- Peter Hartcher
- Sydney Morning Herald, August 15, 2009
A year ago, Malcolm Turnbull turned on a climate change sceptic. It was a characteristic Turnbull moment.
It was in the garden of the Hyatt Regency Coolum Hotel on Queensland's Sunshine Coast after a spirited debate on climate change at the annual Consilium conference of the Centre for Independent Studies.
The sceptic was one of Australia's most successful entrepreneurs, Peter Farrell, founder of ResMed, a company that generates about $1billion a year selling treatments for sleep apnoea.
Farrell believes that while climate change may be real, it's not because of human activity. And he's impatient with people who disagree. He met his match.
"Why is everyone a f---wit except you?" fumed Turnbull, the climate change believer. It was a withering remark. Farrell withered accordingly.
Yet this week Turnbull found himself leader of a coalition that gave the sceptics exactly what they wanted. The Coalition voted to block Kevin Rudd's emissions trading scheme in the Senate on Thursday. It was, said Rudd, "a disappointing day for Australia".
The Coalition's cohesion has come unstuck since the election. With the loss of power has come a loss of discipline. A reactionary outbreak has occurred.
In spite of this, Turnbull has managed to bring his party a long way on climate change. He has committed the Coalition to in-principle support for an emissions trading system. He has agreed to Rudd's proposed targets – to an unconditional cut in carbon output of 5 per cent by 2020, increasing to a maximum of 25 per cent in the event of a matching global deal.
He has spent time and energy in trying to improve the design of Rudd's scheme. Rudd, though, has refused to negotiate with him. The Prime Minister prefers to torment Turnbull than to do business with him. Rudd has him on the rack.
On one hand, Turnbull is being dragged away from climate change by the National Party and by a growing chorus of climate sceptics in the Liberal Party. On the other hand, public opinion and his own convictions on climate change are tugging him back to do a deal with Rudd to allow the scheme to pass into law.
So the Senate is a problem for Rudd because it has refused to give him the legislation he needs to implement his carbon-cutting plan. And with Turnbull accurately accusing him of playing politics on the issue, Rudd could start to look like a tricky politician rather than the national leader solving a big problem.
And it's a problem for Turnbull, interfering with public messages that he might want to send and eating away at his support inside the party at the same time. It's a problem that is set to persist for at least three months.
The underlying problem of climate change will be more persistent. As the senators voted down Kevin Rudd's climate change bill and headed back to their electorates on Thursday night, the US weather service was collating new readings of global temperatures.
As the senators slept, the US meteorologists published their findings on the website of the US Government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The results for July found that the ocean had recorded its warmest month in the 130 years since records began. The average land temperature for July was the ninth warmest month on record. Putting them together to get the average for the planet, July 2009 was the fifth warmest month since 1880, with the temperature up by 0.54 degrees on the long-term global average, with the administration defining long term as 1971-2000.
"We have been running at near-record global warming temperatures this year, and on this trend it will probably be one of the five warmest years on record," says David Jones, the head of climate analysis for the National Climate Centre at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.
A temperature rise of half a degree doesn't sound like much to worry about. "It doesn't sound like much day to day," says Jones, "but when you're talking about global temperatures it makes a big difference. In 1981 we had already had a half a degree of global warming, and a half plus a half makes one degree, which translates into a rise in the global sea level rise of 20 centimetres or halving the ice cover in the Arctic. Or it's the equivalent of moving a location by 150 kilometres closer to the equator. If we keep it up, Melbourne will be Sydney."
More forcefully, even as the Australian Senate had its own mini-tempest, the mightiest typhoon in half a century smashed its way through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and China this week. Typhoon Morakot killed scores of people and, in China, forced the evacuation of 1.5million.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that global warming would, in the long run, make extreme weather events less frequent but more intense. Could climate change be partly responsible for the severity of Morakot?
"The data is suggestive but there's a lot of uncertainty," about the relationship between ocean temperature and typhoons, says Jones.
Interestingly, the Chinese do not seem very uncertain. The China Daily, the English-language version of the official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, reports the director of China's National Climate Centre, Xiao Ziniu, this week as saying: "China is one of the countries most affected by natural disasters because of its geographical location and vulnerable ecological environment. Global warming is bound to have a greater impact upon an already sensitive environment."
The Australian insurance industry also takes the connection between climate change and damaging weather pretty seriously too. The Insurance Council of Australia, not usually considered a hotbed of environmental ideologues, told a Senate inquiry that it classified 425,000 Australian homes and businesses as being vulnerable to damage from climate change.
These are the properties less than 4 metres above mean sea level and within 3 kilometres of the existing coastline. This is the future definition of a risky investment.
But guess what? Rudd's scheme for addressing climate change will do nothing to stop the advance of global warming – and the harm that could come with it.
Rudd's plan is for Australia to cut its carbon emissions by 5 per cent unconditionally. Does anybody seriously argue that this 5 per cent cut to Australia's 1.5 per cent share in global carbon output – in other words 0.075 per cent of world output – would make the least difference to global carbon concentrations? Of course not. Rudd adopted this minimal target to win the support of business and to defeat the claim that he would be guilty of economic vandalism. But, perversely, its puniness renders it pointless. So Rudd's minimalist scheme fails on its own terms.
The leader of the National Party in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, says he rejects the Rudd plan because it will burden families, farms and companies while making no difference whatsoever to the climate. He's quite right. Rudd has inadvertently armed his opponents.
The moment that Rudd adopted his 5 per cent target, he should have dropped the argument about climate change. Instead, he should have pursued the same scheme on different grounds – because it will help wean Australia off finite carbon fuels, because it will give Australia early-mover advantage in adopting new technologies, because it will bring the benefits of new research and investment to Australia.
Even Rudd's maximum target of a 25 per cent cut, predicated on the rest of the world adopting a corresponding goal, would not alter the global warming trajectory the world is on. It would be only a beginning in putting in place a mechanism for perhaps arresting the next phase of deterioration over the century to come.
That's why the Insurance Council of Australia did not call for long-run carbon targets but for "urgent adaptive measures" to protect the coastline from the built-in climate change damage already in train.
The climate change problem in the Senate will be solved, probably in November. The Government will take the legislation back to the Senate. Turnbull will seek to win government support for some face-saving amendments, then both Turnbull and Rudd could declare victory and pass the bills into law.
If Rudd will not negotiate, he will make it harder for Turnbull to carry his party with him. But if the Opposition will not allow the scheme to pass, it will arm Rudd with a trigger for an early double dissolution election. This would be, on all present indications, so disastrous for the Coalition that Turnbull really would have no choice. He would be forced to yield to Rudd. The Government will prevail, as Penny Wong put it, "one way or another".
So in a few months, the Senate problem for Rudd and Turnbull is likely to be resolved. If only the planet were fixed so easily.
Peter Hartcher is the Herald's political editor.