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Published by ABC’s The Drum.

This week Tony Abbott and the Coalition opened up a new front in their ideological war against climate change action and carbon pricing.

In a move reminiscent of the US Tea Party, renewable energy has become the new target of Australia’s conservative party.

Not content with the ‘blood pledge‘ to repeal the carbon price, Abbott lieutenants Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb announced that a Coalition government would scrap the Clean Energy Finance Council (CEFC). If well designed and administered, the body is a potentially useful aid for Australia’s transition to a 21st-Century clean economy. The plan to abolish the CEFC threatens $10 billion of investment: $5 billion exclusively for renewable energy and the remainder available for cleantech manufacturing, energy efficiency and enabling infrastructure.*

The announcement confirms suspicions that the Coalition is becoming an anti-renewable energy party. This unwarranted position has implications for the domestic renewable energy industry, decarbonising the economy, and the political landscape.

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Crossposted at Crikey’s environment blog, Rooted

Throughout 2011 Australia’s best-funded environment organisations have been united in support of the Labor government’s push to establish a carbon price. Not everyone, it seems, thinks this is a good thing.

In a compelling essay published in The Monthly, Dr Guy Pearse, the former Liberal party advisor who revealed the “greenhouse mafia’s” influence over national climate and energy policy during the Howard years, challenges the environment groups that uncritically cheer for the government’s flawed climate change policy.

“It’s a far cry from 2009,” notes Pearse, “when the environmental movement split over the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). … Now environmentalists are cheering almost as one, not just for ‘climate action’ but for Gillard’s plan.” While the Clean Energy Future legislation is a marginal improvement on its predecessor, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, it still contains many of the flaws that fuelled the split only a few years ago.

Pearse offers several reasons as to why this is the case: a partisan bias toward the Labor party; the sectors’ increasing focus on incremental gains; and the commonly held belief that markets will solve the climate crisis. Is there more to the story than these contingent factors? Pearse thinks there is and calls attention to the link between Australia’s foremost environmental philanthropists—the Poola Foundation and the Purves Environmental Fund—and the ENGOs that ‘Say Yes’ to the government’s carbon price push:

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Overview of the Australian government’s proposed carbon-pricing scheme prepared for the Breakthrough Institute

Last week, the Australian government unveiled the details of its long-anticipated carbon-pricing scheme, which include a fixed-carbon price of $23 per tonne as well as several measures to encourage the research, development, and deployment of renewable energy technologies. In contrast to the death of cap-and-trade in the United States last year, the passage of Australia’s national carbon price legislation is virtually guaranteed. Unfortunately, much of the legislation rests with the magical thinking that international offsets will drive the country’s decarbonisation, rather than full-scale efforts to drive the development and deployment of clean energy technologies.

Under the proposal, Australia will have a fixed-carbon price of $23 per tonne from July 1 2012, before moving to a cap-and-trade scheme in three years time. A Climate Change Authority will be established to advise the government on emission reduction targets and a minimum target of 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020 has been agreed on. Starting in July of next year, the nation’s 500 largest emitters (excluding the agricultural sector) will be charged for each tonne of carbon they emit. To assuage voters, petrol is excluded from the scheme and compensation will be available for nine out ten households. Industry will receive $9.2 billion to manage the introduction of the carbon price.

Carbon pricing was not an issue the centre-left Labor government chose to champion. It is well known that as Deputy PM, Julia Gillard advised her predecessor Kevin Rudd to drop Labor’s first attempt to price carbon–the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Under Julia Gillard’s leadership, the party contested the 2010 election with an explicit pledge not to pursue a carbon tax, but after an inconclusive election result the measure was reluctantly accepted as the price of forming a minority government and hanging on to power.

Throughout the carbon price debate Labor politicians have propagated the myth that a carbon price alone will decarbonise the economy. Addressing the Committee for Economic Development of Australia earlier in the year, the Prime Minister claimed “a carbon price will drive another sweeping technological revolution like Information Technology did in the 1980s and 90s.” As I have argued previously, when it comes to clean technology innovation and deployment, carbon price is no silver bullet. Now, with The Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, the government was forced to concede the limits of carbon pricing and adopt additional renewable energy support measures.

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At the weekend, the Gillard government unveiled the details of the long-anticipated carbon-pricing scheme it negotiated with The Greens and lower house independents Rob Oakshott and Tony Windsor. Reports indicate that The Greens used their leverage in negotiations to secure billions of dollars for renewable energy projects administered by two new statutory bodies—the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC).

Throughout the carbon price debate Labor politicians propagated the myth that a carbon price alone will decarbonise the economy. Addressing the Committee for Economic Development of Australia earlier in the year, the Prime Minister claimed “a carbon price will drive another sweeping technological revolution like Information Technology did in the 1980s and 90s.” As I have argued previously, when it comes to clean technology innovation and deployment, carbon price is no silver bullet. Now, with the Greens urging the creation of ARENA and the CEFC, the government was forced to accept that reality.

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Crossposted by Crikey’s environment blog, Rooted.

At the weekend, a coalition of environment groups and unions launched a television advertisement featuring the award-winning actress Cate Blanchett that urges the public to support the government’s carbon price policy.

It didn’t take long for conservative politicians and commentators to attack the messenger.

Conservative critics have attempted turn Cate Blanchett’s presence in the ad into a weakness for the ‘Say Yes’ campaign. Emphasising Blanchett’s personal wealth, conservative critics have sought to present the carbon price as just another elite cause—one that is out of touch with concerns and interests of ‘everyday Australians.’ This narrative will appeal to some, but as many people have noted on the twittersphere, it smacks of hypocrisy. Where were the conservative critiques when billionaire-mining magnates Gina Rhinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest used their personal wealth to sink the Rudd government’s proposal to tax the industry’s exorbitant profits?

Mark Textor, the political strategist and former pollster to PM John Howard, commented on the debate, tweeting: ‘One indication of #adfailure? When there’s more conversation about the tactics and execution of it rather than about its core subject matter.’ By this measure, there’s no doubt that opponents to the carbon price have blunted the pro-carbon price message by stirring up class resentment. The Say Yes advertisement might have avoided this by modeling the advertisement on those used in the successful ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign. Several of these ads used, dare I say it, ‘everyday Australians’ to make the case for fair industrial relations laws.

Looking beyond the fuss over Blanchett, the Say Yes campaign reveals just how low the bar has been set on national climate policy.

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Published by ABC’s The Drum.

This week, the Minister for Climate Change Greg Combet argued that if carbon pricing is rejected “climate change policy will become the poisoned chalice of Australian politics for the next decade”.

While it is in the political interest of the Minister and Government to frame carbon pricing in this way, the claim is false. Whatever happens to the carbon price, the imperative for effective climate change policies will remain strong for the simple reason that the problem will not go away.

Combet warns that failure to pass the carbon price “would lock in the status quo and not provide any reward for the innovation, efficiency and technological development that is the only real way of meeting this challenge”. When we look to the United States, it is apparent that the death of cap-and-trade legislation was not the end of climate policies. Measures to decarbonise the US economy are progressing despite the fact that carbon pricing is not currently politically viable.

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Published by ABC’s The Drum.

The climate change policy debate was reignited last week with Prime Minister Julia Gillard committing to introduce a carbon price from July 1, 2012.

At the start of February, it seemed Prime Minister Gillard was gambling with her climate credibility by adopting a carbon price-only policy. Now, just a few weeks later, and Julia Gillard is gambling with no less than that, her political future, and the future of our planet.

Gillard’s strategy draws a parallel with John Howard’s GST. While shock jock Alan Jones accuses the Prime Minister of lying (remember that cringe-worthy ‘JuLIAR’ jibe?), the argument is not as potent as critics think. Surely Alan Jones would remember that in 1995 John Howard said ‘There’s no way that GST will ever be part of our policy… never, ever. It’s dead.’ As we know, it was Howard who won the 1998 election on the pledge to introduce a GST and did just that in 2000. Gillard is betting that delivering a domestic policy achievement, like Howard, will trump flip flopping in the eyes of the public.

Countering the onslaught of the Abbott-led Coalition and the greenhouse mafia is a great challenge to Labor’s agenda. To blunt these attacks Labor must look beyond the support of the large environment groups, that some argue are ‘impotent’, and the clean-tech industry that is still in its infancy. Labor must demonstrate to the public that it’s serious about the climate change challenge and invest carbon tax revenue to projects that create jobs and help build a domestic clean technology industry. Without this transparent allocation of tax revenue, Labor’s carbon price push could go the same way as Rudd’s mining super profits tax.

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Published by ABC Environment.

At her recent National Press Club address, Prime Minister Julia Gillard rationalised Labor’s decision to cut its investment in renewable energy to fund the flood levy on the basis that these policies “are no longer necessary” with a carbon price. Last week, addressing the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Gillard argued that “a carbon price will drive another sweeping technological revolution like Information Technology did in the 1980s and 90s.”

Both cases reveal that those advising the PM grossly misunderstand climate and energy policy.

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard has reframed her government’s carbon pricing agenda in an attempt to tap into the chief concerns of the electorate. Rather than making the case for climate legislation with the Great Barrier Reef-destroying rhetoric of her predecessor Kevin Rudd, Gillard is presenting climate change as an economic opportunity. In the words of political commentator Annabel Crabb, the government is ‘…replacing morality with economics.’

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Published by ABC’s The Drum.

As climate change advocates start yet another busy year fighting for national climate legislation, new Essential Research polling reveals that the issue is still a low priority for the electorate.

The poor polling performance not only complicates things for those who support measures that address the climate crisis, but also for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has staked her leadership on implementing a carbon price in the next term of government.

A meagre 10 per cent identify climate change as a top tier concern in the first public polling of 2011 to canvass voter priorities. At a time when climate change should be a high priority for Australians, concern for the issue has dropped six points in 12 months and is ranked a woeful tenth out of 13 issues.* Both the Gillard government and the climate movement will want to turn the poor polling around.

The temptation of some climate activists will be to ramp-up the apocalyptic rhetoric, however this tactic risks alienating the public further. Research published by the University of California Berkeley last December argued that “Dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals’ deeply-held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just” (PDF). In other words, it’s easier for the public to switch off than to engage with climate change when it is presented as an insurmountable problem.

So what’s the alternative? How do we avoid this trap while achieving good outcomes for climate change and renewable energy?

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Leigh Ewbank


Climate and energy writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

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