Advocates for climate action got a timely wake-up call recently from a debate at the National Environmental Law Association annual conference. They will have to lift their game if they want to have an impact on what is shaping up as a central issue in the federal election campaign.
The polls give the Coalition a significant lead early in the year putting the spotlight on their Direct Action climate plan, which has, to date, escaped serious scrutiny.
Many people in the climate debate have too readily dismissed it as a political package without real content but they may be underestimating the potential for its core propositions to capture the public imagination.
The Direct Action plan may well be vague, unaffordable and reliant on unproven levels of soil absorption. However, the public are not going to be convinced by lazy rhetoric or bald assertions from climate action advocates.
At the NELA conference, Greg Hunt convincingly won a debate against the Greens Queensland Senator Larissa Waters and John Connor from the Climate Institute.
Hunt has a tightly scripted definition of Direct Action and how it contrasts to the carbon price backed by some clever lines and carefully selected facts. He is able to use the complexity of Australia's carbon regime and the low level of public understanding of the climate issue to his advantage.
To avoid being bogged in the sceptics debating quagmire, Greg Hunt said right up front that he believes in the science and that humans are impacting on the climate calling it “a fundamental challenge for the next 30, 50 or 100 years.”
Moderator Jon Faine pulled him up, pointing out that many in the Coalition did not share that view. Hunt’s response was that “a third of the community are sceptics and naturally there are sceptics in the Coalition as well.”
Simultaneously he distanced himself from the sceptics whilst granting them legitimacy and far greater numbers than they actually enjoy in the broader community. The long timeframe cited allowed him to say climate change was important but dodge the issue of urgency.
In a convincing argument against multilateralism, Hunt said the failure at Copenhagen meant there would never be global consensus on what action to take. He saw the crux being a “G4 agreement” between China, the US, the EU and India representing the major carbon emitters and high growth economies. Once this was in place, the other countries would follow on, pointing out that many of the current dissenters made relatively insignificant contributions.
He also placed a lot of faith in rainforest recovery programs arguing it was a practical way to reduce net emissions. Yet he then spoke witheringly against allowing overseas emissions trading – claiming the carbon price was a con because actual emissions in Australia will increase, citing a disputed interpretation of Treasury figures.
Hunt was squarely with environmentalists who doubt the technical and financial feasibility of carbon capture and storage, or its long-term ability to contain sequestered carbon. But he saw great prospects for algal energy schemes to capture carbon from power stations as a technology about to come of age. Hunt called this “one of the great transformative hopes for the globe.”
His neatest argument for Direct Action was to make the parallel to water buy backs for the Murray-Darling. He argues rewarding companies who reduce their emissions was more efficient than taxing everyone and then redistributing the money to try to compensate for the effects.
Although the Coalition will tax those whose emissions increase, Hunt claims this will raise no money, and hence there will be no price impacts, because “a levy will mean companies will be careful not to increase their emissions”.
In response, John Connor from the Climate Institute presented a standard set of arguments on the need for action, but seeking to remain non-partisan, did not really tackle the core propositions of Direct Action or express a strong view either way.
It may increasingly be the case during the long election campaign that people will sit on the sidelines and wait for the political parties to thrash out the debate. Realistically, many expect Greg Hunt to be the next climate change minister and hence will be thinking of their future relationships rather than necessarily vigorously pursuing their strongest arguments.
For the politicians, Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters put in a weak showing. Despite her background in the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office she couldn’t marshall any coherent environmental or legal responses to Greg Hunt’s propositions.
There is a tendency for climate activists to assume everyone agrees with them and shares an equal understanding of the issues. It is not enough to assert that the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan does not add up or is based on bad science.
To dismiss the likelihood of a low carbon price in the coming years by saying you “had faith” that it would be at record highs by 2018 is to substitute evangelism for economics. To endorse carbon farming and then say it might not work enough or will be rorted is simply confusing to the public.
To avoid criticism of the carbon price by saying that complementary actions were now more important is an attempt to shift the goalposts and abandons defence of the core issue of carbon pricing.
Throughout the conference there was a tendency for advocates to “move on” to the next regulatory solution for one sector or another whereas previously the argument was that a carbon price would provide the required stimulus for action across the economy.
Neither federal nor state Labor fielded a speaker in the debate – misreading the selling job in front of them.
However, the previous day, Mark Dreyfus had opened the conference in his new role of Attorney General and in his speech addressed climate change by going back to basics – quoting at length from the Climate Commission’s Angry Summer report.
Dreyfus highlighted how far the public support had come – one in 12 homes now pay a Greenpower premium to support renewable energy – and rattled off the milestones to be passed this year as the carbon price comes into effect and the Clean Energy Regulator and Clean Energy Finance Corporation start their full operations.
He had voiced the same view as Greg Hunt that current opportunities lie in bilateral agreements rather than awaiting a global treaty and pointed to the agreement to link to the European trading scheme as vital progress. He announced that consultations will start shortly on the regulations for the first auction of units in early 2014.
Yet he was not speaking in the debate and did not directly respond to Greg Hunt’s arguments. But with another six months till the election we are likely to hear these debates many times. Climate activists need to sharpen their pencils and their arguments.
Andrew Herington is a Melbourne freelance writer and former Labor adviser.