This essay rather follows on from my last one, about the bog we seem to be in politically and culturally, unable to fight our way out of what seems to me like a paper bag, and not an especially tough one. Our Government has asked us what we think we should be doing about greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, and says that it values our views. Having views and anxious to have them valued, I went off to the the website to read the Issues Paper.
It is, I have to say, a complete disaster, both intellectually and practically. It starts like this: Climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. In what sense is ‘climate change’ a global problem? There has been no significant global warming for much more than a decade, the global incidence of weather disasters is declining, and what warming has occurred seems to have assisted in greater food production and in the greening of arid areas. Yes, I know I’ve said all this before. But how can one respond to an issues paper that starts so baldly and so badly?
I press on. This review is in the context of negotiations for a new global climate agreement to be concluded at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties in Paris in late 2015 (30 November to 11 December). To be ‘concluded’? How do the authors of the paper know this, given that the event is still months away? Surely it would have been safer to have said, ‘to be proposed’ at the Conference. I am prepared to bet a small amount that there will be no agreement concluded in Paris that is not mealy-mouthed and evasive, like President Obama’s agreement about emissions concluded with the Chinese President last year.
We read on. A strong and effective global agreement, that addresses carbon leakage and delivers environmental benefit, is in Australia’s national interest. The common or garden reader will want to know just how such an agreement would be in Australia’s interest. And what, she will ask, is ‘carbon leakage’? It was a new term to me too, and I had to go and look it up, because the Issues Paper is silent here. Fortunately for seekers after truth, it is the European Union which coined this term, and it means this. Carbon leakage is the term often used to describe the situation that may occur if, for reasons of costs related to climate policies, businesses were to transfer production to other countries which have laxer constraints on greenhouse gas emissions. This could lead to an increase in their total emissions.
Got that? Letting China do things that would push up our emissions if we did them here is a form of ‘carbon leakage’, because it would lead to higher emissions in China. How the designers of the agreement are going to deal with this problem is likewise not adduced in the Issues Paper. Nor do the authors explain what ‘environmental benefit’ means. As I have explained before, even if every industry in the USA shut down tomorrow, there would be no appreciable reduction in global temperature even by 2050. What we do or don’t do in Australia is so minuscule that it is waste of energy even talking about it. It is characteristic of such a poor paper that it talks of ‘carbon leakage’ rather than of ‘carbon dioxide’ leakage.
But wait! The latest climate Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Bureau of Meteorology indicates that Australia has warmed by 0.9°C since 1910, with most of the warming since 1950. There has been a rise in sea levels of about 20 centimetres over the past century, increased ocean acidification and a shift in rainfall patterns.
As constant readers will know, there are doubts about the validity of the BoM’s claims about historical temperature trends in our country, and the Minister has set up an inquiry into it. Rise in sea-levels? Where? Fort Denison has shown the tiniest increase since 1880. Increased ocean acidification? Again minuscule, if true, and again the data are so spotty and so varied that it is doubtful that we know anything of importance about it. Yes, there seems to have been a reduction of rainfall in south west Western Australia, but again, the long-term data on the Murray-Darling system show dry periods and wet periods in cyclical patterns. Yes, I know this is old stuff, but you’d think that the authors of the Issues Paper would be able to deal with such ordinary objections to the assertions that they put forward.
I read on to be confronted with the news that we are actually doing well in reducing our emissions, and that Direct Action will solve it. I thought the second half of the paper tried to have its cake and eat it too, and was a muddle. Indeed, I felt that the Paper was banal and useless, and wrote a short and, I am afraid, bad-tempered, submission — but at least I know that my views will nonetheless be valued.
And at the same time the Climate Change Authority (yes, it is still there) has told the Government it has to lift its game on emissions reduction. Bernie Fraser, the Chairman of the CCA, uses headmaster phrases like ‘if that turns out to be the best Australia can do’, and ‘the adverse effects of which are becoming apparent’, and ‘fall short of what is required’, and ‘makes it even less credible’. Plainly he thinks that the Government is a naughty boy. I don’t know whether or not the government appreciates this sort of lecturing; I would assume not. The Minister has said that the CCA ‘s suggestions would place an undue burden on Australia.
I said above that the Issues Paper was a practical disaster as well as an intellectual one. I can’t see how anyone could design a decent policy on the basis of such a muddle, unless clarity comes from views like mine, which as we know are to be valued. But perhaps that is the whole point of it. No Green adherent could complain about the general tenor of the opening paragraph, but he or she might cavil at references to Direct Action, or the claims that Australia is doing really well in emissions reduction. Bernie Fraser wouldn’t agree. But there you go: there’s something in the muddle for everyone.
In this domain the Government seems to be playing a game where you keep on saying the right things (or saying nothing) but don’t walk the talk. If that is the case, then the logic is that people want to be reassured that we are doing the right thing, whatever that is, whether or not we actually are. That seems an intellectually degenerate position for a country like ours to be in. And the reiteration of alarm and scary stuff, and the throbbing media importance of ‘success’ at Paris make me wonder whether or not the Government won’t just cave in, at the end.
After all, it decided that it would not give any money to the Green Climate Fund, and then decided after all that $200 million would be about right. That was a waste of money, and so is all this Issues Paper stuff. In my view, ‘climate change’ is a global non-problem that could only get a global non-solution.[Update: time for submission seems to have been extended. A correspondent reports that ‘In response to requests by stakeholders, submissions on Australia’s post-2020 emissions reduction target *received before 3pm AEST Friday 1 May 2015* will be considered. *Any submissions received after 1 May will be included at the discretion of the UNFCCC Taskforce.’]