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Climate action after Rudd

By Tony Kevin - posted Monday, 10 May 2010

Kevin Rudd's decision to shelve until 2013 his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme bills invites two questions. Is the Prime Minister still serious about Australia contributing to urgently-needed global action against the gathering climate crisis? If not, how should concerned Australians now respond?

The scientific prognosis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) has been generally understood and accepted by an overwhelming majority of world scientists now for about 30 years (for the best citizen explanation, see climate scientist James Hansen's masterly 2010 book, Storms of my Grandchildren). Climate crisis denialism, still rampant in Australia, is best understood as a cognitive disorder not amenable to reasoned discourse.

Labor came to office 29 months ago promising serious policies on climate change. Remarkably, every one of its announced policies has now 'turned to dust', in Senator Eric Abetz's contemptuous valediction. Kevin Rudd casually informed Australians, almost as a by-the-way after the Anzac long weekend, that the centrepiece of his climate crisis policy, the CPRS, is off the agenda at least until his second term and until the political climate improves.


Kevin Rudd is technically correct that this is the opposition parties' fault: the Coalition and Greens parties rejected the Government's CPRS bills. But in most ways that matter, the buck stops with Rudd's deeply disappointing climate policy leadership since becoming PM. For almost everything that this government has said and done on the climate crisis since taking office in December 2007 has encouraged indifference, complacency and scepticism.

Labor has methodically massaged down the public appreciation - which was high in 2007 - of the imminence and seriousness of the crisis of AGW, to the point where it is now fairly politically painless to announce the inner cabinet's decision to shelve the CPRS bills for at least three more years, and perhaps indefinitely. Rudd has, it seems, seen off the climate crisis as an election issue - at least for now.

During 2008 Ross Garnaut expertly reported on the scale of the coming crisis and the needed national emergency response. He proposed a bold emission trading scheme, aiming for around a 20 per cent national emission reduction target by 2020 and a 60 per cent cut by 2050. Under political pressure from industry lobbies, Rudd during 2009 pared down the 2020 target to 10 per cent and later to a laughable 5 per cent.

In an emissions trading scheme rendered impotent by massive handouts to heavy industry, Rudd proposed to achieve this minor cut, not by reducing carbon emissions in the expanding Australian economy, but by buying green carbon credits from poor countries. Rudd dressed up this essentially phony ETS with minor feel-good spending initiatives: home solar and insulation subsidies and cheap loans; solar and coal carbon capture and storage "flagship" power station programs which still have not materialised; and a complex and weak incentives program for infant renewable energy industries.

Meanwhile, Rudd stroked the growth lobby and economic nationalist sentiments. He stressed the difficulty of international negotiations and assured that Australia would not get out ahead of any other countries' offered sacrifices. He welcomed the prospect of unconstrained economic growth, growth in coal output, and a rapidly growing Australian population.

Rudd's refusal to integrate a true policy response to Australia's climate crisis into real-time national economic management and budget-making encouraged public perceptions of the climate crisis as something distant and unreal. The gains in public understanding made during the later Howard years were eroding, but Labor did not seem to care. Foolish climate change denialism, and a justified scepticism as to the value of the highly disruptive and compromised ETS, fed off each other.


More and more, the question was asked, did Rudd really believe in his own words on the climate crisis, or was this just a constituency he was feeding with gesture politics, to the extent necessary to stay in power?

Tony Abbott's coup in late 2009 shocked Rudd into realising how much ground he had lost. Even the ABC was now infected with climate crisis denialism at the most senior level, with a prominent board member demanding "balance" between science and anti-science.

Belatedly, Rudd tried to reclaim the truth of the climate crisis. He made a strong speech at the Lowy Institute - using phrases that will come back to haunt him - roundly condemning the follies of denialism and delay. The CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology stepped up their public education efforts. But it was too late: too much public ground had already been lost.

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This article was first published in on May 4, 2010.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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