Political meltdown in the sunburnt country: Where to now for Australian climate policy?

In one of the most dramatic weeks in Australian politics, the Australian emissions trading bill was defeated in the Senate this morning for the second time.  Australia will now have nothing to show at Copenhagen and it is more uncertain than ever which path Australia will now take to deal with climate change.  The concern is not so much that it was defeated (it really was a weak and flawed scheme that would have locked Australia into barely any reductions between now and 2020), but rather the reasons why it was defeated.

Essentially, a leadership crisis saw the angry climate skeptics take control of the opposition party, with the new opposition leader coming forth with a hardened position not to support emissions trading or any kind of carbon tax. This new leader of the opposition is on record as having said that the climate change argument was ‘absolute crap’ earlier this year.  Another MP was on national television recently voicing his bizarre suggestion that climate change was an international left wing conspiracy. Yes, you read that correctly.

Australia has an appalling record on climate change.  Per head, Australians are the highest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet.   The country has a long history of inaction on climate change, only ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 2007. All this seems hard to fathom given that it is among the developed countries that will be hardest hit by climate change due to its fragile ecosystems and the fact that it is the driest continent on Earth. The answer is of course largely due to the massive vested interests in delaying  a price on carbon for longer: Australia is a highly prosperous nation built on mineral wealth including vast reserves of fossil fuels.  Australians also have the largest houses in the world, high levels of car ownership, and exist as a tiny population on a vast continent – where the visual evidence of human destruction of the natural world may be less in-your-face than in Europe.  Nevertheless, the majority of Australians see that their climate is changing and want their leaders to do something about it.

So what happens next?

The government remains committed to emissions trading but doesn’t have the numbers to push anything through on its own. It has a few options. One is a constitutional trigger for an early election as the bill has been twice obstructed in the Senate. Otherwise it can come back with a revised bill in February, or abandon emissions trading entirely and come up with an alternative climate policy for Australia. One desirable outcome could be if the government negotiates to win the support of the five  Green Senators plus 2 members of other parties. This would give it the required numbers and would involve the government agreeing to the Greens’ significantly higher targets and ensuring a credible scheme.

What would be the best outcome for Australia now? How will these events in Oz resonate across the globe at the 11th hour before Copenhagen? If it’s true that we are experiencing  some  resurgence of climate scepticism in Australia and beyond, what psychological forces are at play at this crucial time for the planet?


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