Adapt To Survive

The Labor party once made great fun of John Howard’s distinction between core and non-core promises. Julia Gillard has now added to that taxonomy: a promise so intolerably core it has to be explicitly denied during an election campaign.

It’s damned hard to reconcile August 2010’s ‘There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead’ with February 2011’s ‘The two-stage plan for a carbon price mechanism will start with a fixed price period for three to five years.’

Labor’s goal during the 2010 campaign was to get over the line and govern another term. Just like any political party. But where Labor broke new ground was by being happy to say anything or promote any idea to get there, no matter how divorced from its own philosophy or the wishes of its supporters.

Disavowing a carbon tax is what US political consultants told Gillard to do. So that’s what Gillard did, no matter what she or her party thought.

Of course, the Prime Minister’s reversal of what seemed a pretty explicit promise not to price carbon says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of that policy. But it says a heap about her approach to politics. She’s very, er, political.

Careful policymaking would be a distraction from the important business of political manoeuvring.

The Greens might bear this in mind as they negotiate with Gillard and her ministers. Any deal is one grumpy focus group or James Carville phone call away from being discarded.

Nevertheless, if all the government’s legislative cards fall in place, after July 2012 Australia will have a price on carbon. That’s almost exactly when poor old Brendan Nelson suggested the Coalition under his leadership would implement one.

Nelson’s policy had an important condition: international action on climate change. It was a more innocent, optimistic time. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull also spent 2008 and 2009 rabbiting on about Copenhagen and international agreements.

Yet in 2011 the closest Gillard comes to mentioning the molasses-like movement to international agreement is a vague ‘the global economy is shifting’. Just vaguely shifting, in general.

This modified rhetoric places the government’s climate policy at one remove from its purpose: to combat global climate change.

For this government, a carbon price is no longer about stopping, reducing or slowing global warming – a task which would require concerted, co-ordinated global action. Now it’s just the season’s most fashionable economic reform.

Gillard has implicitly admitted the chances of international agreement on emissions action in the foreseeable future are near zero. The chances that the unco-ordinated and compromised carbon initiatives now being introduced in some countries will have a significant impact on the global climate are even lower.

Don’t underestimate the magnitude of a transition to carbon-free energy production. Or the economic and social change that transition would cause.

The Australian government’s carbon price will start small. But if it is to make any dent in our carbon emissions it will have to be steadily raised, year after year.

Even during the ‘fixed-price’ period which Julia Gillard announced would precede the full emissions trading scheme, the carbon tax will still increase ‘annually at a pre-determined rate’.

Any government facing complaints about the cost of living – justified or unjustified – will find that very challenging.

A Galaxy poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs last week showed that 66 per cent of Australians were unsure about the relationship between human-induced carbon emissions and global warming. This figure has remained steady for at least 12 months.

Combine this finding with survey data revealing that even people who fully accept the dangers of anthropogenic climate change are unwilling to pay the extra money a modest carbon price would demand, and you have quite a political pickle.

Gillard may initially win some political points for a courageous and aggressive stand on climate action. But those points will disappear when higher energy bills are mailed out. Especially since the Prime Minister has effectively taken personal, political responsibility for everybody’s electricity costs.

Hers is a pickle shared by every government which wants to act on climate.

The situation is even more serious in the developing world. Energy poverty is a serious development problem. Traditional home methods of producing energy (burning wood, agricultural residue and animal dung) are a major health hazard for the world’s poor. Economic growth is held back by unreliable or inaccessible electricity.

So no responsible developing world government would penalise large-scale energy production significantly enough to have an impact on the global climate.

The only policy position sensitive to these political realities is a focus on adaptation. Adapting to climate change – whether natural or anthropogenic – is the only approach which accommodates questions of political economy.

Sure, it’s easy to imagine an ideal world where a mechanism can be developed which prices the externalities of pollution efficiently, consistently and effectively – where the best legislators can team up with the best scientists and the best economists to write the best laws which take into account the best research, unimpeded by politics and democracy and the mendacities of self-interest.

But that’s not our world.

If you fully accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire scenarios, there’s still reason for optimism. The economist Indur Goklany, poring over the UK’s Stern Review, found that human and environmental wellbeing in the foreseeable future will be, on balance, higher in a ‘richest-but-warmest’ scenario. His argument should carry weight: Goklany has been a long-time delegate to the IPCC. He argues that tackling the consequences of climate change is far more efficient than trying to prevent it.

That is, a rich world is better able to cope with the adverse effects of any climate change than a poor one. When it comes to climate change, it is far more efficient, and far more practical, to treat the symptoms.

And it’s the only approach which takes into account the raw, unforgiving logic of political action.