Monday, July 6, 2009

Australia’s greenhouse mafia

by Laurence Mazure, July 2009

Why there is no help to tackle climate change

Hopes that Australia's new Labour government would at last start to tackle climate change have been disappointed. It seems the powerful carbon lobby's hold on the reins of power is as tight as ever

"On a global scale, Australia has the highest rate of greenhouse gas emissions per capita," said Professor Mark Diesendorf, co-director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. "If Australia succeeds in reducing it, all the other developed countries will have to do the same; they won't have any excuse for not taking any action. Australia has all the economic and technological means at its disposal to face this challenge. This country could become a world example. And we're at a crossroads" (1). Unfortunately, he added, the hopes he placed in the new Labour prime minister, Kevin Rudd, have been dashed.

Rudd reneged on the promises that helped get him elected in October 2007, after more than 11 years of the Liberal prime minister John Howard's government (1996-2007). On 15 December the following year, Rudd announced that Australia would set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 2000 levels, while "considering" reducing them to 15%. This was despite the fact that in October the economist Ross Garnaut had produced a report on emissions trading schemes (ETS), which recommended a reduction of 25% between now and 2020, or 450ppm (2) from July 2010.

The day after this report was published, 16 Australian experts working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm in an open letter to Rudd: "You don't want Greenland to melt, you don't want the Antarctic ice sheet to destabilise, and you don't want the global ecosystems to fail. To avoid those things you need to stabilise at or below 400ppm" (3).

But their efforts were in vain. It seems Australia, the sixth-biggest producer of carbon dioxide emissions per inhabitant on the planet, after Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, the United States, Canada and Saudi Arabia, is destined to remain a member of this sad elite. So why did Rudd change sides in only a matter of months?

When he became prime minister on 3 December 2007, Rudd had immediately ratified the Kyoto protocol, ending 12 years of the regressive policy of the previous rightwing coalition, made up of the Australian Liberal Party and the minority National Party.

Howard had been a loyal ally of George W Bush and had pursued an economic policy dictated by the Australian mining and energy lobbies. These lobbies are all the more powerful because Australia gets most of its electricity from coal-fired power stations. But they did not merely use their influence: for years they were secretly and directly involved in the drafting of environmental legislation for the Howard government. Their aim was to protect their interests while pretending to be green.

The scandal erupted in February 2006, when Guy Pearse, former speechwriter for Robert Hill, the environment minister under the Howard administration, revealed the existence of a "greenhouse mafia": leaders of a group of businesses linked to fossil fuels (coal, oil, plastic, cement, steel, aluminium, chemicals and car manufacturing), and all members of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN) (4).

The members of this "mafia" benefited from the complicity of at least eight senior figures in the Howard government, including the ministers of finance, industry, fishing, tourism, higher education and the president of the Committee for the Protection of the Environment. It didn't take long for the result of this connivance at the highest level of government to be seen: public campaigns denying the seriousness of climate change, the discrediting of environmental pressure groups by labelling them as "leftist extremists", and the proposal of supposedly green alternative measures. Figures on the reduction of greenhouse gases were falsified to make it look as though the government had taken action, and tax breaks were recommended for the coal industry.

How did Pearse uncover a scandal of this magnitude? In the middle of the 1990s he was working on a thesis on the links between industry and politics. Since he was himself a member of Howard's Liberal Party, members of the "greenhouse mafia" saw him as one of their own and confided in him. Speaking anonymously, they revealed in a series of recorded interviews their direct and secret involvement in government policy.

Shaken by the scale of what had been going on, Pearse tried to alert the authorities, but without success. In early 2006 he risked his political career by going public on ABC television. In a country where freedom of the press is not protected by law and where private lobby groups sue journalists on the slightest pretext, Pearse was listened to because he had worked for the government, and because the evidence was overwhelming (5).

'Deny and delay'

AIGN members themselves came up with the term "mafia". It is a particularly fitting one to describe the network of think tanks, consultants, business leaders who move between private industry and the public sector, and their foreign connections. Researchers for AIGN-funded think tanks share the network's scepticism about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A message of "deny and delay" is then echoed throughout the conferences, discussions and publications they organise.

The strategy is simple: reject ETS outright, and promote the myth of "clean coal" (the technology for which is still at least 15 years away) and nuclear energy. Paint a catastrophic picture of the economic effects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And use think tanks to promote research and "independent experts" who reflect the views of the industries who finance them.

Also sensitive is the control the "mafia" has on government agencies in Australia. Pearse focused on two in particular: the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (Abare) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Public funding for these agencies has been reduced in recent years, so they have had to find private money to finance their research.

Every member of AIGN interviewed by Pearse confirmed having paid Abare to produce economic models that would allow Howard to justify his (in)action on greenhouse gases. These same industry representatives declared publicly they were "100% behind" making reductions.

These practices are still going on. On 9 December 2008 the Australian independent news website Crikey (6) expressed concern at the appointment of a former executive director of Abare, Brian Fisher, to the Senate select committee on fuel and energy (a committee controlled by the opposition). His job was to carry out an "independent review" of the Treasury's modelling of the economic impact of the government's ETS.

But it is well known that Fisher supported Howard's policy of "deny and delay". He also leads a neoliberal think tank, Concept Economics, along with a former close collaborator of Howard's. And as a private economist, Fisher would not have access to the Treasury's latest economic modelling systems, so how can he make relevant comments on ETS?

AIGN members have also capitalised on the "scientific" work of CSIRO, whose agency, Energy Futures Forum (EFF), rejects ETS and promotes "clean coal" and even nuclear energy, while criticising climate change experts. CSIRO employees are forbidden from commenting publicly on the impact of their work on government policy. EFF is funded by all the main opponents of reducing greenhouse gases: Alcoa, Australian Aluminium Council (AAC), BHP Billinton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata Coal, Woodside, Stanwell, Orica, Delta Electricity, Macquarie Generation and Loy Yang Power.

There is no shortage of accommodating journalists within the conservative press, controlled by Fairfax and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. These journalists often cover seminars organised by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the Lavoisier Group and similar think tanks. All-expenses-paid trips and other sweeteners ensure editors give favourable coverage to AIGN members.

As the United Nations conference on climate change to be held in Copenhagen this December approaches, there may be some surprises in store for certain media known for their anti-Kyoto zeal, such as the daily paper The Australian. On 8 December 2008 its owner, News Corporation, and two international Australian banks (NEB and Westpac) were among 140 or so groups who signed the Potsdam communiqué. This communiqué calls on developed countries to "take on immediate and deep economy-wide emissions reduction commitments".

The same day The Australian reported with indignation that Brazil had rejected a proposal regarding "clean coal", put forward by "Canberra and the coal industry" and "backed by most countries and by the International Energy Agency" (7). The proposal had been to use the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – a funding scheme set up by the Kyoto protocol to help countries achieve their emissions targets – to fund research into "clean coal" technology. But the Brazilian delegation at Potsdam quickly saw through the swindle: "The chief Brazilian negotiator, José Miguez, told The Australian that instead of trying to help poor nations to reduce pollution, Australia was simply acting as a mouthpiece for its coal industry" (8).

The report on Brazil's comments unwittingly confirms a fact revealed by Pearse: the inclusion of industrialists in Australia's delegation to international climate change negotiations. A "mafia" member had explained to him how it worked: "In the United States they sit in the gallery; in Australia they sit in the room. They are part of the team. Within industry, you have a corporate memory of international greenhouse negotiations from 1988 until the present day. The government does not have that.

"Question: Which is a huge advantage to you?

"Answer: Yes… Beck and Eyles did it [sat at the table as part of the delegation] as being part of the AIGN. John [Tilley, member of AIGN] did it as being part of the negotiating team, and Jones [AIGN member] did it actually leading the [Australian government] negotiating team. That was in the days when the environment department didn't even understand what the hell it was doing and it let the energy department run it!" (9).

For Australia and its mafia, the "greener" direction being taken by President Obama is worrying. AIGN members had been comforted by the fact the previous Bush administration shared their position.

It is worth mentioning the role of US think tanks, such as Global Climate Coalition (now defunct), which in the 1990s denounced the Kyoto protocol, saying it would lead the US to economic ruin. Other US organisations have since taken up the baton: Cooler Heads Coalition, Tech Central, Science and Environment Policy Project (SEPP), Greening Earth Society (funded by the US coal lobby), and The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). Pearse cites the absurd example of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) which ran a television campaign in 2006 with the slogan "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution. We call it life."

In Australia, as in the US and the UK, these think tanks produce publications to spread their message. These include World Climate Report, funded by Greening Earth Society, and Energy and Environment, which reflects the viewpoint of "scientists" whose research is never subject to peer review. To complete the picture, there is the Exxon Mobile-backed Charles River Associates International (CRAI), an organisation active on both sides of the Pacific whose analyses "prove" the disastrous effects of reducing greenhouse gases. CRAI is part of the Boat House Group, Abare's network for creating economic models.

Behind closed doors

Given the context, Rudd would have needed much more political will to tackle climate change (even though his own defence ministry is becoming worried about its effects). Rudd did the bare minimum by organising the "2020 summit" in Canberra on 19-21 April 2008. The debate took place behind closed doors, in keeping with Australia's undemocratic tradition of secrecy.

Curiously Pearse – who had campaigned for Rudd – was not among the hundred favoured few chosen to take part. "My exclusion did not surprise me that much. The summit struck me as a very deeply politicised process designed to give the impression of inclusion and non-partisanship whilst minimising the risks of dissent," he said. "Perhaps most surprising, however, was the inclusion of people with little expert knowledge in climate change policy. Meanwhile, while plenty of room was found for representatives of the fossil energy lobby, very few environmental advocates were included [Tim Flannery and Ian Lowe being the most prominent] and some of Australia's leading experts on renewable energy and energy efficiency were left out" (for example, Mark Diesendorf and Hugh Saddler) (10).

Nor were any of the people who admitted in Pearse's interviews having drafted laws on greenhouse gas emissions for the Howard government invited. Others who represent AIGN members, or have done so in the past, were there, however.

What Pearse did glean about the content of the discussions did not leave him feeling optimistic: "The discussions themselves, and the conclusions reached, were vague and fairly tangential to the real action."

The energy lobby's long campaign of disinformation has succeeded in persuading Australia's politicians – on all sides – and its population, that industry's short-term economic interests benefit the country in the long term. As Pearse said in 2007, nothing could be further from the truth: "If you actually look at the figures, those industries provide less than a dollar in 10 of GDP and one job in 20. They are not the backbone of the economy that we are led to believe" (11).

Other sectors, such as tourism, water, forests and agriculture, have relatively little voice even though, according to Pearse, they contribute to 90% of GDP and provide 90% of employment, while also having to deal directly with the effects of climate change.

No legal action has been taken against Australia's "greenhouse mafia" and the silence of the national media ensures there is no public debate. The case remains open.

1 comment:

Taisa Dornelas said...

Great article! I read it on Lemonde Brazil last month and I was looking for the english version.