Date created: 3/5/07
Last modified:3/5/07
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Handling those global-warming hot potatoes

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

6 January 2007

2006 was a year for inconvenient truths. The Australian Labor Party finally recognised the inconvenient truth that it would never win with Kim Beazley as leader. The political elite in the US finally recognised the inconvenient truth that the war in Iraq has been a disastrous, and probably irreparable, failure.

Most notable of all, in the long run has been the recognition of the inconvenient truth presented in Al Gore’s amazingly successful documentary of the same name, that human activity is causing unsustainable global warming and other forms of climate change. Gore’s film partly caused and partly reflected a sudden shift in the terms of debate.

At the beginning of 2005, climate scientists were virtually unanimous in their support for the mainstream theory of human-caused global warming. However, the public debate in Australia and elsewhere did not reflect this.

Instead, a tiny minority of skeptical climate scientists, backed up by an array of amateur critics, right-wing pundits, and lavishly funded front groups managed to create the appearance of an evenly divided debate. During 2006, however, a combination of accumulating scientific evidence, exposure of the workings of front groups, and the direct experience of rising temperatures, droughts and bushfires destroyed the credibility of the sceptics once and for all, at least in Australia.

The government’s response has been to appoint a Task Force of a dozen members, all of whom are either representatives of fossil-fuel intensive companies and industries or senior public servants. The Task Force is supposed to develop a global system of emissions trading that will reduce CO2 emissions, while protecting the interests of Australian industry.

Unfortunately, any attempts to develop an alternative plan along these lines will run into yet another inconvenient truth. The probability of gaining global acceptance for any alternative system of emissions trading put forward by Australia is effectively zero.

The main game in this respect are the negotiations for a successor to Kyoto, the most recent round of which were held in Nairobi. By refusing to ratify Kyoto, Australia has effectively dealt itself out of this game, a fact reflected in our exclusion from the main sessions at Nairobi. To the extent that we have participated, Australia has been widely seen as playing the role of a spoiler, in support of the Bush Administration. Until we ratify Kyoto, any initiative we propose will be viewed in this negative light.

The other possible route through which Australia could promote a global agreement is the Asia-Pacific forum. As the government regularly points out this body encompasses the majority of the world’s CO2 emissions, and could provide the basis for an agreement.

The problem is that India and China have made it clear they will not move unless the US moves first, and it has become obvious that the US will do nothing as long as George Bush is in office. It might be hoped that our long-standing status as the most loyal ally the US has anywhere, and the close relationship between Howard and Bush, would gain us some influence, but our experience (and that of Tony Blair) suggests otherwise.

Despite undermining, and ultimately destroying, his own position in the British Labour Party to back Bush, Blair has had essentially no success in influencing the Bush Administration to do anything it does not want to do. Our own experience with the Free Trade Agreement indicates the same

In any case, the ground is shifting under the Bush Administration just as it has already done for the Howard government. Frustrated by Bush’s inaction, and rejection of science, a number of states have acted unilaterally to introduce their own emissions trading. The Democratic Congressional majority, elected in November, will almost certainly introduce its own measures when it comes into session.

And Bush’s term has only two years left to run. His successor will almost certainly be either a Democrat or a pro-Kyoto Republican such as McCain. In these circumstances, our influence with the Bush Administration, whether great or small, is a rapidly depreciating asset. Once Bush is gone, half-hearted initiatives like AP6 will probably go with him.

There is, of course, the possibility that the Howard government has already recognised this inconvenient truth and plans to outflank Labor by ratifying Kyoto just before the next election, then bringing forward a saleable post-Kyoto plan. The recently-established Task Force could serve as a device for forcing industry leaders to recognise that there is no feasible alternative, and locking them in behind the government’s strategy. As the New Year dawns, we can only hope.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

Read more articles from John Quiggin's home page

Go to John Quiggin's Weblog