Climate change

September 25, 2008

Paying the climate change piper

Filed under: Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — Barry Brook @ 7:38 pm

Guest Post by Tony Kevin.

Tony Kevin served as an Australian diplomat in Moscow (1969–71), UN New York (1973-76), and as Australian Ambassador in Poland (1991–1994). This opinion piece was originally published in Eureka Street.

Ross Garnaut’s important public statement was largely overwhelmed by the welter of federal and state political news. It was a world away from his impassioned, ethically challenging, first public report on 4 July.

Quietly, government has narrowed the goalposts back to a safe world of can-do politics, of short-term realism at the expense of long-term responsibility. Unnerved by the hostile reaction of powerful stakeholders to the July report, it now seeks a conventional balance between the demands of a worried population, and a decision-making elite uniting corporate and trade unions in high-emitting industries and sympathisers in parliament.

Garnaut’s sombre, low-key second report recommends a narrow range of possibilities for greenhouse gas emissions limitations by Australia to 2020, likely to have minimal impacts on the Australian economy. It won cautious decision-makers’ approval. It is politically achievable, despite disappointed green lobbies.

Unlike epic debates over industry protectionism in the 1970s–1980s, we do not have a visionary Keating and Button driving necessary change. I see no comparable passion in Rudd or Wong.

Now, Australia’s decision-making elite believe deep down — if indeed they think it through, and I suspect many are instinctive climate change denialists at bottom — that Australia is rich enough to insulate itself against climate change.

They live on higher ground in the green coastal zone. Food and utility costs are a small part of their budgets. If it gets too hot, they will turn up the air conditioning.

For these status-quo people, the issues that matter are macroeconomic — dividends, high salaries, superanuation earnings. They want to keep the economy we have now. The desertification of the Murray-Darling and the dying of the Barrier Reef do not affect them directly, and they lack imagination to conceive of polar icemelt sufficient in their lifetimes to inundate fertile populated coastal areas of Australia. Apres nous, le deluge.

Garnaut says Australia should establish its emissions reduction framework within an agreed global target to stabilise atmospheric carbon at between 450 and 550 parts per million (ppm): the present level is 387 ppm.

Australia should advocate international agreement to stabilise atmospheric carbon at 450ppm, but one set at 550 ppm is more likely initially. A world of 550 ppm atmospheric carbon is, according to informed scientific consensus, a horror scenario in which global warming already underway would cause irreversible polar icemelt and major inundations of global human settlements.

Garnaut defends his lowered expectations. There is no point in Australia doing more now if the world does not follow. A country of high immigration, Australia needs special latitude. I doubt this argument will win us credit at the next global climate meeting in Copenhagen.

Lost is Garnaut’s firm July advocacy that developed countries must set the example even if major developing countries China and India do not immediately follow. We are back in the realist world where nobody moves much unless everybody moves.

Garnaut defends his proposed ‘first stage’ aim of stabilising atmospheric carbon at 550 ppm: it was his ‘reluctant conclusion that a more ambitious international agreement is not possible at this time … My aim is to nurture the slender chance that humanity can get its act together.’

His sadness bespeaks a man overcome by the selfish myopia of political realism. Scientific truth and a sense of society’s accountability to future generations have been overwhelmed. (For example consider Paul Kelly’s triumphant view on Sunday’s ABC Insiders that the debate in Australia is now over, and that anyone seeking an Australian emissions reduction target higher than 5 pet cent or 10 per cent lives in a fantasy world.)

I believe Garnaut now modestly seeks two things: getting an Australian carbon trading system into operation and accustoming industry to it, while waiting for mounting scientific evidence of destructive climate change to penetrate the resistance of decision-makers. As Gwynne Dyer recently observed, drowning polar bears and disappearing polar icecaps will not suffice:

‘The regrettable reality is there will not be a critical mass of people willing to act decisively on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the developed countries where most of the cuts must be made until some really big natural disaster kills a lot of people in one of those countries.’

Nor, I might add, will the slow death of the Murray-Darling Basin and the human settlements depending on its water supply. I’ll be criticised for saying this, but we may need such a disaster as a Class 5 tropical cyclone slamming into Brisbane to jolt us into decisive action. Meanwhile, our decision-makers live on in a bland limbo-land of short-term complacency. They do not even react when the chairman of the Coleambally Irrigation Co operative suggests selling off this whole Riverina town and its water rights for $3.5 billion, so the people can decently relocate!

I’m strongly reminded of the cautionary fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. A greedy town council, faced with terrible threat, tries to buy a solution on the cheap, refusing to pay a fair price for what needs to be done. It is not until they lose their children that they realise, too late, the cost of their greed and stupidity.

I pray that Garnaut’s second report, by keeping the carbon trading ball in play and keeping Australia however imperfectly in the international debate, will protect the Australian people from the short-sighted ‘realism’ of our decision-making classes.

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