Two weeks into a protracted election campaign, it is looking ever-more likely that climate change is to be placed way down the order of business – at least for the major parties.
The contest over climate change that characterised the previous three elections seems to have disappeared off the political radar despite the issue being more urgent than ever. Since the Paris climate summit, global average temperatures continue to break month-on-month records.
Then there is the truly frightening climate spiral developed by Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading. It shows what an El Niño amplified global temperature has climbed to. The spiral assumes a tight-knit but ever-expanding ball until April 2015, when the spiral line starts to separate dramatically from the ball. This year it careers dangerously close to the 1.5℃ threshold.
The diminishing political and media spiral on climate
While global temperatures may be spiralling out of control, the opposite appears to be happening with the climate issue attention cycle in Australia.
Apparently, climate is less important than jobs and growth – or, in Labor’s case, health and schools.
A big part of this change in political climates is undoubtedly the Paris summit itself. The political triumphalism of the summit belies the scientific pessimism of so many climate scientists and activists.
Kevin Anderson from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research even declared the summit to be “worse that Copenhagen”, in that it is based on out-of-date science, does not include aviation and shipping, and includes negative emissions in its scenarios for achieving abatement.
On the other hand, after the collapse of talks at Copenhagen, some activists see no choice but to climb aboard with the Paris agreement, insofar as it at least signifies a mainstream seachange in action – even if the actual measures are inadequate. The INDCs that came out of the conference still put the world on a path to 3.5℃.
Yet so many politicians from around the globe have sought to convince their constituents that the climate problem is all but solved. The Coalition is banking on such a sell to the Australian electorate as it gambles with a climate attention minimisation strategy. Much of this sell has been left to the “best minister in the world” Greg Hunt, both before and after the Paris summit.
Little of the Government’s progress in meeting the 2020 target is due to reducing emissions. Rather it has been the reduction in land-clearing, consumer-driven domestic solar, and the decline in manufacturing that have been decisive in meeting the 2020 targets.
The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor has pointed out that while the Coalition is bringing back the “carbon tax” scare campaign of 2013, its own scheme would have to draw on the “safeguard mechanism” component of Direct Action – which is itself a disguised ETS – to have any chance of meeting the targets.
Short of leaning on this mechanism, the only other option the Coalition has is to increase the taxpayer-funded emissions reduction fund to a level that would make a mockery of any claims to budget responsibility.
Add to this the fact that recent academic research on Direct Action has reaffirmed its status as a form of corporate welfare that is allocated to projects that would have happened anyway. And all this is in an Australia that has increased its already high emissions 3% since 2000.
Shifting voter attitudes on climate
But have Hunt’s strategies worked on the Australian electorate? Not according to a recent ReachTEL poll of 2,400 respondents on May 9, which revealed that 56% believed the government needed to do more to tackle global warming.
64% said they would be more likely to vote for a party that has a plan to source 100% of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro in the next 20 years.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to have switched off his personal barometer on climate as an issue that is too politically fraught. In 2010, he said:
We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic … We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.
But since then, Turnbull appears to have sacrificed his convictions to the climate-illiterate backbench of his party.
Labor has not done much better. While it has more ambitious 2030 abatement targets than the Coalition, it has been particularly silent in reminding voters of its climate policy alternative.
Labor and the Greens
Both major parties have opted to entrench their duopoly by not going after big targets on any of the issues that are usually recycled at election time.
Instead, much airtime has been spent in the opening weeks of the campaign attacking the Greens. Liberal ministers take every opportunity to pillory any alliance between the Greens and Labor. Last week, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Fairfax Media:
We see them very much on a unity ticket. In our judgement, Labor and the Greens are now on an anti-business, anti-jobs, and anti-growth unity ticket.
In the same week, Turnbull labelled Labor’s proposal to double the intake of refugees as a “gesture to the Greens” on the back of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s attack on the Greens’ asylum-seeker policy.
But, curiously, Labor and the Greens are at war themselves, or at least they are desperately giving the appearance they are. According to Michael Cooney from the Labor thinktank the Chifley Research Centre and Ben Oquist from the Australia Institute, Labor and the Greens have attacked each other because nearly every inner-city seat the Greens have a chance of winning for the first time are Labor-held.
The Greens are also distancing themselves from Labor because they want to capture the anti-politics vote. This is best achieved by showing yourself to be radically different from the major parties.
Labor, on the other hand, is almost forced into attacking the Greens because of the long-run stigma that News Corp papers have attached to any such alliance. During the first days of the election campaign, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian were jumping in with stories that no major party would ever form government with the Greens.
In contrast to the 2013 election campaign, the Tele even had a pro-Labor story “Save Our Albo” over the Greens’ challenge to Anthony Albanese’s inner-city seat of Grayndler.
But nothing much has changed. Back in the 2010 federal election, the
The Australian declared the pride with which it had smashed any alliance between the Greens and Labor, and that the Greens:
… should be destroyed at the ballot box.
In October the same year Rupert Murdoch referred to the “bloody Greens” as a party that would ruin Australia’s economic prosperity.
What is clear to the Coalition, Murdoch, and big business in Australia is that Labor and the Greens must be permanently isolated from each other in a sustained ideological crusade. Failing to achieve this would spell nothing short of game over for the Coalition.
The entire crusade, which is based on castigating the Greens as a loony left party that would bring down the Labor Party, requires so much journalistic theatre, compared to what could more easily be done with the Liberal-National Party marriage of convenience. One is a party of agrarian socialists, and the other a party serving mining capital and finance capital. But News Corp has been particularly disciplined at ignoring any of the tensions that these parties have had over the years.
Were Labor to form an alliance with the Greens it could take great leadership on climate. But there are a great many forces arraigned against them achieving a left-progressive coalition.
Whether the Labor Party has the courage to come out and challenge the Coalition to a contest over climate remains to be seen.
The Greens, for their part, are making many more inroads into this election than the last. They certainly have the strongest climate policy, with a renewable energy target of 90% by 2030. The ReachTEL poll referred to earlier shows the Greens have four times the primary vote than the National Party.
The Greens know that for under 30 voters they are already matching the primary vote of the major parties, and that a core platform of strong action against global warming is a big part of this support. Whether the major parties can ignore this support that springs from climate will be one of the biggest gambles of this election.
With a federal election looming, Australia’s top mandarins will once again be turning their minds to the incoming government briefs, the so-called blue book if the Coalition is returned and the red book if Labor is elected.
High on the agenda will be the organisation of the bureaucracy and it won’t get any trickier than climate change.
A question for an incoming government will be whether to re-establish a Department of Climate Change?
And if not, what should be done?
Pass the parcel
To state the obvious, the past decade of Australian climate politics has been anything but stable. Climate agencies have been established, abolished and merged at a rate reflecting the volatility of policy settings.
As prime minister, John Howard established Australia’s first standalone climate agency in 1998, the Australian Greenhouse Office. Six years later, it had been merged into the then Department of the Environment and Heritage.
As a statutory agency it was the first in the world dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it didn’t have a secretary to represent it at the highest levels of government.
This changed in 2007 with the election of the Labor government, which had campaigned on climate change. The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, created the Department of Climate Change.
This was the first time that climate change was given its own secretary and its own minister in cabinet. Both were within the prime minister’s portfolio to underline the importance of climate change to the government.
Martin Parkinson, now the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, had the task of establishing the new department as its first secretary. It was to have a broad scope, with a remit not just for domestic climate policy, but also responsibility for international climate change negotiations. This had until that point resided in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). It was to be responsible for policy but not implementation.
The new department lasted only six years. In 2013, it was merged into the Department of Industry under then prime minister Julia Gillard, perhaps in the hope that it would be saved from the wrath of the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott, whose likely victory had been based on abolishing Labor’s climate policies.
Abbott’s ascension to the prime minister’s office later that year coincided with another shift. History was repeated as climate change was sent to the Department of Environment, with the international negotiations returning to DFAT.
Do we need a climate department?
Little has changed since under Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and, with this history, only a fool would predict what’s next. But with an election in the offing, there is every reason to believe more change is on its way.
There are three things to consider.
First, representation. Climate change is arguably the greatest economic and security threat that Australia faces. As a result, it demands proper representation within government.
That means that climate change needs to be represented by its own departmental secretary in the bureaucracy and its own minister in the cabinet. In practice this could mean either a separate department, or the explicit inclusion of climate change in the title of a department with additional responsibilities.
Second is the scope of the portfolio. At the domestic level, the causes of climate change – fuel combustion for energy, and land-use change – are associated with almost every domestic economic activity. This means that the climate portfolio must have a wide remit.
But a climate change department cannot be a department of everything. Where to draw the line?
Other countries (such as Denmark and the United Kingdom) have combined climate change and energy, but that implies that the land sector is of secondary importance. In Australia that would be a mistake because agriculture, for example, produces roughly 13% of our emissions and land use is hugely important in adapting to the changing climate.
At the international level, the fact that climate change is a global problem means there will always be a diplomatic dimension to the portfolio. DFAT’s prioritising of fossil fuel trade lost it the leadership of international climate change processes under Labor, but under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop DFAT has been more strategic.
The Paris climate summit last December represented a major shift towards integrating climate and development policies. Aid policies will play a critical role, so the case for continued DFAT leadership internationally is strong.
The third thing to consider is transparency. If Australia is to meet its emissions targets, which are likely to become more stringent over time, business is going to have to shoulder the burden of change. To be sure, an emissions trading scheme, or something like it such as a baseline and credit scheme, will require fundamental changes to the Australian economy.
Any climate change agency will need to be open and transparent in the way it consults and manages not only environment groups but business too. These will have to be brought on board if change is to proceed smoothly.
Doing what’s possible
On this basis, there are good reasons for the incoming government briefs to recommend the re-establishment of a department of climate change. This would satisfy the question of representation, especially if a well-respected senior public servant were appointed to the helm.
If it develops a transparent culture that is open to all stakeholders, Australia might just be able to establish a climate department for the long term.
What recommendations end up in the red or blue book we may never know. The choices of a new government may express simple political preference. Labor may be more inclined to bring climate change policy under one bureaucratic roof and the Coalition to maintain the status quo.
Regardless, history suggests we need top-down co-ordination to build coherent policy. If a department of climate change is too difficult, a standing committee of cabinet will be essential to avoid reliving past failures.
Christian Downie, Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UNSW Australia and Howard Bamsey, Honorary Professor, School of regulation and Global Governance – RegNet, Australian National University