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Climate policy: could it be the boxing Prime Minister’s glass jaw?

Politically, the carbon tax issue has been great for Tony Abbott, allowing him to position himself as a friend to business. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Nine years ago, I spent long days inside Downing Street working with the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair on how to position his government on the global climate problem. Blair was keen to work out the level of future climate risk, and – given that risk – how he could help develop domestic and international policies to address what he recognised as an unprecedented challenge.

We knew that traditional environmental policies just wouldn’t get the job done. Tackling climate properly would involve radical changes to investment flows, technology development, and energy policy. And the costs would have to be shared fairly within and between different nations.

We held numerous briefings with climate scientists, public servants, energy economists, environmental groups, lawyers and diplomats, all charged with the task of developing policies to make large-scale emissions cuts. Blair seemed to have the enthusiasm and discipline of a focused child building a model rocket – asking others for help, then creatively and determinedly bringing together the glue, cardboard, glitter and bottle tops.

Looking back, 2005 was a big year for international climate policy. On January 1, the European Emissions Trading Scheme began. In February the Kyoto Protocol came into force after Russia was persuaded to ratify it the previous November, giving the world its first active climate treaty (albeit a weak one). And at the G8 summit in July, Blair became the first head of state to bring the issue to the top of the international diplomatic agenda.

Late that year, while Downing Street was preparing to launch the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, one of my senior colleagues asked him whether he had now perhaps “done enough” on climate change. Blair’s answer was that you could never do enough – the task of developing effective climate policy would most likely be exercising political leaders for the next 50 years.

It has certainly exercised Australia’s political leaders. Although given that the current government’s stated priority is to wind back the current policy framework, they give little sense of wishing to invest terribly much political capital on seriously tackling the climate problem.

Urgency and complexity

I was deeply professionally and personally involved in Downing Street’s efforts, so my perspective is necessarily subjective. But a key word used at the time – in private briefings and public statements – was “urgency”. Tempting as it would have been to delay given the wicked complexity of the problem, that would only have made the challenge even harder, more costly and probably less effective.

In Australia 2014, any sense of the need for an urgent policy response has stalled, despite this week’s reminder from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the threats we face – not to mention the warming already seen in Australia and the increase in extreme climate events.

Recent Australian experience makes bringing together the words “climate”, “policy” and “leadership” seem fanciful. Trying to reduce the risks of climate change and develop serious policy has been a poisoned chalice for two Labor Prime Ministers and a Liberal opposition leader. We should not forget that Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership by a single vote, having made securing his party’s support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Bill a matter a fleeting personal principle.

Kevin Rudd was never at Blair’s craft table; he preferred the sandpit of international summits and stages, with his rhetorical hyperbole leaving something of a mess for others to clean up when his carbon pricing scheme was defeated by the Greens. Julia Gillard was a masterful negotiator who managed to put a price on carbon and establish institutions such as the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which would give climate policy the stability and continuity required. Yet she struggled to explain it all to the voters, and was ultimately bested by the pugilistic and highly effective Abbott.

Abbott’s climate currency

Putting aside what one’s views might be on the global climate problem and Tony Abbott’s perspective on it, the current Prime Minister has, until now, been the master of using the climate issue to his own and his party’s benefit. He owes his job and political reincarnation to his crude perspective on climate change. Deliberate diffidence on the science, mixed with playing to the gallery on carbon pricing, has served him well.

So his response to this week’s IPCC warning was nothing if not predictable. He “welcomed” the report, stated that it was consistent with advice that had been forthcoming from the organisation over many years, and used it as a means to remind people of his commitment to the government’s Direct Action plan. Job done, question answered. Time to move on to the next item in the diary.

It was the political equivalent of raising your bat above your head, letting the ball through to the wicketkeeper and, with a slight smirk and the briefest of looks, letting it be known that the bowling was hardly menacing.

Yet to perhaps stretch the cricketing metaphor, this bowler is rather like a genetic mix of Shane Warne and Mitchell Johnson: they won’t get you out every time, but when they do they can make top batsmen look like rank amateurs.

Direct Action not enough

Read the IPCC’s predictions and it is clear that potentially irreversible climate forces are at play. Yet Abbott, the master of climate politicking, would be wise to turn his attention to the political and policy risks of pursuing his current course.

The two-word Direct Action policy agenda largely consists of the A$1.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, which will allow the government to pick winners. Even the best government officials are likely to make some expensive errors. Climate economist Ross Garnaut slammed it this week, joining Bernie Fraser and Ken Henry in the chorus of expert dissent.

It is truly a policy with no friends – even those who want the government to do less on climate change rightly see it as an expensive “big government” way to go about it.

Beyond our borders, the international push to reduce emissions will continue, through actions such as China’s significant investment in cleaning up its emissions-intensive energy network and its growing collaboration with the United States. Next year’s United Nations negotiations in Paris will focus on developing a stronger successor to Kyoto.

Australia, no matter what Abbott may wish, will have to be part of this, or risk being simply ignored by the international community. From Abbott’s point of view that would be worse than attracting condemnation, because if Australia remains a pariah while the world pursues a low-carbon future, Australia will both miss out on economic opportunities and expose itself to the risk of the economic and trade rules being drafted by others.

Abbott’s political mentor John Howard knew how to deftly change tack in response to prevailing circumstances. Unless he does likewise, and responds to the environmental, economic and political risks presented by climate change with the proper urgency, Tony Abbott’s domestic mastery of climate politics is unlikely to serve the climate, or the nation, well.

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