Targets, Science and targeted Scientists: Australian government and its climate change advisors

The Climate Change Authority  that Tony Abbott tried to abolish  has created a fresh headache for his successor, Malcolm Turnbull.   Seven of its members have agreed the sort of compromise emissions reduction target  that even the Business Council of Australia can live with.

Two – public intellectual Clive Hamilton and scientist David Karoly- have produced a minority report, believing the CCA should be science-friendly, not policy-friendly.  As Lenore Taylor, whose excellent climate reporting goes back over twenty years observes  it is a “rerun of the climate policy fight Australia has been having for the past 10 years – the clash between what is undeniably necessary and what is politically possible.”

It’s worth having a look back at the history of Australian climate targets, and also at what has happened to scientists who have tried to give the government advice.

Targets schmargets

The fear that carbon would have to be priced (by regulation, a tax or an emissions trading scheme) goes back to 1989, and the battles have been fierce, especially since 2007.  Targets are just as old. In October 1990 the Hawke Government announced a proviso-laden “20 percent reduction by 2005 on a 1988 baseline target.”

When Australia ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that was agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, it agreed to a slightly vaguer “stabilisation of emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.”  Business was not happy, and the Keating Government launched a diplomatic offensive with a document based on a oil-coal and-gas  industry- funded economic model called MEGABARE.

This “showed” that the Australian economy would collapse in a heap if emissions reductions were imposed.  Not many foreigners were convinced (Bill Clinton’s Undersecretary of state for Global Affairs wondered  aloud what the modellers had been smoking), but thanks to strong negotiating, at the 1997 Kyoto meeting Australia got a 108% of 1990 emissions “reduction” target, and an allowance for land-clearing, which it had reduced anyway. And achieved that particular 3 inch putt.

And so there it remained for Australian targets; Howard ‘shadowed’ the Kyoto agreement, but repeatedly refused to ratify it.  Kyoto ratification was, famously, “Kevin 07”’s first official action.

But soon after Rudd faced European pressure at the Bali summit to agree a target of  25 to 40% reduction by 2020. According to Paul Kelly’s “Triumph and Disaster” (p.190)

At Bali, Rudd …. [told]  the Europeans he would not be ‘fucking’ pressured by their tactics. Australia’s decisions on 2020 targets, Rudd said, would be made after a full assessment by his government and not before.

A year later the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme White Paper fell foul of environmentalists for its very weak  target of an “unconditional 5% by 2020, 15% if there’s a strong global deal”. As Penny Wong later said to Philip Chubb in his “Power Failure”

“I probably should have put 25 per cent on the table in the white paper. That was an option and I probably should have pushed for that.” [source]

This target was slightly strengthened in the CPRS legislation, but that famously fell because Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull in late November 2009 (there’ll be a short quiz after this article. Do keep up!

Gillard’s ill-fated Clean Energy Package set a target of  5% below 2000 levels by 2020 and “80% below 2000 levels by 2050” .  This latter target was axed along with Gillard’s emission trading scheme, in mid-2014.  The Coalition’s “Direct Action” scheme has been extensively discussed, so let’s skip to  the lead up to Paris. The Abbott government left its target announcement to the last minute, and came under heavy fire for a weak target (26 o 28% under 2005 levels by 2030) that was based on a scenario that leads to a 3 or 4 degree warmer world and was labelled statistical sophistry and deceptive deadlines.

Scientists and targeted scientists

The first scientific assessment of potential climate threats was – on the prodding of famed civil servant Nugget Coombs – produced in 1976.

Another publication followed in 1981,  and the same year a secret Office of National Assessment report warned there may be trouble ahead.

Labor’s Science Minister Barry Jones got hold of the issue, and Greenhouse 87 and Greenhouse 88 helped get the issue on the public and political agenda.  The first Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the Australian Federal Government, Ralph Slatyer, got to work on it ( reports from that time make rueful reading).  Ten years on, Prime Minister Howard never found the time to meet Gwen Andrews,  the head of his Australian Greenhouse Office for four years.  However, he did respond  more openly to he fourth, part-time, chief scientist, Robin Batterham . Batterham was a vigorous proponent of carbon capture and storage, which was music to Howard’s ears.  (Batterham stepped down – a senate committee had reported the perception of a conflict of interest, given his other job was with Rio Tinto).

In February 2011 the seventh CSA, Penny Sackett, a staunch advocate of strong action, stepped down at the height of climate frenzy, citing personal and professional reasons. She had only briefed Rudd once, at her request, and not met Gillard at all.

Her successor, Ian Chubb, was also vocal on climate , finding time to advise prominent skeptic and Abbott-appointed Business Advisor Maurice Newman not to ‘trawl the internet’ for papers questioning scientific opinion.

CSAs have to be cautious about how critical they are of government policy.  Other scientists have learnt, to their cost, that their assessments can land them in hot water.  Economist Clive Spash was denounced by Science Minister  Kim Carr in late 2009, using parliamentary privilege, who read out comments of peer-review on an early draft of a critique of the doomed CPRS.

Spash told a journalist

“Senator Carr read out statements from a confidential peer review report, a peer review report which is anonymous and meant to be double blind review, it’s not meant to be released. This report must have been passed on to him by senior CSIRO management.”

While public contestation can be extreme – protesters brandished a noose at visiting German scientist Hans Schellnhuber in July 2011 – most government .  government reaction is more subtle.   I am sure Hamilton and Karoly are well aware of this. Karoly,when not appearing on Alan Jones radio show may have read  Ian Lowe’s chapter in “Silencing Dissent.”   Clive Hamilton certainly has – he co-edited that book.

What is to be done

In December 1991, as a range of suggestions from business and environment groups as part of the Ecologically Sustainable Development process entered the Canberra maw, then Democrat politician John Coulter warned  that “nothing would happen” if there were not “direct community pressure” and a permanent ESD process. He was, sadly, right.  In an article based on her excellent PhD thesis , Rebecca Pearse notes that big social movement organisations (and activists as well) have moved away from attempting to influence climate and carbon pricing policy, towards both renewable energy support (and there are always green shoots – ) and contesting fossil fuel extraction and export projects.  Other academics have soberly suggested the environmental NGOs have maybe not punched above their weight, and were unable to force the issue onto the 2013 Federal election agenda, being largely ignored by the mainstream press.

Coulter is perhaps right about the constant pressure required to overcome inertia.  We know what is to be done, we just haven’t been very good at how.

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