Climate action after Rudd

'Death of the CPRS', by Chris JohnstonKevin Rudd's decision to shelve till 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.

Crucially, Rudd has never as Prime Minister offered any positive vision of a responsibly decarbonised Australian energy economy, built around non-fossil fuel energy sources. He has always compromised the credibility of his own rhetoric on AGW's clear and present threat to human security, by his refusal seriously to spell out the possibility and affordability of a rapid replacement of coal by renewable-based (and possibly including nuclear) energy. Such things were always for Rudd somewhere off in the vague future — not part of his practical day-to-day politics.

Moreover, 'fair' international task-sharing (whatever 'fair' means on this existential challenge) has always seemed to Kevin Rudd more important than the overall goal of rapid emissions reduction to safe levels.

Australia contributed to the failure of the UN at Copenhagen in 2009. It had already lost (at Poznan) its brief moment of glory in Bali in December 2007 as an honest international broker. Now it was recognised as a self-interested player, concerned mainly to protect the interests of its coal industry in any agreed international program. The widespread international perception of Copenhagen as a failure, and the expectation of a similar outcome at the next UN meeting in Cancun this year, further nurtured public moods of growing indifference and denialism in Australia.

When James Hansen visited Australia in March 2010, no one much could be bothered to hear or meet him. Most of the Australian environmental organisation leaderships were by now deeply enmeshed in the government's compromised climate change gesture politics. They felt threatened by Hansen's stark messages that a simple carbon tax would work far better than over-complicated and corrupt market trading in emissions permits, and that nuclear energy should not be ruled out as part of a balanced decarbonisation solution.

No one from the Government or major environmental organisations met Hansen.

Rudd has never been a real leader in the gathering climate crisis — he has in fact drained and squandered the public trust and potential for real leadership that was invested in him in 2007. He has let himself be driven by the most powerful interest groups around him.

To date, these voices have been defenders of the status quo. Unlike climate crisis activists, who will have to do the hard and emotionally painful work of agreeing on a program of agenda and priorities if they want to achieve real changes, defenders of the status quo do not have to do anything. Simply in articulating their own individual social and economic interests and prejudices, they are collectively defending the net outcome, which is the present status quo.

So it is hard to find villains or conspiracies in Australia's failure to respond to the climate crisis. The enemy is most of us, behaving normally. Some might point fingers at polarising figures like Ian Plimer or Andrew Bolt or the pseudonymous website host JoNova. Far more significant are the multifarious 'common-sense' voices in public life, who project messages of soothing indifference to what climate science warns. These are the voices Rudd hears, and in his own cabinet as well.

Is Rudd then himself a climate crisis denier? Not in words but, we may now conclude, certainly in deeds. This seems to be another variety of the cognitive dysfunction inherent in denialism — Rudd has managed to sequester his knowledge of the climate crisis safely away in another part of his brain. He is too intelligent a man to deny the science, but he has found a way to shrug it off. For as long as he wants to go on being Prime Minister, he will protect himself in this way: and all our children and grandchildren will suffer consequences.

So what can concerned people do now? Conventional Australian parliamentary politics has failed us in the imminent climate crisis. No wisdom can any longer be expected from either major party, and the minority Greens lack both the prospect of early power and the necessary concentrated policy focus on the climate crisis. Vote Green by all means if you wish, but it is now necessary also to find the courage to support and take part in mass direct non-violent public action — at sites for new coalmines, new coal railway infrastructure, new coal power stations. This movement will have legal martyrs, and they will need expert pro bono public defenders.

The model must be Vietnam War protest (and refugee protest in the Howard years). When conventional politics failed, huge numbers of mostly young Australians took to the streets, to drive home to society and politicians the message that sending our young sons to kill and die in Indochina as part of cold-war alliance politics was intolerably wrong.

Environmental organisations now need to find the courage to disengage from government, to free themselves from compromising entanglements for the fights that must come, and in which if they are at all serious about their role, they will have to engage and lead. They, as well as young people, will need to find that courage — and older Australians such as myself will need to do our homework on the issues, so that we may understand and support them when things get ugly.

Kevin Rudd's announcement last week actually offers a public policy turning point. Will we recognise this moment of decision for what it is?

Tony KevinTony Kevin served as Australian Ambassador in Poland from 1991-1994. He is author of Crunch Time: using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Kevin Rudd, climate crisis, cprs, emissions trading scheme, james hansen, ross garnaut



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Existing comments

"Climate crisis denialism, still rampant in Australia, is best understood as a cognitive disorder not amenable to reasoned discourse." - What a wonderful way to introduce a reasoned discourse about this issue. I'm reminded that those who favoured continental drift theories (eg Alfred Wegener) were jeered at conferences when they presented their arguments.

Brian Finlayson | 04 May 2010  

Why all this drivel about going to "war " again. Has any one thought of asking the Fella who made it all in the first place for some help to fix things.If we hear you saying that then we will know you are fairdinkum.

John | 04 May 2010  

A wonderful article. Thank you for the reminder that, when the rubber hits the road, it is the public who leads the politic. Non-violent acts of public disobedience are now becoming our only way forward.

Andrew McAlister | 04 May 2010  

Brian Finlayson is quite correct to refer to the need for a rational discourse. The necessary rational discourse would be some year 11-year 12 physics, as follows

1) Atmosphere is largely transparent to the sun's thermal emissions, which approximate Planck's distribution of the thermal radiation from a body with a surface temperature of around 6000K. This radiation impinges on the surface, and warms it up.

2) Earth's surface dissipates energy upwards through the atmosphere. Above a height somewhere around the tropopause, air density is sufficiently low as to not significantly interfere with earth's thermal emissions, which approximate Planck's distribution of the thermal radiation from a body with a surface temperature of around 255K ... except that gases with three or more atoms in their molecules do significantly impede dissipation of this radiation (knowledge of this goes back to Tyndall 1858).

3) Above said tropopause, amount of H2O vapour is not much because it generally precipitates out before it gets that high. CO2, however, does not condense out, so it can accumulate. As it so does, it exacerbates impediment to this balancing re-radiation of energy, retaining heat all the way back to the surface.

I hope this clarifies things for Brian.

David Arthur | 04 May 2010  

Climate change can only be addressed by technological transformation, at the root of which is innovative venture capitalism.

Just as the Garnaut Review did not even consider a carbon tax, the Henry review rejected a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels out of hand. KRudd's ideological preference for an emission trading scheme was justified by reference to a seminal paper in economic theory (Weitzmann, 1974, "Price vs. Quantity").

I'm yet to go through and properly critique Weitzmann's work, but I am sceptical of its applicability in the real world of rent-seeking corporations and commodity-trading brokers.

Just as Marx's analysis of economic systems failed because of its failure to consider technological progress, let alone inadequacies of knowledge on the part of the central planner, I expect Weitzmann's 1974 work to suffer the same flaw.

I am also sceptical of the world's ability to meet Weitzmann's standard of honourability. Although climate science tells us that we need to restore atmospheric CO2 to no more than 350 ppm ASAP, that there will always be some reason why the emissions cap should be raised this year for this Mate, next year for that Mate, and so on.

David Arthur | 04 May 2010  

Insightful and hard-hitting article that I deeply wish could be tabled in all Councils and Parliaments throughout Australia. This is what the public should be hearing and this is what should be guiding our decision-makers. I have spread the article wide in my own circle.

Rose Adams | 04 May 2010  

I monitor climate here in Canberra. I can confirm a worrying trend is happening in rainfall and temperature as confirmed by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. Like many interested, concerned people, I am frustrated by the inability of politicians and the public in general to recognise the crisis facing our kids. We can continue the "head in the sand " if we wish but some one is going to pay a huge price in the not too distant future. Tony's article sums up the issues very well. But I can't see passions over it leading to any major form of popular protest until the effects become much more obvious to Joe Citizen living cocooned in the urban sprawl- by then it will require an enormous sacrifice by all.Sadly the poor and marginalized will suffer most, yet ironically they are much more likely to be able to adjust as their lives have already been a huge battle against the odds.
I am very concerned that the Church and the Australian Churches in general are not doing anything like enough to push the social justice issues revolving around this greed driven rush to denial.

The current response by vested interests to the Australian Government's proposed Tax on the mining industry's super profits is a case in point.

Has anyone noticed that young people are not taking up Science at University - there of course is no money in it!

Gavin | 04 May 2010  

I share your disappointment on leadership on climate change but suggest that changes of the significance needed are rarely achieved in one go.

It's time to rethink, regroup and have another go.

RFI Smith | 04 May 2010  

Sadly Rudd has never displayed the qualities of being a real leader: these qualities include standing up for the hard right against the easy wrong.

David D. | 04 May 2010  

Perhaps Kevin Rudd believes that carbon sequestration will save the day. But, large technology shifts to new technology take 50 years (e.g. coal to oil, mechanical to electromechanical etc) so I have never been a believer in this approach. Speed depends on known technology.

Ironically, (see
the LaTrobe Valley may be able to be exploited and a pilot plant, using known technology, demonstrated "within four years for $100M". The irony is that heat is retained in hot rocks beneath the insulating brown coal blanket, so don't dig it up! Such systems could be applied across southern Australia and in many places around the world eliminating the use of coal for energy in the short term.

Peter Horan | 04 May 2010  

It has not been a good couple of weeks for the sandal wearers and chattering classes. Both the charter of rights and the ETS have sunk without a trace. It is about the only two things Rudd has got right during his whole sorry prime ministership.

Peter Golding | 04 May 2010  

It is sad to read more of the patronising rhetoric that masquerades as discussion on the topic of the putative anthropogenic origin of climate change. Ian Plimer is not a "polarizing figure", but an eminent geologist who draws attention to the fact that previous warm periods were not associated with elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide. The submitted comment that the underlying physics is of a high school level is ludicrous. The equations describing non-LTE (local thermodynamic equilibrium) radiative transfer are quite complex. A simple "greenhouse effect" is wrong because there is relatively little extra atmospheric infra-red absorption possible by the absorption bands of carbon dioxide, yet this is the explanation usually given.

There is not an "overwhelming majority" of scientists supporting an anthropogenic origin of current global warming, and some of those advocating non-anthropogenic cause(s) are highly respected.

Alan Clague | 04 May 2010  

What about 'us' beginning to live in ways which will make others look and listen. This can be individuals, communities and indeed industry. Why wait for governments? The abolition of slavery in Britain was begun with a group from the church at Clapham getting together and deciding to take action (at great personal risk to themselves). The model is there. We only need to begin.

Jorie | 04 May 2010  

It is really too bad that all those who oppose the current thinking about climate change are branded as having vested interest. I have a vested interest as a chemical engineer that the science is unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that climate change is principally due to human conduct since 1850. If anything, the average temeprature of the globe since the last mini ice age ending around 1850 has risen about 0.8 1 deg C, and since 1930 it has not risen at all. That is hard data which is avaiable in published reports. Pollution is bad, but the science has not proven unequivocally that carbon dioxide is pollution or even bad.

Norbert Kelvin | 04 May 2010  

The environmental organizations will have no problem motivating all the socialists, communists, leftwing organisations and a huge number of mostly bored young people looking for excitement to take to the street and make a nuisance of themselves. The vast majority of Australians who are law abiding citizens and INTELLIGENT will shake their heads and say how silly these people are.

Ron Cini | 04 May 2010  

Thanks for comments so far. A lot of good insights here.

On the theology, I belong to the Catholic belief system that without God's help we are nóthing, but also that God helps those who help themselves. Our food does not fall like manna from heaven. We need to work to feed ourselves. Nor will we survive the climate crisis without work on our part. Pray by all means, but also think about what is happening, and act.

Deniers do not like to hear that they suffer from a cognitive dysfunction that impedes rational thought. Alan Clague's letter is incomprehensible pseudo-science. Norbert Kelvin states as fact that 'the average temperature of the globe ... since 1930 has not risen at all'. But a few web-clicks from the CSIRO/BOM Report link in my article would bring him to this CSIRO webpage

and to its very clear graph (Fig 1) which shows at a glance the substantial rise in global temperature since 1930, as part of a rising trend since 1850. The CSIRO text below Fig 1 states:

"The three most complete global temperature records available – from the UK Hadley Centre, NASA, and the US National Climate Data Centre – all show a clear upward trend in global average temperatures over the last 150 years (calculated using an 11 year running average)".

Climate change deniers inhabit a different logical universe - they just do not wish to see scientific data and analysis like this. They make up their own, because they desperately need to believe that nothing is changing, or nothing that we can do anything about.

tony kevin | 05 May 2010  

I agree entirely with your comments and the science you quote to support it although I am no scientist. The big question is what can we ordinary citizens do about it now that Rudd has abandoned any effort to rise to one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. I suggest that those who wish to do something about it should consider joining the GetUp ReEnergise Australia campaign. See their Website

Tony santospirito | 05 May 2010  

Great to hear someone respected, ie Hansen utter the dirty word "nuclear". What Australia needs first is a speedy feasibility study to assess whether or not the establishment of nuclear power is indeed cheaper, cleaner and safer than the alternatives.

Bill Barry | 05 May 2010  

'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'

On the money as usual Tony. Thanks for the article. It is very dissapointing to say the least, that this 'moral issue of our time' is now not even the political issue of our time...shame.

David Akenson | 05 May 2010  

I'm pretty sure that "climate change/global warming" is just another symptom of the destructive, idolatrous cult of environmentalism which pervades the West today.

You'd think with the Climategate leaks and the enormously flawed output from the IPCC, the greenie warriors would just go back an find some other scare campaign to fool the ignorant masses into state imposed socialism.

Dr K | 05 May 2010  

Sorry Tony, but I thought Tony Clague's letter was very comprehensible, whether it's clap-trap or not. On the other hand I thought David Arthur's letter, whether it's right or not, would be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't know what 'Planck's distribtion of the thermal ratiation from a body' means — and isn't that most of us?

By the way, I do believe we should take urgent and drastic action to try to counter climate change, whether it's anthropogenically caused or not and whether we're likely to succeed or not. It can't do any harm, except perhaps economically, and could do a lot of good.

Gavan | 06 May 2010  

Kevin will blow in the prevailing wind direction and has no core beliefs. Who can tell if he believes in climate change or not. Kevin believes in Kevin. The Peter Principle says that people rise through a hierarchy until they reach the level where they are incompetent and there they stay. Len Deighton wrote that the theory was proven false by Neville Chamberlain who would have been out of his depth as a village mayor. What would he make of Kevin Rudd who is not animated in any direction or by any philosophy. Just remember that the essay in the monthly was ghost written. Kevin said to his staff:" hey can someone write me up an ideology". If his philosophical vacuum was compensated by a knack for management and implementation he would perhaps be a useful state premier, but it isn't and I am left without a use for him and certainly not as some UN middleweight.

Andrew Coorey | 07 May 2010  

I really wonder how Turnbull, Hockey and other prominent members of the Liberal Opposition can possibly align themselves with the present policies of their Opposition Leader.

David Allbrook | 07 May 2010  

I very much enjoyed your analysis. In meeting the political and business impasse you describe in implementing climate change strategies from the readers point of view misses a number of Two key points.

Firstly, we have a Federal Government that focuses more on presses releases to be carried out by public servants and public policy to be written by consultants while little real effort in placed on program implementation.

Secondly the vested interested and lobby power of the fossil fuel and energy supply interests in Australia are investing in lobbying to maintain the status quo of our energy sources. If anything the Rudd Government should be know as the government of the status quo. I agree we may well be headed Civil Disobedience on Climate Change I doubt it will be carried out by the current climate change organisations at the national level. Like Mr Rudd the current national leadership of these organisations want to maintain the status quo in their internal organisational structures and the relationships they have with the Federal Government.

Otherwise this was a very enjoyable article that was well argued and reasoned.

Michael Christie | 10 May 2010  


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