Every day is Groundhog Day for Australian climate politics #Auspol

The wonderful news and analysis source Reneweconomy pubilshed this piece below on Wednesday 23rd September.


The Czech writer Milan Kundera once observed that “the struggle of man against  power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

The same goes for the struggle for adequate climate and energy policy in Australia.

The first instinct is always to show how the announcement from the Government is inadequate, disingenuous or downright false.  On the latest “technology roadmap” we already have two excellent demolitions by  Adam Morton and, Michael Marzengarb. Doubtless Ketan Joshi and Simon Holmes a Court are working on theirs. Hopefully Lenore Taylor (who has been reporting on climate policy since about 1990) is also going to offer some insights. 

But this first instinct, to dive into the details, to show that you are on top of them, that you can spot chicanery around baselines and targets, that you know your CEFC from your ARENA, your BECCS from a hole in the ground, comes at a cost. If we all do this, we then don’t have the time or the attention of our readers to say this –

“Look, we are stuck in an endless cycle here. The Liberal Party policy was exactly the same in 2004-2006. Rising pressure for international action> Check. Huge support for fossil fuels? Check. Active naked hostility to renewables? Check. Culture war, lies about targets and baselines, and intimidation of opponents? Check.”

Let me explain a little bit of the back story (and I could – perhaps should – go back further, to the late 1980s, when the Liberals went to the 1990 Federal election with a more ambitious climate than the ALP – but that must be for another time).

John Howard became Prime Minister in March 1996. By this time the momentum towards an international agreement for rich nations to cut their emissions was unstoppable (the so-called Berlin Mandate of 1995). Australia would either have to sign up, or pull-out of the UNFCCC. While Howard was openly hostile to the UNFCCC (as many of Keating’s ministers had been), there were considerable diplomatic and domestic costs to a pullout, and these were to be avoided if at all possible. 

Therefore two strategies were used. The first was securing the best possible deal for Australia at the December 1997 Kyoto conference.  The other was to make it seem to domestic audiences that Australia was doing its bit.  Thus, In late 1997, just before his delegation set off to the Kyoto Conference John Howard made a speech with the grand title “Safeguarding the Future:  Australia’s Response to Climate Change.” In it, Howard promised to set up an Australian Greenhouse Office and also promised that by 2010 two percent of Australia’s electricity needs would be met by renewables (the so-called Mandatory Renewable Energy Target).

Howard and his allies then ignored the AGO, and set about weakening the MRET as much as they could. However, it came into existence in April 2002.  Despite being a shadow of what it could have been, it still meant there was official support for some renewables, and inventors and investors started creating markets.

Then – and this bit is crucial – Howard called a meeting of his friends in big business (and we should remember that Howard’s chief scientific advisor was Robin Batterham, who worked simultaneously for Rio Tinto).   And Howard told this meeting of the “Low Emissions Technology Advisory Group” –  (Exxon, BHP etc) that had to help him scupper renewables. We only know about this because someone, disgusted at the spectacle, leaked the minutes.

In the same year, 2004, Howard’s government released an Energy White Paper that was all about support for fossil fuel extraction, fantasy technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage, and active hostility to renewables (sound familiar?)

There was also the same loose talk we are seeing now about hitting targets (Australia had managed to get a 108% “reduction” target at Kyoto, and also a loophole clause around land clearing).  

The play book is simply this

  • Promote fossil fuels (the love has shifted to gas from coal, but the song remains the same)
  • Claim that you are hitting your targets anyway
  • Claim that renewables are small, unreliable etc
  • Shovel as much public money as you can towards extraction and make sure that there is no appetite among investors for renewables.

What is different?

History repeats, someone observed, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.  Not only have we poured vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past fifteen years, but we have built the infrastructure to make continued pouring inevitable, “sensible” and cheap.  Beyond that, ask yourself – who now would believe a Rudd-esque figure who used the language of “great moral challenge of our generation” and promised to do something about it?  When Rudd failed to call a double-dissolution election after his CPRS was defeated by Abbott, he killed not only his own popularity, but he created a cynicism and defeatism in Australia that made the Gillard package (different but not significantly better than Rudd’s) easy pickings.  The future is not written, but I would bet heavily against any sort of “salvation narrative” coming from the ALP, which is mostly – and understandably – trying to present a small target on climate, in the hope of picking up those elusive Queensland seats it needs to form a government.

Related to this, one of the things that made it possible for Rudd to do what he did, and tor Howard to be forced to act, was a groundswell of activity in the State governments (partly because Bob Carr had pushed relentlessly for so long for states-based Emissions Trading schemes).  

Ultimately, pressure would have to come from elsewhere, but it is hard (read impossible) to imagine where that might be from.

What is to be done?

Three things I think matter here. Firstly, we have to remember this history, pass it on to people coming into the debates about climate change so that the same tactics don’t keep. That’s a very large job of work, and needs academics and journalists to collaborate with story-tellers, animators etc, to move beyond the kind of article I’ve just written and tell it in compelling and memorable ways.

Secondly, we have to always contextualise whatever the day-to-day battle is, without succumbing to defeatism, exhaustion, fatalism (this is really hard, and if anyone has any top tips, I’m all ears).

Finally – and more controversially – I think it is time to move beyond the silliness of “accelerating transitions.”  This is the currently-fashionable buzzword among policy wonks and academics in the policy subsystems which concern themselves with the idea of a “good Anthropocene.” I think instead the time is at hand to talk about failed transitions. The contestation by incumbents has been so effective for so long that the window of opportunity has closed. We have ‘baked in’ some pretty drastic changes, and are going to need unprecedented courage, honesty, compassion and collaboration to deal with them.  Renewable energy technologies, distributed, robust, easily maintained and repaired, will be a crucial part of this.

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