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Standing on the outside looking in: a Washington insider reviews the carbon tax

Politicians who try to act on climate change face a gargantuan struggle.

Roy Neel is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and a long-time staffer for former Vice-President Al Gore. Roy is in Australia as a Visiting International Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

The political environment here in Australia is fascinating. For a start, you require people to vote! Not only are you required to vote for a candidate, you have to rank the rest of the candidates as well!

If we had had that system in America there probably would have been no Bush-Cheney White House, no Iraq invasion, no suppression of climate science … but don’t get me started.

Poll after poll shows Americans are fed up with the name-calling and the do-nothing politicians that populate our legislatures. The level of cynicism is so great that, should America enforce mandatory voting and place “None of the Above” on every ballot, I fear we would have a government with no elected officials.

A long time ago I moved to Washington to join my friend Al Gore as he entered political life and began fighting established interests (often tilting at windmills, as we like to say). One of those windmills was the growing threat of climate change.

He didn’t get a lot of credit for that work over the next 25 years and in 2000 he lost the presidential race in the most closely contested (and disputed) election in our country’s history.

If it had come up heads, things might have been different. AAP

That was a bitter defeat, one that some of us will forever believe was suffered not at the hands of voters but as a result of a tragically misguided Supreme Court decision.

That decision, made by the US Supreme Court in December 2000, overruled the state of Florida’s decision to recount ballots, ending the vote count, and throwing the election to George W. Bush.

The world has not recovered.

It would have been easy for Al Gore to take himself out of public life, but he did just the opposite, creating a documentary film that would change the way the world viewed global warming and place the challenge in front of governments throughout the world.

With An Inconvenient Truth, he gave voice to the countless scientists who had been sounding this alarm for a decade or more.

Changing US laws so we could move away from a carbon-based economy and toward clean, renewable energy sources should have been a no-brainer.

But when it became clear the country was waking up to the threat of climate change, powerful corporate and ideological interests opened their war chests. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to distort, disrupt, and discredit the scientific consensus that has firmly established the devastating results of massive greenhouse gas emissions.

Last July in the US our Senate threw in the towel and declared climate legislation dead. Despite overwhelming public support for action, despite clear and profound evidence of the growing threat, the polluting industries succeeded in killing even modest controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

So now we in the US start over, building a new grass roots movement to prod public officials to do the right, moral thing. It will be a steep climb in our bitterly divided political system, where too many members of Congress and the Senate look more to powerful special corporate interests and their large campaign donors than to the public interest.

Australia represents the richest resource of renewable energy in the world. You have solar penetration that is 20 times greater than the US and most other countries, power that can be captured by solar photovoltaic panels – concentrated solar geothermal. You have wind power in vast areas of this country – power that can be harvested cheaply and quickly.

There is enough clean, renewable, cheap solar and wind energy in Australia to supply the entire world’s electricity demand. There’s enough to end Australia’s dependence on dirty coal, on transport fuel that is fouling our air, emissions that are making Australia the largest polluter of greenhouse gases per capita in the entire world.

Despite America’s early promise, Australia’s new carbon legislation has pushed it out in front. AAP

There are barriers to tapping this massive resource of renewable energy. For example, the Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, recently set back wind power in that state by allowing any resident within a stone’s throw of a proposed wind turbine to veto its construction, thus virtually killing any chance of expanding Victoria’s exciting wind power potential.

But as Al Gore concluded in his now famous documentary, the only thing missing in the battle to expand renewable energy sources is political will. And political will itself is a renewable resource.

Here in Australia you understand the crisis. It has produced tragic flooding in Queensland, deadly drought and bushfires throughout the country, unprecedented typhoons, and record heat. You’ve seen your water supply threatened, and your farmers have seen their very livelihoods endangered.

And now, with the carbon price legislation, you have taken action. Those who believed the US would lead in meeting the challenge of climate change have been disappointed.

The US government has not led and effective leadership is nowhere in sight. We are stuck in the mud of partisan bickering and deadly brinksmanship, and it has us sinking to the bottom.

Here in Australia the story could have gone the same way. You have an extraordinarily powerful mining industry that pulled out all the stops to discredit and defeat the carbon tax legislation. This well-funded bullhorn of denial even inspired death threats against several Australian climate scientists, researchers whose only crime was exploring and telling the truth about the science of climate change.

But the Australian story is having a different ending than ours in the US. Last week your government passed an extraordinary measure creating a long-overdue price on carbon, establishing a means to fund new renewable energy projects, and setting meaningful targets for CO₂ emissions.

Australia, like the US, is sorely in need of courageous political leadership: a willingness to stand up to raw partisan power, to do battle with those of your own party, even if it costs an election.

Your former PM Malcolm Fraser did that, and the conservative Prime Minister John Howard did so after the tragic Port Arthur Massacre of 1996, facing down his party establishment to enact new gun control laws.

And in the current climate fight Independent Tony Windsor and others stood up against their conservative counterparts and aligned with the Labor Party to pass this critical legislation.

This measure will not in itself solve the climate crisis. There is so much difficult and complicated work to be done throughout the world. Vast amounts of capital must be committed to new wind and solar projects. Power transmission grids must be modernised or built from scratch.

A price on carbon might stop us doing some things we should stop doing anyway. Phil Gyford

New priorities must be established for many aspects of everyday life and commerce: the way we drive to work and on holiday; the way we build and heat and cool our homes and businesses; the way we manufacture goods and grow our food.

But what we are learning is that in every transition necessary to solve the climate crisis, we are reaping long-term, sustainable benefits for every sector of our society.

Australia will create tens of thousands of clean jobs in the coming years. You will save billions by eliminating wasteful energy usage, money that can be directed to other pressing social and infrastructure demands.

Australia will be helping lead the world out of this crisis, sending a powerful message that, yes, it can be done. Despite all the barriers, despite all the bitter, misleading opposition, Australia is leading the world toward a brighter, more sustainable future.

Even though victory is at hand there are storm clouds brewing. The leader of the Federal Opposition, Tony Abbott, has vowed to reverse the carbon price and targets. To me, this is grossly irresponsible politics, but it is also tragically short-sighted.

There is always a political horse race to anticipate, or to reflect upon. Elections can cause entire nations to move in a different direction. World history can be changed. Wars are waged, lives are lost. Economies are devastated. For better or worse, politics (and elections) matters. They matter a great deal.

It’s not time to give up and walk into the ocean yet.

I will hesitate going too far down a track of gloom and doom, lest I sink into a hopeless depression, like the one brought on by my recent re-reading of On the Beach, the great cold war novel by Nevil Shute. In the book, after a senseless nuclear holocaust, all civilisation ends in Melbourne.

Of course, it’s not all that bad in Melbourne at the moment … at least not for now. We don’t yet need to grab a rack of stubbies and march into the ocean.

Politics is more than a sporting event. What our countries cry out for – what the world needs – is bipartisan leadership, the willingness of our politicians, once elected, to put statesmanship ahead of short-term party brinksmanship, to govern with reason and discipline and courage.

A naïve dream? I hope not.

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