What Happened To Climate Change?

Climate change is very much like evolution. The science is in. It’s a fact. There is no argument in scientific terms. But those who don’t accept the facts seem to get an equal voice as if it is a balanced argument when it is not. And with both, as more evidence comes in, it is always supporting the scientific side of the argument.

The scientific approach is to observe a phenomenon, come up with a hypothesis, then gather data in the real world to see if it agrees with the hypothesis. If it doesn’t, you review your hypothesis. Scientists don’t mind being wrong because it means they have eliminated a possible cause and have therefore learnt something along the way.

Dogma however, starts with a fixed position, often espoused by an irrelevant authority such as God or Alan Jones and then either cherry picks, or presents updated or deliberately false evidence to support its position.

But why is this so? With evolution it is understandable. Some people have invested so much effort into following the teachings of bronze age desert tribes that when it collides with modern science they have no choice but to put their fingers in their ears and go “La,la,la”.

With climate change, the opponents usually have something to lose from the policy implications of climate change action and rather than only opposing the policy they also attack the science.

Let’s face it. If the science showed that the best way to tackle climate change was to stay in bed and alternate between eating ice cream and having sex, there wouldn’t be an argument.

As soon as you suggest something that might have an impact on people’s lifestyle, that’s when the trouble begins.

If we parallel climate change with the hole in the ozone layer, we see two vastly different results from two similar scientific situations.

The British Antarctic Survey discovered the hole in the ozone layer using ground-based measurements taken in Antarctica. At first the idea was argued against since the satellite readings of the same area showed no such hole. On further examination, it turned out that the satellites were calibrated to dismiss data outside a certain range as being errors. It was in this range that hole would have been discovered. Once the satellite was recalibrated the satellite data agreed with the ground data and confirmed the existence of the hole.

Scientists determined that the major factor contributing to the hole in the ozone layer was chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) and the main source of these was refrigerant gases. The answer was to cut the use of CFCs and find alternate refrigerant gases. Luckily Dupont has just invented suitable replacement gases. The world happily came together, agreed on reduction strategies and carried on with life. I don’t remember people taking to the streets demanding to be able to keep using CFCs and there certainly wasn’t an “Ozone Sceptics Party” vying for seats in the Senate. Because the solution was relatively painless, the solution was accepted and the science was too.

This was not the case with Climate Change. The easiest way to fight climate change is to dramatically cut the level of greenhouse gas emissions. In a world heavily reliant on fossil fuels this cannot be done without a lot of pain. Those who would suffer most from the greenhouse gas reductions began a concerted campaign not just to oppose the policies but also to discredit the science. This is a tactic that proved very successful for the tobacco industry when they questioned the science showing links between smoking and lung cancer.

This led to the debate becoming highly political with those parties who traditional supported business taking the side of the climate change sceptics. This was particularly the case in the USA where the Republican Party gave climate science the same level of respect they give to evolutionary biology.

But in Australia the situation was different. The acceptance of climate change in Australia was originally fairly high and the public accepted that action should be taken. Unusually for such a hot topic, it had bi-partisan support and the Howard Government set about planning for an emissions trading scheme while Malcolm Turnbull was the environment minister.

After the defeat of the Howard Government, the Rudd Government promised to introduce an emissions trading scheme. The Liberal opposition under Malcolm Turnbull supported this and Tony Abbot also expressed his support. Many members of the Liberal Party were climate sceptics with Nick Minchin actually suggesting it was a left-wing conspiracy. But even the more moderate in the party thought that introducing a scheme before the Copenhagen summit was premature.

Surprisingly The Greens didn’t support an emissions trading scheme, because they preferred a carbon tax. A carbon tax would be simpler to implement and wouldn’t be subject to speculative trading like an ETS. A carbon tax probably was the better option, and an option suggested by Tony Abbott while the ETS debate was happening (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckcH0Wrmy74) . But The Greens were being a bit too pure in their convictions and politically naïve. They thought that if they opposed an ETS then someone might then try to introduce a carbon tax, which they would then support. Of course the subtlety of this argument was lost on the public who thought that if The Greens are opposing what is supposed to be an environmentally beneficial scheme, then there must be something dodgy about it.

The failure of the Copenhagen summit to generate any international agreements and beat-ups like the so-called ‘Climategate[1]” led Rudd to delay the introduction of an ETS. The public were disappointed by this and Rudd’s popularity quickly fell.

Somewhere about this time there was a great shift in the mind of the public, which was led to newly appointed Julia Gillard to promise before the election that no government led by her would introduce a carbon tax. The Liberals now led by opportunistic climate sceptic Tony Abbot were also opposed to a carbon tax. The Greens however were still keen on it and used their balance of power as a bargaining chip to introduce a carbon tax.

This “great big new tax on everything” that would “push the cost of a Sunday roast to $120” was very unpopular and the resentment against Gillard was strong as it was perceived that she had lied to the public. Lying implies that she had always intended to introduce a carbon tax and said otherwise. What actually happened was that circumstances changed and she was no longer able to keep her promise. That is different to lying.

So largely on the unpopularity of the carbon tax, a Liberal Government under Tony Abbott is now in power. Their climate reduction target is the same as the previous Labor Government, but they prefer direct action. This is quite strange. The party of small government and big capitalism rejects the idea of using an efficient market mechanism to get the most cost efficient means of reducing emissions and prefers government intervention. It is political opportunism at its very worst.

The direct action plan involves planting trees, improving soils (whatever that means) and carbon capture and storage. It all seems to be end of pipe solutions to deal with the carbon emissions rather than reducing them in the first place. It seems that when it comes to climate change policy, prevention is not better than a cure.

Although the government will allocate around $3b to its direct action plan, if it doesn’t achieve the goals of a 5% reduction on 2000 emissions, there is no more funding. This seems to show the government is only paying lip service to the idea of reducing emissions and is not really serious about it.

So here is a quick summary of the main points.

  • Howard Government starts planning for an emissions trading scheme.
  • Turnbull opposition supports an ETS. Tony Abbott also supports an ETS
  • Rudd Government plans to introduce an ETS.
  • Green oppose an ETS and prefer a carbon tax.
  • Abbot opposes an ETS takes over the opposition and suggests a carbon tax is preferable to an ETS.
  • Rudd fails to introduce ETS and loses popularity.
  • Gillard takes over from Rudd.
  • Gillard introduces carbon tax under pressure from Greens.
  • Gillard loses popularity for introducing a carbon tax.
  • Abbott opposes carbon tax and prefers direct action.
  • Rudd regains Labor party leadership and promise to replace the carbon tax with an ETS.
  • Abbott gets elected and starts to dismantle carbon tax.

The Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the public have all flip-flopped on what they want, causing mass confusion all round. The only party to stay true to their word have been The Greens in always wanting a carbon tax. However their lack of flexibility and pragmatism have caused them to lose the tax, lose a vital position in government and lose popularity. The other person to have stayed true to his word is Malcolm Turnbull. Despite agreeing to toe the line under the Abbott led Liberals, he still openly supports a market mechanism for greenhouse gas abatement and may still introduce such a scheme if he ever regains leadership of the Liberal party.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for the formation of a “Green Army” unit in my area so I can fight climate change by fixing river banks and picking up litter. (WTF?!?!?!)

[1] Apparently misinterpreting the language in two emails out of several thousand is enough to prove a worldwide conspiracy. Go figure.

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