Climate authority’s chequered past and difficult future

As a cog in the public service meat grinder for much of my working life I learned to keep bureaucracy at arm’s length, so it’s a little odd now to be feeling a kind of kinship with a government agency. But that’s what climate change has done to me.

The Climate Change Authority was meant to be the focal point of Australian climate policy when it was set up in 2012, the go-to place for information and advice on our response to a big, complex, growing crisis. But when Tony Abbott came to power in 2013, all that fell apart.

Rebuffed by the Senate’s vote to keep the CCA, Abbott’s government ignored it and left board vacancies unfilled. When inaugural chair Bernie Fraser quit in September 2015 the board had lost five of nine members and lacked a quorum. Death beckoned.

There was a reprieve a week later when Abbott lost his job to Malcolm Turnbull. With vacancies filled, the authority survived despite more years of government neglect under Scott Morrison. In 2021 its chair, marine biologist Wendy Craik, was succeeded by Grant King, a former mining and fossil energy company director turned advocate for corporate environmental and social accountability. 

In 2022, new climate and energy minister Chris Bowen kept him on the board and added three women. They included climate scientist and ecologist Lesley Hughes, who headed Tasmania’s Climate Action Council until the Hodgman government abolished it in 2014.

The CCA quickly re-entered the climate debate with a progress report laying out in stark terms Australia’s rising risks from land and marine heatwaves, rising sea levels, extreme weather, flooding, wildfire, disease and food insecurity –  and irreversible tipping points. It’s confronting, but it’s also a relief to have a government agency speaking frankly about climate change.

The November 2022 report emphasised urgency, pointing out that the 2030 deadline was just 85 months away (now it’s 78) and our abatement effort will be 40 per cent tougher than up to now. We have a lot of time to make up.

The report called for climate change to be “at the forefront of all government decision-making” and repeatedly invoked the need for governments, business and the rest of us to come together in a cooperative spirit. Now the CCA is seeking input from all Australians on emissions targets (google “cca setting targets 2023”).

This is a big, critical year for Australia’s climate response. Besides providing advice on our interim Paris commitment, which has to be ratcheted up in 2025, the CCA must advise on revisions to legislation covering emissions reporting and land carbon, both of which are being overtaken by new knowledge. 

Achieving emission targets is a collective challenge, as the CCA says. Shifting our unequal society to a low carbon economy calls for substantial government measures to enable all businesses and households, including financially challenged ones, to stay engaged and in the game. 

For too long climate change has been treated as a peripheral issue, less important than core items like the budget and the economy. But it underlies everything we and our governments do, and it’s not going away next year or next decade. Even if all current global targets are met, it will still be affecting us centuries from now. 

Expertise on steps needed to minimise both our impact on climate and its impact on us is as important to government as economic expertise, for which it relies on internal agencies like the Treasury, the Taxation Office and the Reserve Bank. Like them, the Climate Change Authority needs to become part of the Canberra furniture.

Right now we are having to reckon with evidence that the government’s heavy reliance on consultancies may have led to personal or corporate enrichment at public expense. Just as we need financial, revenue and monetary policy expertise inside the public tent, so must top-quality climate policy expertise reside within government.

Public policy is always hard work because it calls for data from a wide range of sources, plus life experience and ethical standards. The more demanding and controversial the subject matter, the harder it is to get good policy outcomes. Climate change, touching on the lives of all Australians and confronted with near-impossible time imperatives, is as tough as it gets.

It stands to reason that government and people alike need to regard the CCA not as something to be discarded on an ideological whim but as an established, essential, even pivotal, tool of government, calling for unambiguous bipartisan respect and support. Without that, our climate response will always be floundering.

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