The climate change moment has passed

Friday, 19 November 2010 

There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.

J Gillard 16 August 2010

As the climate changes, it is up to this generation of people and the generations coming up fast behind it to take the action necessary to tackle climate change and its potentially devastating impacts on the Australian economy.

J Gillard 17 November 2010

Annabel Crabb has written approvingly of Gillard’s toning down of the climate change debate from a moral one to an economic debate. No doubt there are still idealistic youth willing to act, fired up by the commitment to, er, save the Australian economy from the devastating consequences of climate change. But somehow, it doesn’t have quite the same ring as saving the Great Barrier Reef.

Toning down the moralist rhetoric might seem sensible on the surface. Moralising an issue is not a useful way of conducting debate, especially one that was supposed to be an objective scientific one. But in trying to make it more sensible, it has done the opposite. The moralism of the climate change debate was based on something politically real, the economic debate is not.

When Rudd called climate change the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, it was hardly questioned because it fitted the political reality of the time. The moralism of the climate change debate essentially came from two things; the political interests in pushing the agenda, and the inability of the same political interests to do that much about it.

On the international stage, climate change was the agenda pushed by European and Japanese diplomats as a counterpoint agenda to that of the US’s War on Terror. As Bush’s unilateralism faltered, climate change became the stick to beat an increasingly isolated US. In Australian politics, this link was pretty clear. Howard’s climate change scepticism and his refusal to sign Kyoto was directly linked to the US’s stance and against that of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys in Europe.

But when Rudd took hold of the issue, he wasn’t just exposing Howard as increasingly out of step with declining US political power and the rethink going on in the US (summed up by Howard’s disastrous blooper about the current President). Climate change was also a faux left-right debate, where both sides could pretend they were discussing climatology but were really having an anti-market versus pro-market argument.

It was why the left suddenly found respect for climate scientists that they didn’t give to those in nuclear power or biogenetics, and why the right suddenly became profound experts in climatology. Howard tried to play around with this hypocritical attitude to science on the left but it didn’t work. Ultimately it was about the international agenda, which for Howard was starting to go the wrong way.

But there was a third aspect to the climate change debate that suited Rudd more than the proxy left-right debate, and caused Howard and the Liberals such problems. The enormity of the climate change problem undermined claims from any sectional interests which, at the end of the day, formed the basis of the old left-right ding-dong.

All this was deeply contradictory and was what gave the climate change debate its moral character. On the international stage, the climate change agenda may have been a challenge to the US by the Europeans, but they were in no position to move it forward unless the US adopted it. When the US political class changed direction under Obama, he neutralised that attack on the US – as he has neutralised a lot of other complaints against the US under Bush (is Guantanamo still operating?). However, bringing climate change under US leadership proved to be something else entirely.

On the domestic front, the way climate change became a left-right proxy, and used by Rudd as such against the Liberals, yet at the same time discrediting the agendas of both sides of politics, summed up the contradictions of a Prime Ministership that was against the old two party system, but which included the party he led.

As the international contradictions unravelled, so did it domestically. The end of Bush unilateralism exposed the underlying weakness of US political leadership that it was designed to counter. The fall of Rudd has exposed the bankruptcy of the party brokers that made them turn to Rudd in the first place.

Commentators like saying that Rudd’s biggest mistake was dumping the ETS, but in reality it wouldn’t have made much difference. The conditions that made climate change a political benefit were unravelling no matter what Rudd did about it, or what Gillard does now. While Labor conducts a bizarre debate about what it stands for while it is actually in government, Gillard has picked up the issue to fill the gap.

But the political momentum behind it has gone, and it is unlikely to give the government the sense of purpose and reform agenda it is now obsessing about. Crabb was tut-tutting that Gillard is now backing a policy she disavowed during the campaign. But the problem is not really that Gillard is saying one thing different from what she promised. Big deal. The point is that it was not seen as something of political benefit to campaign on as Rudd did in 2007. So why will it suddenly become a political plus for Gillard now?

But it might not be too much of a disadvantage either. Abbott was able to make some hay while the climate change agenda was unravelling (even if having to back-track on his own scepticism). But now that the unravelling is over, the steam had gone out of his own side as well. Turning it into something to do with electricity prices and coal a decade down the track might not do Gillard much good, but it won’t do much for Abbott either and internally, as we know, Abbott needs it more.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 19 November 2010.

Filed under State of the parties

Tags: , , ,


14 responses to “The climate change moment has passed”

  1. john Willoughby on 19th November 2010 10:50 am

    the big hole theory might need some modifications.
    How long will we as a nation be allowed to export
    co2 producing products to other countries at no cost.
    Our exports already exceed our domestic use.
    This issue is going to come back and bite us if we continue
    with our full steam ahead approach and our wilfully self deluding “clean coal” agenda.
    The USA has outsourced its manufacturing base to southern china and we have been the fuel source, some time soon the
    piper will require paying.

  2. Lentern on 19th November 2010 10:57 am

    I take it then you think Turnbull’s attempts to frame himself as the climate change candidate to be a waste of his time? I know you don’t rate Turnbull generally but you think he’s doing himself no favours the way he goes on about ETS’s?

  3. Riccardo on 19th November 2010 3:25 pm

    I find it funny that the scientific community claim they haven’t presented the climate change consensus well.

    I say they have done it extremely well – there are few such issues that get such wide ranging support in the community – except in the US where people believe the Earth is 5000 years and 7 days old and is there to be used up. It’s the politicians and their interests who haven’t bought it yet.

    I have wondered whether European and Japanese positions reflect their real, underlying situations – highly populated and energy intensive but not having many good energy sources locally and no strategic might to force energy supply without the US alliance.

    Europe and Japan spent the 70s avoiding oil, building high speed railways, putting up the price of motoring and investing in alternatives including nukes, so are in a better position to shut down the polluting energy market than the US.

    Hence it gives them a strategic edge in such international discussions.

    I’m not convinced China and India are against CC action either – I think both just have their hand out for $$.

    I’m sure they would live just as happily in a European utopia of electric trains and windfarms as they would in a US utopia of freeways and coal power, but want to be given the money to achieve either.

    And people forget that China is still centrally controlled, despite what you might read, and could make a decision to select the European future as easily as the US one. India might not be able to – but is a lot further behind.

  4. Michael on 19th November 2010 3:42 pm

    I don’t believe anything much is going to happen to tackle climate change in the next ten years. It will take generational change – it’s as simple as that. Generally speaking once peoples lifestyles are set they find it very hard to change. Just look how long it’s taken to get people to recycle. Even as a lot of people except the science, getting them to change is pretty hard. Rudd did the easy bit signing the Kyoto protocal. So I don’t think any politician in “it’s all about lifestyle” Australia is going to campaign on it for a while.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 19th November 2010 8:49 pm

    On Turnbull, it’s an interesting question. On the climate change issue itself, I would argue it hasn’t done him much good for the reasons above. there could be an argument that he has benefited from being a ‘man of conviction’. But I don’t think people regard it as highly as they say they do.

    In some ways China is very mindful of climate change. It is a major political point internally. I think internationally they are using it as a tool for negotiating their position in the global pecking order, not much more.

  6. Thomas Paine on 19th November 2010 10:07 pm

    Gillard is proving to be a vacant space.

  7. Graeme on 20th November 2010 5:44 pm

    I’m not so sure about ‘moment passed’. A summer of heat waves like that in Perth presently, the media cycling… CC is potentially beyond partisanship, indeed it can transcend city/rural cleavage, and conservative/liberal/progressive divides, as you’ve identified in the past.

    It’s also an issue that awakens fear, and that’s a potent fillip for collective action, as the right knows well.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 20th November 2010 9:00 pm

    I agree that being an issue and a fear can still continue. I more mean that I don’t think the perception or expectation that governments can do something about it, and so benefit from talking about it, will come back.

  9. Riccardo on 21st November 2010 1:12 pm

    It’s a bit like Afghanistan – us fighting a war and not exactly winning SHOULD be an issue for the political system here – but the two parties don’t know how to handle it.

    I suspect even the Greens would like to be out of it but know that the complexity of international negotiations mean they can’t say it unequivocally.

  10. Riccardo on 21st November 2010 1:14 pm

    And just like CC has its denialism and doubt-casting, Afghanisation has the lingering feeling of maybe the government is right, the Taliban will invite Al Qaeda back and they will launch attacks on us.

    Reality is, Al Qaeda affiliates appear to be in Yemen, Somalia and so on, and no-one apparently doing anything about any of them.

    Which why I think Afghanistan is still just the ‘great game’ a buffer state between Russia, China, India, Iran and the world’s oil, that just can’t be left alone.

  11. James on 22nd November 2010 9:41 am

    I’m very cyncial about the Greens and climate change. They had their chance to pass climate change legislation when the two Liberal Senators crossed the floor but they refused. They sacrificed their principles for political gain. They are just as bad as the opportunists they despise. It’s a mentality that will cause big divides in their party later on about a range of issues.

  12. Riccardo on 23rd November 2010 9:02 am

    I suspect the Greens span a spectrum of people whose views don’t differ much from ALPs, all the way across to those who really would prefer living in caves.

    Presumably the ALP compromise was not sellable internally, and they were worried that an ALP compromise was not the ‘first step’ but the last time the electorate would care, as they would feel the issue had been dealt with.

  13. Labor’s technocrat moment has passed :The Piping Shrike on 29th November 2010 7:02 am

    […] The climate change moment has passed […]

  14. Wood Duck on 29th November 2010 4:06 pm

    James’ story is the conventional wisdom. However, what Rudd and Wong were offering was a nothing solution; one that actually allowed the big polluters to carry on as usual.

    The Greens were right to try to force the Government make a real attempt to deal with the problem. As well as this, if the Greens had agreed to support Labor in the Senate, there was absolutely no guarantee that the two Liberal senators were have crossed the floor.

    Crossing the floor is easy when doing so is of little or no consequence.

Comments are closed.