Friday, July 23, 2010

Gillard's climate inaction and the Citizen's Assembly

As we "move forward" to an Australian federal election on 21st August, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has just announced the ALP's climate change policies.

I'm a little underwhelmed.

Still aiming for endless economic growth, no price on carbon until after 2012, same tiny target (5% down from 2000 levels by 2020. Most of the rest of the world uses 1990 as a benchmark, as agreed at Kyoto. Australia doesn't, or our "reduction" would be revealed as an increase), slight increases on fairly lacklustre funding for alternative energies, more coal power stations (as long as they are "capture ready", which is a little like building a car with a third pedal but no braking system and calling it "breaking ready"), and in what is perhaps the most telling proposal, a Citizen's Assembly held over twelve months to build a bipartisan consensus on the issue that will last longer than an election cycle.

This last idea could be dismissed as a populist move aimed to give sceptics a chance to bury the hatchet or at least air their grievances and vent some steam, but there is more at stake. The perceived need for something like this is based on the observation that in Australia, some kind of legislation involving a price on carbon enjoyed bipartisan support for the last few years until this collapsed suddenly around the end of 2009 with the election of Tony Abbott to lead the Coalition, who has described climate change as "absolute crap" and whose policies even manage to make the ALP look green (which is all the ALP need, basically). Gillard's speech compares the need for such a consensus (which needn't include everyone) to support for Medicare (Australia's public health system), which began life as a partisan issue, but which gradually won widespread public support until it is now politically unthinkable for either side to abandon it.

The Citizen's Assembly will be accompanied by the creation of a Climate Change Commission "to explain the science of climate change and to report on progress in international action". If people think that the CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Physics, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Socities, the Geological Society of Australia, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Australian Coral Reef Society, the Australian Medical Association and the Institution of Engineers Australia are all too political, part of a hoax, taken in by a fraud, in it for the money or whatever other argument people use to ignore the body of scientific opinion on climate change, then I am unsure what contribution another group set up by the government are going to make to building a community consensus.

Building a widespread understanding of the issue is important, and indeed, this was perhaps my largest disappointment with Kevin Rudd, that he abdicated his chance to lead the public debate on the issue, preferring to hang back and let the opposition shoot themselves in the foot over their internal squabbling on the issue.

It is also crucial to distinguish between the climate science (where expert opinion overwhelmingly acknowledges dangerous anthropogenic climate change) and climate policy (where expert opinion is more divided and where more deliberation on the goods of society is required) and to note that though we might agree (at least broadly) on the problem, proposed responses can vary widely for all kinds of legitimate reasons.

Exactly how the proposed Citizen's Assembly will work hasn't been spelled out in detail (or at least, I haven't seen where this has been done) and I can imagine a number of possible pitfalls to this approach. Nonetheless, I applaud Gillard and the ALP for trying something to raise the level of public debate on the ethics and policies of a good national response.