime Minister, “only businesses that undertake activity with an emissions level above their business as usual level will incur a financial penalty”. Following this logic, if my house were a business, I would incur a financial penalty every hot summer, cold winter and each time my 21 year old daughter visited.

I mean if Mr Abbott was true to his election slogan of “direct action”, not to mention traditional Liberal Party values, he would already have his Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage, Greg Hunt, meeting with Westinghouse to get cracking on some plans and policy for a few new nuclear power stations.

Mr Abbott made this exact point in December 2008 explaining that: “If the Greens were fair dinkum about reducing CO2, they wouldn’t reject out-of-hand the nuclear option. Currently, nuclear energy is the only way to generate base load power without CO2.”

So what is the Green’s climate change policy? Bob Brown advocates a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target, as soon as is feasible and by no later than 2050, with a minimum of 40 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020. This is much more serious than the five percent on offer from both the Coalition and Labor. The Greens also have a serious plan for achieving this with a proposed two-year $20 billion interim carbon tax.

Mr Brown’s policy, if it was implemented, could have a significant economic impact and a consequential real impact on Australia’s carbon emissions. But of course, even Christine Milne knows, it would have no global effect on climate change. Why? Because shutting down Australia completely would not impact on the global climate; our total national emissions are, unfortunately, just not significant enough in the global scheme of things.

Those who have read this far might by now assume I’m just a pessimist intent on finding fault everywhere. But there is a plan that I would vote for. It’s called Plan B and is detailed in a new book Climate: the Counter Consensus (Stacey International, 2010) by Australian paleoclimatologist, Bob Carter.

Plan B emphasises that organisms, including humans, live in and are adapted to their local environment and climate and that climate hazards vary with the local climatological zone. Professor Carter emphasises a need for preparedness, protection, response, recovery and mitigation to both global warming and cooling, as well as for shorter-term natural climate-related hazards like cyclones and bushfires, all of which could perhaps be coordinated by state or federal level emergency management agencies.

Of course Carter’s Plan B has been ignored by the Australian Greens, because it doesn’t acknowledge that there is a man-made climate crisis right now; and by Labor and the Coalition because no one gets paid off. In short, despite Plan B being an effective policy that addresses real problems, there is nothing in it for the rent-seekers. So, thanks to the lack of leadership, insight and cost-effective thinking by their politicians, Australians can’t exercise a vote for Plan B, or even anything resembling it, at this upcoming 2010 federal election.

I might, however, be tempted to vote for Julia Gillard’s ‘carbon assembly’. I certainly don’t think it is the worst climate policy. While we would not want any random 150 people drawing up our new defence policy, or even plans to overhaul our tax system, if climate change is mostly a moral issue then the assembly could function a bit like a jury in a court room. Unless of course a newly elected Labor government had to listen to the Greens. Indeed if I voted Labor, and the Greens ended up with the balance of power in the Senate, we could yet have real harm by way of the fair dinkum carbon tax.

So should I vote for what is without the doubt the worst Climate Change Policy: I mean the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action Plan for Environment and Climate Change’?

Last Thursday Mr Hunt said that the Coalition, if elected, would ensure all its new environmental programs were scrutinized by a new independent commissioner to ensure their design was right. Phew!

This would necessitate a rethink of most of the Coalition’s policies including its plans to pay farmers to grow grass – a possible consequence of its current carbon sequestration policy.

In summary, as we approach this important 2010 Australian federal election, neither of our major political parties have any serious policies to address the threat that they perceive from human-caused global warming – at least not any tangible policies likely to ever be implemented – and this could perhaps turn out to be a very good thing.

Dr Jennifer Marohasy is an independent Australian environmental researcher and writer currently living in Central Queensland.