Garnaut: a seismic shift in the political landscape

The Garnaut climate change report has grave implications for Australia that the Rudd government must heed. [26 February 2008 | Peter Boyer]

If the Kyoto sign-on and the ‘stolen’ apology weren’t evidence enough, Ross Garnaut’s interim climate change report to Australia’s leaders last week was surely the clincher. We’re in a new political landscape, and the old has gone forever.

For the first time Australians are hearing a voice of authority – the authority that comes from having undertaken the only comprehensive study of local impacts – telling us that climate change demands urgent and wide-ranging remedies.

The politicians will take a while to adjust. In the wake of Garnaut’s stern warnings, Kevin Rudd assured Parliament that he was in charge, thank you, and will be getting advice from others before deciding what to do.

His climate change minister, Penny Wong, rejecting Garnaut’s implication that emissions would need to be cut by 90 per cent by 2050, said that the government had committed to a reduction target of 60 per cent by 2050, and “that’s the approach the Government will take.”

On the same day, energy minister Martin Ferguson called for tax incentives to encourage more oil exploration, to protect motorists and the economy against future supply shocks.

No leader likes to have an agenda gazumped, and rising prices (especially petrol) are known to be political dynamite. But all such squeamishness must now be put aside.

Just as the Port Arthur killings caused a mid-term shift to gun control in 1996, overwhelming evidence dictates that the Rudd government must change course on climate.

This is tough. Inflationary times call for a tight rein on prices, yet depleted petroleum stocks and the coming emissions trading scheme make rises in energy costs inevitable. The government must tell it as it is:

• As a developed country with one of the world’s highest per-capita greenhouse gas emission levels, Australia has a high responsibility to get its house in order.

• Ross Garnaut’s study, commissioned by Labor governments last year, is unique in its scope and depth. While the federal government may get separate advice on aspects of the final report, it’s in a weak position if it wants to reject or modify key Garnaut findings.

• If the scientific evidence says a 90 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 is what’s needed to avoid dangerous climate change, there’s no point saying we can’t manage that. We just have to.

• We need to look for opportunity in adversity. A shortage of mineral oil, for instance, is encouragement to use it more efficiently and to find better ways to manage transportation.

Relying on convention and sticking doggedly to past positions might have worked once, but not now. That’s life in the 21st century hothouse.

Where is Garnaut heading with his study?

Professor Ross Garnaut’s climate study is examining the full gamut of Australian life, with special emphasis on science and the economy. Here are some of his significant interim observations:

• A “large majority” of scientific opinion supports the view that humans are radically affecting climate and that risks will increase with “business as usual”.

• Much future warming is already built into the system because of current activity.

• Global fossil fuel emissions have risen sharply since 2000, led by expanding economic activity in India and China.

• Dramatic and immediate changes in global emissions will be needed to stabilise emissions to avoid a temperature rise of no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Even a 3°C rise will be hard to avoid.

• Australia will suffer more than most developed countries from global warming.

• Australia’s best interests will be served by tough global targets and involvement with regional partnerships, notably with Pacific countries.

• Australia needs a firm commitment to emissions targets for 2020 and 2050.

• An emissions trading scheme (to be introduced by 2010) is the centrepiece of Australia’s strategy to reduce emissions. The public will have an opportunity to discuss design principles of the ETS early next month.

• Australia has many advantages in international mitigation efforts, including its human and renewable energy resources.

This entry was posted in Australian politics, climate politics, Garnaut, inquiries and reports and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.