09 July 2013

Tony Abbott's climate policy is a deniers' figleaf

Abbott's direct inaction policy would condemn Australia to even worse heatwaves, extreme floods and bushfires 

by Alexander White

Australia's opposition leader Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott. Photograph: Stefan Postles/Getty Images
Tony Abbott is the alternative prime minister of Australia, and later this year he will face an election presenting a climate change policy that is frankly insulting and potentially dangerous.

The Coalition's climate change policy amounts to a bullet point in a pamphlet – the "Real Solutions for Australians" plan – number 10 of 12 such bullet points. It reads:
"We will take direct action to reduce carbon emissions inside Australia, not overseas – and also establish a 15,000-strong Green Army to clean up the environment."
Digging down, the direct action "policy" comprises of:
  • An "Emissions Reduction Fund" of $3bn to fund projects that would reduce carbon emissions, based on a tender process.
  • Support for projects such as "soil carbon technologies and abatement".
  • A commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 5% by 2020.
Not directly part of any climate policy, but related to the environment, the Coalition would implement the discredited Howard Murray Darling Basin plan, "reduce reliance" on desalination plants, build more dams, "streamline" (read: weaken) environmental approval processes, and support the industrial fishing industry in marine protected areas. Lenore Taylor reports on Guardian Australia that some in the Coalition are calling for the renewable energy target to be reviewed or scrapped.To understand this "voluntary approach" to climate change policy, you need to understand where Abbott and the Coalition are coming from: a position of denial that climate change is real and driven by human activity. In addition to saying "climate change is crap", in a more considered interview with the ABC's Four Corners, Abbott said:
"I have pointed out in the past that there was that high year a few years ago and the warming, if you believe various measuring organisations, hasn't increased … the point is not the science, the point is how should government respond, and we have a credible response."
If you don't believe that global warming is real, then the "direct action" policy could be considered "credible".

An increasing number of Coalition members are climate denialists.

Senator Cory Bernardi, in between comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality, has declared climate change science to be "increasingly discredited". Kevin Andrews has expressed doubts about the human factor in climate change. Almost all Tasmanian Liberal senators have expressed the same doubts – Stephen Parry, Guy Barnett, Eric Abetz and David Bushby. The ABC reported that former Liberal senator and Abbott mentor Nick Minchin said "a majority [of Coalition MPs] don't accept" that human activity is causing climate change.

It seems that Abbott has taken as his main scientific adviser on climate change the discredited denialist Ian Plimer – a geologist by training. Abbott has ignored the advice of the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology – two leading climate research institutes – as well as the Australian Academy of Science's report on the science of climate change.
Even if you only read the summary of the AAS's report, the findings are pretty clear:
"The global average surface temperature has increased over the last century and many other associated changes have been observed. The available evidence implies that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. It is expected that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at business-as-usual rates, global temperatures will further increase significantly over the coming century and beyond."
The Coalition climate policy is dangerous, because it creates the impression that unproven soil carbon storage and $3bn in funding of emissions reduction projects could possibly reduce Australia's carbon emissions by any amount, let alone by 5%.

The CSIRO's review into soil carbon storage highlights the uncertainties involved long-term with such a policy.

A review by Monash University research officer Tim Lubcke into the sequestration side of the Coalition's policy – the Green Army planting trees – estimated that:
"to achieve pledged return of an annual 85 million tonnes of CO2 captured would require equivalent to a plantation within a minimum size more than twice the size of Melbourne and to increase wood production by more than an additional 300%. As this analysis relied upon the most optimistic assumptions, real world limits to tree plantation ignored and optimal yield was used. With this in mind, the scale of DAP would be much larger physically, in management and in cost with real world conditions."
The effect of the Coalition's "direct action" policy is direct inaction on climate change. The architects of this inaction policy, as reported by Guardian blogger and Desmogblog regular columnist Graham Readfearn, is extremist conservative thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs:
"The Institute of Public Affairs, a leading promoter of climate science denial and misrepresentation, has revealed its recommendations for the next government in a document outlining budget cuts. The plan was written by Alan Moran, director of the thinktank's deregulation unit.
     The document made the pages of The Australian newspaper but the report did not mention the document's detailed plans to obliterate all climate change functions in the country's public sector. In one section the document outlines the thinktank's recommendations for public sector departments. In dealing with the future of the "Climate Change and Energy Efficiency" department, Moran writes simply: "Abolish".
     Pretty much every other federal government function to administer climate change policy, research global warming, ensure sustainable development or support renewable energy gets chopped under Moran's plan. Many publicly-funded research programs and agencies are either chopped entirely or cut to the bone."
The deep connections between the secretive IPA and the Liberal Party are documented by the Climate Action Network in a 2010 report entitled "Doubting Australia: the roots of Australia's climate denial":
"The IPA's extensive connections to the Liberal party go back decades. Today this includes its executive director, John Roskam, a Liberal party powerbroker, and former Howard government staffer, who has run for election on several occasions. Its board chair is former Senator in the Howard Government, Rod Kemp. On its board are former Victoria Liberal party president Michael Kroeger, and former Rio Tinto and liberal party PR adviser Tim Duncan, who now works for Hintons PR."
This network is not unsurprising. The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg in February reported that anonymous billionaires are funding climate denialist networks to the tune of $120m:
"The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising 'wedge issue' for hardcore conservatives.
     The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more."
Because the IPA does not disclose its funding sources, we don't know if any of this dark money has been used to fund thinktanks in Australia. However, key Abbott supporter Senator Cory Bernardi has controversially been sponsored by the Heartland Institute to travel to the US to speak at a conference. The Heartland Institute famously linked belief in climate change to the Unabomber last year in a series of offensive billboards.

The most honest assessment of the Coalition's climate policy, ironically, comes from the man who once led the Liberal party itself: Malcolm Turnbull.

Having been defeated by Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal party by one vote in 2009, then-backbencher Turnbull wrote that the policy was "a farce". Amid several "home truths", Turnbull underlines the problem with Abbott and the direct inaction policy:
"...the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion 'climate change is crap' or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it's cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the world.
     Now politics is about conviction and a commitment to carry out those convictions. The Liberal Party is currently led by people whose conviction on climate change is that it is 'crap' and you don't need to do anything about it. Any policy that is announced will simply be a con, an environmental figleaf to cover a determination to do nothing. After all, as Nick Minchin observed, in his view the majority of the Party Room do not believe in human caused global warming at all. I disagree with that assessment, but many people in the community will be excused for thinking the leadership ballot proved him right.
     Remember Nick Minchin's defense of the Howard government's ETS was that the Government was panicked by the polls and therefore didn't really mean it."
Turnbull may now have returned to the fold as shadow communications minister – this opinion piece is conspicuously absent from his website – but the lack of a credible policy remains.

Barack Obama declared last week in his landmark climate speech that he doesn't have "much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don't have time for a meeting of the flat earth society."

Abbott's climate change direct inaction policy is dangerous because it would lock in a "flat earth society" future for Australia where super-storms, heatwaves, droughts, extreme floods, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and bushfires are allowed to run rampant.

Australia "registered the warmest September–March on record, the hottest summer on record, the hottest month on record and the hottest day on record" in the 2012-13 summer, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The changing climate will continue to have a serious impact on Australia in future years. Australians thinking about who to vote for in 2013 should know what Abbott's true intentions are on climate policy.

Given this, it is past time that Abbott faced more substantial scrutiny on his climate policy.

Note: I am a member of The Wilderness Society (Victoria) committee of management, and a director of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. The views here are mine alone.
  • First published in The Guardian, reposted with permission of the author