Climate budget shows they still don’t get it

The climate crisis seems not to have resonated at all with the politicians preparing and debating next year’s federal budget. What has to happen to make them get serious? [20 May 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Climate change is now a global emergency. Extended droughts are depleting the world’s water and food. Our ice is melting and our greenhouse emissions are rising at rates beyond even the most pessimistic forecasts of two years ago.

It was about then that former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern characterised climate change as the greatest market failure ever seen, and said we’d pay a heavy price for ignoring it.

This year Professor Ross Garnaut, reviewing how climate change will affect Australia’s economy, warned of impending critical greenhouse levels that would cost us dearly.

Only two years ahead in 2010 – well within the Budget’s purview – is the national emissions trading scheme, which if properly implemented will have more economic impact on Australia than all the tax reforms of the past two decades combined.

So you’d have thought that climate change, with its unprecedented cost implications, would be uppermost in government minds leading up to the first Labor budget in 13 years.

Not a bit of it. The emissions trading scheme got the briefest possible single mention as part of a list of climate actions, and climate as a whole rated barely 150 words, less than 4 per cent of Wayne Swan’s 4000-word speech (around 5 per cent if you add water and environment). Pathetically inadequate treatment of the most momentous issue of our time, surely.

It’s true that Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan can point to a list of worthy initiatives that the climate-blind Howard government would never have countenanced.

Aside from establishing a climate change department and the emissions trading scheme, they will remind us of funding for energy innovation, renewable energy and “green cars” – all measures deserving support that should have been in place a decade ago.

They will also highlight green loans to help people cut emissions, solar hot water rebates, and the “solar schools” and “solar cities” plans.

But politics, not reality, is the basis of the $500 million “National Clean Coal Fund”. This measure will do nothing for emission levels for many years, and very likely never, but it will put a smile on the faces of the powerful coal lobby.

The pin-prick that burst the government’s climate change bubble concerns one of very few measures that can reduce greenhouse emissions quickly – private solar power installations.

“No welfare for the wealthy” – a mantra of this budget – has gone a step too far with the decision to make the $8000 rebate for solar power panels unavailable to households earning more than $100,000. Though my household would still get a rebate, I find this decision utterly indefensible.

With renewable electricity desperately needed, solar panel rebates of all measures surely deserve universal application. Yet the government has withdrawn incentives for the people most likely to install them. What were they thinking?

But there’s worse: opposition leader Brendan Nelson gave climate even less attention than Wayne Swan. Sure, the politicians want to write their own agenda – but will it take a climate catastrophe, all too late, for them to see that our fossil fuel addiction set the agenda years ago?

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