The Age of Assertiveness, not reason

The climate change debate is being dominated by an Age of Assertiveness rather than reason, where the screams of big business self-interest are drowning out a more informed, mature discussion aimed at broad community consensus.

*This is an extract of a speech given by Bernie Fraser, chair of the Climate Change Authority, to the National Press Club on Thursday 13 March reflecting upon the Climate Change Authority’s Report of the Targets and Progress Review. The points extracted below were prefaced as the personal views of Mr Fraser and not the views of the Climate Change Authority board or secretariat.

Reactions to the Authority’s recommendations have been predictable and, on the whole, not particularly encouraging.

We’ll ignore those who deserve to be ignored the “critics” who engage in personal attacks on the scientists and who really have no interest in an informed and civilised debate.

Business reactions has been mixed. We know many smaller business people accept the science and support active policies to reduce emissions.

But they are often shouted out by larger companies (particularly in the mining industry) and their industry associations, who are mostly hostile to the Report.

Any toughening of the 2020 emissions target, they assert, will have dire consequences for Australian jobs and exports. As would, in their view, retention of the current RET, and of course, the price on carbon.

Such assertiveness is not new; it is embedded in the self-interest of the protagonists.

What is perhaps new is the scale and brazenness of the campaigns waged against the mining tax and the price on carbon in recent years.

The previous Government’s design and execution of the two measures in question left a lot to be desired but it is doubtful whether the lobbying campaigns would have been any less strident if more considered proposals had been tabled.

While it might be unpalatable at times, it is understandable that businesses will always act to advance their own interests ahead of community interests:

--The latter are not their responsibility;

-- It is the Government’s job to protect community interests, and every politician pledges to do just that in the lead up to every election.

As noted earlier, climate change is bringing major social, economic and environment challenges for communities in Australia and elsewhere. It is therefore of concern that while the Government professes to accept the science of climate change, the indications are that it is unlikely to back that acceptance with appropriate actions.

It is lightening – rather than adding to – the policy tool kit:

--The price on carbon is to go;

--The RET is to be reviewed, and possibly headed for a downgrade;

--Many aspects of the core proposal of the Direct Action Plan (the ERF) remain to be clarified but what has been made clear is that its scale will be determined primarily by short term budgetary – not climate science – considerations.

It seems clear to me that, in the area of climate change policy, the Government is backing in business interests and big business interests for the most part, ahead of community interests. In assertiveness, its ongoing campaign to demonise the price on carbon would rival that of the Minerals Council tirade against the mining tax.

In this Age of Assertion rather than reason, and with the current alignment of business and government interests, the debate on climate change in Australia seems destined to be lopsided for some time to come.

This is a grim prospect and is not what we need.

As I have indicated several times, I believe we need an informed and mature public dialogue, a necessary precursor to building a broad political and community consensus for climate change policies.

In short, we need a transformation of current attitudes to get in step with the transformation now underway towards a low carbon world, with all the opportunities – as well as challenges – that is bringing.

Is this change likely?

Well I think that’s a matter for governments of the day to take initiatives of the kind I’m talking about...about trying to turn over a new leaf, to get started a genuinely neutral, broad based, open minded, mature discussion of these things.

Governments  have to take the lead on these initiatives really, you can’t rely upon the market to deliver cleaner environments and to meet emission reduction targets. They’re things that governments have to do. So it really should be in the interests of governments to bring about, initiate, engineer a more informed, a more mature discussion of these issues.  Not carry on with the kinds of assertiveness we’ve seen all around the place on these issues.  

But for governments to take this kind of initiative I think they have to believe in change that is built upon informed debate and broad community consensus.

As to whether things will change?

Let’s see what the weather brings! 

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