Self-inflicted Climate Policy Chaos

If you are of a certain age you may remember the 1990 federal election, with Andrew Peacock up against Bob Hawke. What you may not remember is that the Liberal Party took to that election, a policy of 20 per cent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2001. That’s right – in 1990, the year of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s very first assessment report. The basic physics of how greenhouse gases warm the planet is more than 100 years old, and even back in 1990 the scientific evidence that greenhouse gases emitted by human activity were contributing to climate change was robust enough for the Liberal party to take a strong emissions reduction policy to the federal election.

What happened next? As is now well documented by numerous authors such as Naomi Oreskes, Clive Hamilton, Guy Pearse, and James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore the next two decades witnessed a massive disinformation campaign, denying the link between climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. It was funded largely by fossil fuel industries and libertarian market fundamentalists who could not stomach the idea of any problem that might require government intervention. The objective wasn’t to defeat the climate scientists, but simply to create the impression that scientists were divided. It was a staggeringly effective strategy, devised not only by some of the same PR firms involved in helping tobacco companies deny the link between smoking and cancer, but even some of the same individuals. Climate and energy policies in Australia, Canada and the United States have lurched and stumbled like wounded wookies ever since.

And so we come to 2013 and our refurbished Prime Minister’s surprise early switch to an emissions trading scheme blowing a $3.8 billion hole through the budget over the next four years. The CEO of coal-fired power generator InterGen complained that “only the scrapping of the carbon tax will finally remove this debilitating policy chaos”. The owners of Victoria’s filthy Hazelwood power station GDF Suez said “it creates further uncertainty for investors in our business.” And of course the ubiquitous Minerals Council asserted that it didn’t go nearly far enough and that the scheme should be abandoned.

There is a very good reason though for the policy uncertainty: vested interests have done everything in their power to prevent any policy clarity that would deliver strong emissions reductions. But while fossil fuel companies, coal-fired generators and their investors may have believed their own propaganda for 20 years, you can’t fool Mother Nature. The laws of physics don’t do dodgy back-room deals and they don’t care if you’ve managed to confuse the public debate and spook most of the politicians into pathetically weak emissions reductions targets. The game is up. The decade 2000-2009 was the hottest since records began (p. 19). Extreme weather records are tumbling all over the world – and this is just the beginning. The world’s major economic institutions and every major national academy of science are unanimous in saying that greenhouse gases from human activity are driving climate change (see here and here). As a result we are facing a catastrophe unparalleled in human history without deep and rapid emissions reductions.

Fatih Birol, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency, warned that about two-thirds of all proven reserves of coal, oil and gas will have to stay in the ground to prevent warming beyond two degrees above pre-industrial levels. The World Bank declared that a world of four degrees above pre-industrial temperatures “simply must not be allowed to occur.” Christine Lagarde, the head of that radical hippy drum circle, the IMF, said (also here) in January that “without concerted action, the next generation will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.” The International Energy Agency says (p. 9) we are currently on track for 3.6 to 5.3 degrees warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100 – temperatures the Earth has not seen for between 15 and 40 million years. There is no possibility that our societies and the ecosystems which support them could adapt to such a massive increase in temperatures.

Meanwhile Mr Abbott described carbon markets as “a so-called market, in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one.” And in May the CEO of the soon-to-be-defunct Australian Coal Association, Nikki Williams, disingenuously mocked climate activists as being purely “anti-development” and quipped, “I don’t know about you, but the last time I flew to Europe it was pretty apparent that the Arctic was still there.” Nikki, the Arctic has lost around 80% of its volume since 1979 (see here, here, here and here).

Opponents of strong emissions reductions are reaping what they have sown. They ignored the warnings from climate scientists for 23 years, funded crank denial groups to prevent action and now bleat about policy uncertainty. If they had taken the science seriously and engaged constructively on how best to achieve the deep and rapid emissions reductions our children need for a safe future, we would be in a vastly better, more certain, bipartisan policy environment. Our present policy chaos is a direct consequence of too many corporate leaders’ lack of serious engagement with the implications of real climate science, the lobbying against strong emissions targets that will protect our children and the ludicrous plans to massively increase our coal exports.

Some countries’ corporate and political leaders did take the issue seriously. On Sunday 7th July, 21 per cent of Germany’s electricity came from solar and between 1 and 2pm, 60 per cent of its total electricity was coming from renewables. Things are changing in Australia too, wreaking havoc with the business plans of the old coal-fired generators. Earlier this month, wind supplied 47 per cent of South Australia’s energy during National Science Week.

A report from the Climate Change Authority to the Government recommend a tripling of the bipartisan minimum emissions reduction target from 5 to 15 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020. Climate scientists say the cuts need to be much deeper. Another recent report by The Climate Institute found that the Coalition’s current Direct Action policy would be see Australia’s emissions rise by 9% by 2020 (see also here). 

If the polls are correct, Australia will have a Coalition government next week – and Australian business will enter a protracted period of climate policy chaos. Even if Mr Abbott has the numbers to repeal the carbon price and abolish its associated institutions – business leaders who have taken the issue seriously all know deep down that it will all have to be reinvented again at some point. The delays and uncertainty will gut the clean energy sector, entrench emissions-intensive interests, and make Australia’s economy more fragile and vulnerable in an inevitably emissions-constrained world. The next IPCC scientific reports will roll out over the next year, starting later this month, and will make a mockery of the Coalition’s climate policies.

To those business leaders who complain about the uncertainty and policy chaos, and who did not step up to defend the science of climate change, the need for a price on carbon and their own children’s futures – you have only yourselves to blame.