Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Clive Hamilton: our parliament sabotages our future

Crikey, 12 August 2009 

Clive Hamilton writes: 

Is parliamentary democracy capable of responding adequately to the climate crisis?

With scientists now warning that the enhanced greenhouse effect presents an existential threat to humanity, Malcolm Turnbull's response is to wheel out a consultant's report resurrecting a policy approach ditched long ago that everyone knows is going nowhere, all so he can avoid talking about Godwin Grech.

Jesus wept. But Turnbull is not alone in his childlike refusal to take responsibility for the future of the world. The Government is more interested in wedging the Opposition than strong policies to save the country from climate disaster.

The truth is that despite 20 years of increasingly strident warnings from the world's leading scientists that our future is imperilled, our political leaders still don't get it. They think climate policy is a game they can play for political advantage.

In the best post-modern way, Mr Rudd believes he must "balance" the claims of the scientists against those of the sceptics and the coal industry, as if the scientists too are players who manufacture their science in the same way the Minerals Council gets its "facts" by commissioning a consultant's report.

In its latest wheeze, the Opposition proposes to jettison a decade of hard-won progress on international greenhouse policy for a half-baked baseline-and-credit scheme dreamt up by some greenhouse tyros in Melbourne. Turnbull's "cleaner, greener, cheaper" solution to warming has as much credibility as the "longer, stronger, donger" remedy for waning l-bido.

And even less chance of getting up. If it were taken seriously it would set back progress on greenhouse policy for years. Like the carbon tax, baseline and credit was rejected as a policy option fifteen years ago. Those who now want to revive either of them don't know their climate history or seek to sabotage a decade and a half of gruelling progress.

If Turnbull's "non-policy" is breath-taking for its sheer bloody-mindedness, what on earth is Nick Xenophon doing mixed up in it? What would induce a good man, who made his way in politics speaking for the exploited, to support a scheme whose "benefits" are bought by cheating poor countries out of future opportunities to cut their emissions?

Why would he join the march-past of those who want to offload Australia's huge moral burden on to poor countries desperate for foreign exchange?

As if the plague of economists had not already blinded our leaders to their duty, we were informed on Tuesday that Oxford Economics has calculated the worth of the Great Barrier Reef at $51.4 billion. That's in net present value terms, taking account of tourism and the "willingness to pay" of ordinary punters for ... whatever. That's $2500 for every man, woman and child punter.

If the economists at Oxford Economics had chosen a discount rate of 5 per cent instead of 2.65 per cent (for which a legitimate argument could be made) the value of this numinous, precious and irreplaceable attribute of planet Earth would be worth perhaps half that amount. But, hell, $25 billion, $50 billion, $100 billion -- it's all play money conjured from nowhere because "autistic economics", as the French call it, assumes we don't give a damn about anything unless we can cash it out.

So screw the Reef, where can I pick up my $2500? My government won't take responsibility so why should I?

Responsible governments accept that major structural change is always painful; their job is pain-management. It is inevitable that people will lose their jobs in the old energy industries; indeed, they must. The best indicator of how effectively we are cutting our greenhouse gas emissions will be the number of jobs lost in the old energy industries and the number created in the new ones.

Yet the parties continue to insist that we can keep the polluting industries growing and avoid job losses. Treasury modelling of the CPRS shows coal production and employment growing under all scenarios, and so does the dodgy modelling being spruiked by the Minerals Council.

Instead of the "23,510 jobs lost in the minerals industry by 2020", the study by Concept Economics (read "Brian Fisher") actually shows no jobs lost in the mining industries at all. Slightly slower growth in employment is spun into a media release declaring a "job-destroying impact", with jobs "lost", "destroyed", "shed" or "eliminated". It's all a lie.

The dismantling of tariff barriers and the introduction of competition policy were far-reaching structural reforms that caused a great deal of pain for some people, but almost everyone accepts now that they were needed.

The Hawke and Keating Governments showed a level of political courage missing in the Rudd Government, even though there has never been a better time politically to act on climate: the public wants leadership, the Government is in an impregnable position in the polls and the Opposition is in disarray.

Yet up on the hill, Rudd and Turnbull, Wong and Robb, squabble over their petty games while the planet locks itself onto the path of no return. At a time when our most esteemed scientists issue another public warning -- of approaching "severe disruptions to marine ecosystems", "a high risk of irreversible decay of the Greenland ice sheet" and looming climate tipping points -- our political leaders are consumed by the own egos.

Every day of delay is a death sentence for another village of Bangladeshis, a swathe of the Amazon, one more vulnerable species. They don't care. So accustomed are they at pretending to care they have forgotten how to care. They are like the undercover cop who spends so long in deep cover that he forgets who he is.

Most MPs are not party robots when they get elected, but the modern parliamentary system requires them to check their consciences and their capacity for independent thought at party headquarters, to be collected on the way out.

Our democratic system is capable of responding to the enormity of climate change, but it almost certainly will not.

With the exception of the Greens, our elected leaders will be seen as failed men and women who were unable to understand or accept the momentous responsibility that their positions demanded of them. 

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