Thursday, November 26, 2009

Australian responses to climate change - a background briefing

I have watched the manoeuvring on climate change within the Australian Opposition with fascination. I thought that it might be of interest to look at some of the background dynamics involved.

The views that follow are impressionistic, based on my overall knowledge. I stand to be corrected on errors of fact and interpretation.

I suppose that I should begin by making my own position clear. I have always been cautious about some of the climate change arguments. However, I have also felt that we simply cannot keep pumping gasses into the atmosphere without having some effect.

Given this, my personal opinion has been that we should accept the majority scientific view as a starting point and therefore focus on possible responses. This, to my mind, is the safest course. We can always alter our position should the later evidence in fact point to a contrary view.

Two years ago, it seemed that the climate change supporters held the high ground. Those with the opposite views were increasingly marginalised, driven to the fringes. They retained some influence, but had become islands surrounded by a rising climate change sea. Unseen, however, were different forces that would lead to some unravelling of the previous majority position. The degree of that unravelling has still to be seen.

Climate change is first and foremost a scientific issue. However, the responses to it are not. Yes, there is a science based measurement question, but the possible responses involve far broader issues.

The first problem with climate change is the way it moved from a scientific to an almost theological question, one enmeshed in ideological divides of left and right. A person's position on climate change became a label to to which other things might be attached. You were either pure or not pure, with the definition of purity depending on the personal position of the observer on the issue.

The attachment of so many things to the label carried across into "discussion" on possible responses. Climate change became a weapon to be used to support a variety of already existing positions and causes.

Those supporting forests now argued that maintenance and extension of forests were required to fight climate change. Those concerned about the Murray argue that recent droughts were linked to climate change and that, given future continuing lower rainfall, action must be taken now to free water flows. Those supporting Sydney's somewhat silly water restrictions justified their stance in part on climate change.

These types of responses became remarkably pervasive, generating growing resistance. Those opposed to or affected by the responses transferred their distaste from the response to the concept of climate change itself. Faced with an argument that went a (climate change) then b (stop irrigation or whatever), it is far easier to simply reject a than it is to establish that a and b are unrelated or, at least, not related in the way presented.
Rebellion began in the bush. Normally below the media horizon, dismissed as rat-baggery when it did pop up, it spread. Partly ideological, it also reflected growing dislike and resentment at the way that proposed "solutions" adversely affected the bush, a growing frustration at the way that alternatives such as carbon sequestration in soil were ignored.

There has always been a strong environmental concern in the country. Three years ago listening to programs such as the ABC's Landline from my home office I heard this all the time. However, the willingness of country people to accept arguments about climate change has been eroded by the blind and unthinking nature of some of the responses.

This concern has been capitalised on. A week or so back, for example, Professor Ian Plimer visited Armidale to speak to a packed local meeting. Professor Plimer is a well known skeptic. His visit was paid for by local rural supply companies.

The apparently combined opposition of the National Party to the proposed emission trading scheme has been treated by the media as an example of irrationality. It is not. It may be wrong, that is another issue, but it also reflects concerns in the Party's voter base.

I sympathise. After all, I have pointed in my posts to the way that certain decisions have adversely affected country people. I have also discussed new approaches.

In Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One and then in the sequel (the link to this is in the post already quoted), I looked at new farming techniques. If the proponents of soil sequestration are to be believed, and I am not capable of making  judgements here, the process has the capacity to remove as much carbon as the ETS while improving soils at the same time. I think that's kind of important.

Australia as an urban country thinks urban responses. Even here, if the daily conversations I hear are to be believed, the climate change case has been losing ground. It's partly a matter of ideology, but it's also partly a matter of an increasing number of people seeing themselves as potentially adversely affected.

This is where the increasingly energetic and funded special interest groups come in. While the Green groups had their way initially, now those on the other side of the fence likely to be affected by the proposed ETS are arguing their case. Their arguments are affecting other elements in the Opposition.

We are now starting to talk about serious money. We are also talking about specific seats.

The Green belt inner suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne can be ignored for practical purposes. They are rusted on Labor/Green. It is swing seats potentially affected by the responses to climate change that start to become important. And the responses do stand to affect a very wide variety of people. Once people start to pay more, once they start to lose their jobs, then things become interesting.

Take the Hunter mining seats, as an example, or the La Trobe valley. Or, for that matter, the retirement belt seats.

In the Hunter, the unions are generally backing the Government position despite reservations among their membership. The unions argue that new "green" jobs will emerge to compensate. This may be true, although I have some doubts. What is true based on the experience of the last fifty years, is that those who lose their jobs through structural adjustment are not those who get the new jobs. Those losing jobs often go to the industrial scrap heap. Should this begin to happen in the Hunter in the way forecast, then expect voting changes.
It is very hard for the ordinary citizen to work their way through all this. Here, I think, another important factor comes in.

Most of the biggest changes of the last fifty years, mass migration is an example, have succeeded because they enjoy a measure of bi-partisan support. That is why Mr Rudd was wise to offer a deal to the Opposition, why Mr Turnbull was right to accept. However, the divisions in the Coalition that then resulted show just how much things have spiraled out of control.

It is easy to type those in the Coalition who oppose the deal with unfavourable epithets. Some, I must asmit, do lend themselves to this course. It is also easy to put all this in terms of left-right divides. Yet the venom and sheer size of the anti-forces, far larger than any one really expected, says there is a problem.

Assume, for the moment, that this group can be isolated and marginalised, treated as Howard supporters and yesterday's men. That would be most unwise. It creates a group that may later capitalise on the costs and uncertainties that will certainly be associated with climate change.

I am not saying that you have to agree with them, simply listen to what they have to say.
Most of all, if climate change is as projected and if it is in fact connected with human activity, we are going to need imagination and creativity - not simply the mechanics of economics - to deal with it.


Life continues to get tougher for Mr Turnbull as things spiral out of control. Today's (26 November) sudden resignation from the Opposition front bench by Tony Abbott just adds to the pressure.

The Age story simply ends More soon....

And so there was.

According to ABC news, Tony Abbott, Sophie Mirabella, Tony Smith and Senators Nick Minchin and Abetz have all quit their shadow portfolios because they cannot vote for the legislation. Senate whip Stephen Parry has also relinquished his position.

Now Mr Turnbull has held a press conference asserting his position.

Who knows what will happen? I certainly don't!

A further postscript

Earlier in this post I referred to the growth of opposition below the radar. I focused on the country because I know this best. However, I also said:
Australia as an urban country thinks urban responses. Even here, if the daily conversations I hear are to be believed, the climate change case has been losing ground. It's partly a matter of ideology, but it's also partly a matter of an increasing number of people seeing themselves as potentially adversely affected.
It seems that I was far more correct here than I realised. While many things are involved, it seems clear that Malcolm Turnbull has been side-swiped by a grass-root revolt that no-one recognised.

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