Politicians on climate: a failure of wit, will and imagination

BOTTOM OF THE CLASS: Australia faces a big task to meet carbon emission targets. In 2006 we had the highest per-capita emissions among G20 countries (GRAPH 1), having gone backwards in the previous decade (GRAPH 2), leaving us poorly placed in 2009 to turn things around (GRAPH 3).

BOTTOM OF THE CLASS: Australia faces a big task to meet carbon emission targets. In 2006 we had the highest per-capita emissions among G20 countries (GRAPH 1), having gone backwards in the previous decade (GRAPH 2), leaving us poorly placed in 2009 to turn things around (GRAPH 3).

At every turn we are reminded of how little politicians know, or even care, about today’s climate emergency. Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson have given us a prime example. [22 September 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Our politicians are failing us. Our administrations are failing us. Our corporate leaders are failing us. In unison, they are marching ever deeper into a mire.

They have no idea now to escape; some don’t even seem to know the mire exists. Mention the danger ahead or offer possible escape routes and you’re met with mindless reassurances and dead clichés.

Like a slow-motion march of the lemmings, we are witnessing a failure of leadership on a massive scale. And like failed leaders back through the centuries, today’s leading players still seem to think we should put our trust in them, close our eyes and follow them down their path to oblivion.

With the physical reality of climate change now upon us (if only they knew it), our leaders can’t see that the behaviour that served them so well in times past — spin, political deal-making, time-honoured delaying and diversionary tactics — is a dangerous mistake.

Kevin Rudd has now provided us with proof-positive that when it comes to climate change, he just doesn’t get it.

Last week, as our national parliament degenerated once more into yet another playground punch-up, a departing Dr Brendan Nelson told the chamber there was no point in Australia acting to curb its carbon emissions ahead of the “big emitters” such as China and India. After all, he declared, Australia is responsible for only 1.4 per cent of global emissions.

With its free permits for major polluters and its sleight-of-hand, conscience-easing offsetting schemes, the Rudd government’s emissions trading legislation is far from the panacea that its proponents would have us believe.

But Dr Nelson neither knows nor cares what the scheme might or might not do for Australian emissions. For him, ambitious targets are an anathema — even Australia’s five to 10 per cent reduction by 2050 is questionable — and emissions trading means just another tax burden.

You’d think Mr Rudd would feel miffed by this attack on a key policy issue, but not a bit of it. The day after Dr Nelson’s farewell, Mr Rudd proudly trotted him out as his new Ambassador to the European Union. It was as if they’d always been best mates.

It’s questionable whether Dr Nelson could adequately represent our country anywhere, given his stance against Australia taking any international initiative on climate — a position that should be untterly unacceptable to the Australian government. But with such a mindset in Europe, friends will be especially hard to find, and Australia’s reputation will suffer.

In case it has escaped the attention of Mr Rudd and Dr Nelson, Europe is the home of carbon trading and the world’s most ambitious carbon-cutting targets. In December 2008, the EU implemented mandatory 2020 targets of 20 per cent renewable energy, a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency and a 20 per cent reduction in emissions.

Our new ambassador to Europe has a lot to learn. So, it would seem, does our Prime Minister. So here’s a brief primer in Australia’s progress towards a clean, green future.

Both men like to use national totals as the benchmark for judging who’s most responsible for cutting emissions: Australia has a low national emissions total because we have a small population. But the only meaningful way to measure carbon emissions is per person.

On this basis, in 2006 (the most recent year for comprehensive international emissions figures), Australia ranked worst of all on the G20 list (19 nations when you take out the EU) — see Graph 1. We were only a little better when it came to reducing emissions over the 10 preceding years, at 15th out of 19 [Graph 2].

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is contained in G20 low carbon competitiveness, a report released last week by the UK-based Vivid Economics and endorsed by the prominent climate economist Sir Nicholas Stern.

This report found that among G20 countries, Australia is very poorly placed (ranked 16th out of 19) to meet the currently-accepted 2050 international carbon target of 450 parts per million by volume of greenhouse gases (CO2-e) [see Graph 3]. That target is below what Australia is currently aiming for (550 parts per million) but is 100 parts per million above what science says is our limit if we are to avoid the danger level of 2°C of warming.

We have a long, long way to go.

Saturday 24 October is the International Day of Climate Action. Visit the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens between 17 and 24 October and help to create a “350” collage made from waste plant materials. The figure 350 is the level of greenhouse gases, in parts per million by volume, that scientists estimate is our limit to avoid dangerous climate change — and we are already well above that today. The collage will be located on the lawn directly below the Floral Clock, highlighting the limited time available for acting effectively on climate change. The use of plant material emphasises the importance of plants in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, that plants affect all life, and that climate affects all plants.

You are warmly invited to add to the collage from 17 October using plant materials provided in baskets. On the International Day of Climate Action (Saturday 24 October) the finished “350” will be photographed and sent to the 350 website for inclusion in the campaign. Visit the 350 website for futher information.

Organisers acknowledge the support of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in facilitating and providing the public space for this collage.

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1 Response to Politicians on climate: a failure of wit, will and imagination

  1. Dear fellow climate activists,

    Below is a letter being variously sent to MPs, media and NGOs around the world on the quantifiable actuality of Apartheid Australia’s racist position on the climate emergency that acutely threatens Humanity and the Biosphere. Cheers, Dr Gideon Polya (I left beautiful Tasmania in 1966)

    Dear Sir,

    The Australian Labor Government commitment is for “60% off 2000 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050” and its conditional position in May 2009 in relation to global action on GHG pollution was: “The Rudd Government has today committed to reduce Australia’s [domestic] carbon pollution by 25 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 if the world agrees to an ambitious global deal to stabilise levels of CO2 equivalent at 450 parts per million or lower …Advanced economy reductions, in aggregate, of at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020…Major developing economy commitments that slow emissions growth and then reduce their absolute level of emissions over time, with a collective reduction of at least 20% below business-as-usual by 2020.”

    Simple analysis (using authoritative data from the US Energy Information Administration, the US Environment Protection Authority and the UN Population Division) shows that this policy means that the Australian Government will only agree to “annual per capita GHG emissions” in “tonnes CO2-e per person per year” in 2020 of 17.2 (Domestic) and 44.8 (Domestic plus Exported) provided the Developed World achieves 8.9 and the Developing World 3.0. This is dog-in-the-manger climate terrorism, climate injustice and indeed climate racism.

    Yours sincerely,
    Dr Gideon Polya,
    Macleod, Melbourne, Victoria 3085, Australia

    For detailed and documented analysis of the above see “Climate Justice & Climate Injustice: Australia wants a 2020 per capita GHG pollution 15 times Developing World’s”: http://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/climate-justice .

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