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Do-nothing stance on climate not an option

By Martin Callinan - posted Monday, 5 December 2005

The Howard Government’s position on climate change is to acknowledge climate science but not restrict Australia’s greenhouse emissions. It will be politely ignored at this week’s meeting of the Kyoto Parties in Montreal.

Caught between conservative ideology and a need for progress, Environment Minister Ian Campbell’s delegation will push the latest wash of their only idea: reduce carbon in the sky via business as usual. So far we’ve rejected Kyoto, rejected emission trading and our emissions continue to rise unabated.

Domestically, few are satisfied. By acknowledging that scientific consensus obligates action to reduce emissions, the environment minister is out of step with his government’s record and is creating a political migraine for his party. The acknowledgement has infuriated many older conservatives, like Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane, who see absolutely no need at all to reduce Australia’s emissions in the short term.


For the opposite reason, the same acknowledgment frustrates the 75 per cent of Australians who consider climate change to be a genuine national threat because they see no federal action to reduce emissions by any timeline whatsoever. So nuanced has the policy become that it is serving fewer and fewer Australians.

Internationally, our unco-operative posture is lamented. The Bush administration alone likes the sound of business as usual but at the state level in the US, as in Australia, legislation is being drafted by key states to regulate and trade carbon emissions. Reflecting such progress, the US Senate in June this year passed the opinion that “congress should enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop and reverse the growth of emissions ...”

Impoverished countries, not bound by existing Kyoto targets, are as disappointed at international stalling as they are dismayed at being made climate scapegoats by the US and Australia. They think the gross differences between developed country and developing country per capita greenhouse emissions, historical emissions, standard of living, susceptibility to impacts, ability to adapt and wealth more than suggests that developed countries might perhaps take a lead, initially at least.

By refusing to ratify, Australia has given up its vote at this fortnight’s meeting of the parties in Montreal where issues such as international emissions trading and the form of agreements beyond Kyoto will be negotiated. The only printable international opinion of Australia’s recent contribution concerns our climate scientists, who have added significantly to the literature.

Technology has long been recognised as a fundamental aspect of climate change management and has recently been touted by the Howard Government as a climate solution in its own right. As a non-prescriptive avenue it is compatible with a business as usual approach, but technological cures need to be understood as prospective cures whose various merits also need to be assessed according to an emission-reduction timeline.

The Asia-Pacific Climate Action Pact between China, India, Australia, US, Japan and South Korea was recently floated as a measure to promote technological co-operation. The inaugural meeting was supposed to be held in Adelaide this month but was postponed due to the same difficulties that have hampered Kyoto’s progress: mistrust and perceived differences of interest.


The pact remains a two-page vision statement with significant potential. Its fruition however should neither detract from the primary objective getting all countries to agree on a course of action to reduce emissions nor be considered any sort of substitute for emission-reduction timelines. If climate change is to be taken seriously, scheduled reduction is the surest path to carbon-light economic growth.

Not that such growth is unanimously favoured. Some US neo-cons hold a muted belief that climate change will hinder other countries, particularly China and India, more than it will harm the US. This backbeat is yet to be carried by Australia’s conservative bongo drums but such abject cynicism needs to be nipped in the bud with the counsel that unconstructive policy never stands for long.

Last week the US auto industry announced they were laying off thousands of workers, in large part because of the no worries attitude to the price of oil and climate change. This belief, nurtured by extensive lobbying, facilitated heavy investment in recent years in infrastructure to produce inefficient sports utility vehicles, whose competitive qualities are diminishing by the month. It is one thing to lobby for certain ideas but it is quite another to lobby against physical reality.

Australia’s climate policy has become a degraded object in the eyes of most Australians and most of the world. What matters most now is how soon we can find the domestic resolution to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The environment minister stands astride a proverbial melting crevasse, in Montreal he needs to reconcile his party’s conservative attitude with the reality the rest of the world will be sitting down to vote upon.

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First published in The Canberra Times on November 29, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Martin Callinan works for the US Democrats and is a former advisor to Federal Shadow Cabinet Minister Kelvin Thomson. He attended the 2005 Montreal Conference on Climate Change.

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