Observations on My Role in Commenting on the New Albury Anti-Carbon Tax Group

BY BEN HABIB.

Last Saturday I provided comment in an article in the Border Mail—‘Doug takes up fight on carbon tax’—about a new group called Border Says NO to Carbon Tax being established by local trucking operator Doug McMillan.   I periodically get asked to comment on such stories by local print, radio and television media outlets because of my research and teaching interest in the politics of climate change and as media liaison for Wodonga and Albury for Climate Health.

One of my concerns when accepting invitations to comment in the media is the way that my comments are framed.  Journalists like to frame stories as a two-sided argument in the name of balance.  In some instances, this has the effect of giving equal credibility to two sides of an argument when equal credibility is not warranted based on the evidence that informs their positions.  In other cases, such as this one, the quest for journalistic balance can unnecessarily engineer conflict between two parties who don’t need to be antagonists.  Conflict sells newspapers and makes great click bait on media websites, but it is unhelpful to the process of informed policy making and democratic debate.

I am not interested in doing a hatchet job on Doug McMillan and his fledgling group.  He is a man who is rightly concerned about the impact that a significant piece of legisilation might have on his business.  I applaud him for getting involved in the political process.

What I am interested in is working with people across the community to understand and adapt to the complicated political, social and economic challenge posed by climate change.  Adversarial contests are unhelpful toward this objective.

Informed Democratic Participation in Climate Policy Debate

Our community is full of people who whinge about the government and there is widespread popular disenchantement with political elites of all stripes.  Quite frankly, it’s our own fault as a community for being uninformed and not taking our responsibilities as democractic citizens more seriously.  A liberal democracy only functions properly when an active and informed voting public holds its political leaders to account.

With that in mind I would like to offer some general comments and suggestions for anyone who is interested in participating the the climate policy debate, particularly with regard to the government’s Clean Energy Future legislation.  To properly engage with this debate, you need to understand the body of evidence that underpins this policy area and understand the mechanics of policy formulation and the political system more broadly.

The Evidence is In

The CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology released a report last week—State of the Climate 2012—which highlighted what numerous other scientific reports published by independent researchers and professional organisations from around the world have been saying for some years now about the dangerous trajectory of human-induced climate change.*

Policy and scientific experts have been working on this problem for over thirty years.  The human role in altering the climate system has been known since the 1920s.  But please do not take my word for it and don’t be seduced by the comforting denialism and conspiracy theories of climate sceptics.  Read and evaluate the scientific evidence for yourself.

Until you have examined some of most authoritative reports on the threat posed by climate change, you are not qualified to be a meaningful participant in the climate policy debate.  This is not an elitist or biased statement.  Regardless of whether you are an advocate of strong climate action, or of alternative greenhouse gas emissions reduction policies to those currently on offer, or do not believe in the existence of human induced climate change, this body of information should be the foundation of your argument.  Whether you believe it or wish to critique it, you have to make reference to this body of information to be taken seriously.

If you want to be a constructive player in this policy debate then you need to come at it from an informed position.

As an academic, it’s my job to know where to find this information and I am happy to assist anyone wishing to delve into this body of work, so please contact me if you would like assistance.

Why Carbon Needs to be Priced

My position on the government’s Clean Energy Future legislation is well documented on this blog (‘Initial Analysis of the Gillard government’s ‘Clean Energy Future’ Proposal’) and I will not discuss that here, however some background on the rationale for pricing carbon is necessary for this discussion.

Governments then have to decide how they will respond to climate change, based on the body of evidence described above.  The Rudd/Gillard Labor government, along with the Howard Coalition government that preceded it, have come to the conclusion that using a market-based mechanism to put a price on carbon pollution is the most efficient, effective and least disruptive policy response.

The argument is that placing a price on greenhouse gas emissions is necessary because of a market failure in our economic systems, where the cost of greenhouse pollution is not factored in to the cost of doing business.

At the moment, businesses make money through operations that pollute the atmosphere, while the cost of cleaning up that mess (reducing emissions) and dealing with the consequences (across the board: disaster planning and recovery, physical and mental health, national security, for example) is socialised, getting passed on to the wider society.

And there’s the problem: the economic incentive that exists when we externalise the cost of pollution is biased toward increasing greenhouse gas emissions, not reducing them.  So while there is an underlying emissions growth bias in the business models of companies across the economy, no amount of small, incremental emissions reduction initiatives will reduce our greenhouse emissions to levels demanded by the robust body of scientific evidence.

Pricing carbon is therefore about internalising the cost of greenhouse pollution within the cost of doing business and giving providing a positive price signal that encourages business enterprises to emit less carbon.

International research during the 1990s showed that emissions trading and a carbon tax were the two best ways of sending this price signal (The Autralian government’s Clean Energy Future legislation is a hybrid system incorporating a carbon tax that will transition into an emissions trading system).  This research was sufficiently conclusive about the merits of carbon pricing that a framework for a global emissions trading system was embedded within the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

As I write this, countries across the industrialised world are working out how to price carbon in ways that are compatible with their national circumstances.  In no way is Australia ‘going it alone’ in pricing carbon.

Constructively Adapting to the Carbon Tax

I am willing to bet that the smart players in industries that may have larger carbon tax liabilities are quietly conducting carbon audits and finding efficiencies in their operations.  In doing so they are likely to make significant savings to their operational costs in addition to minimising their carbon tax liability.  I know of some local businesses who have done just that already.

I strongly recommend to any business with an impending carbon tax liability to have a carbon audit done.  At best you will gain a competitive advantage on your competitors and at worst you are likley to reduce your overhead costs.  Businesses that cling to a high polluting business model are likely to get left behind.

Again, I am happy to assist local business owners if finding consultants with appropriate expertise to conduct carbon audits, so please get in touch if you are interested.

Beware of False Prophets

When it comes to climate change policy, politicians and media personalities that tell you exactly what you want to hear are not necessarily your friend and do not necessarily have your best interests at heart.

Be careful about politicians who make promises that they can’t keep on climate policy.  More importantly, learn to recognise with politicians make promised that they can’t keep and call them on it before you get disappointed.

To informed observers, it was obvious that Julia Gillard would have to backtrack on her promise not to price carbon because it was a silly statement made for short-term political gain in the face of a looming global problem.   Her retraction would only have been a surprise to people who were unfamiliar with the body of scientific evidence about the climate change threat.

In the same vein, Tony Abbott’s ‘blood oath’ to repeal the carbon tax is equally disinegenuous.  A Coalition government would have to pass up to 18 different pieces of repealling legislation through what’s likely to be a hostile Senate where the Greens hold the balance of power.  A double dissolution election will not be possible until early 2016 because of various constitutional roadblocks.  A Coalition government repealing the Clean Energy Future legislation would also have to pay millions of dollars in compensation to companies that have made investments in carbon credits.  Unfortunately, as they did with Julia Gillard, many people are accepting cheques from Tony Abbott written by his mouth that a Coalition government can’t cash.

Climate Change is Not Going Away

Professor Ross Garnaut was not being flippant when he described climate change as a “diabolical policy problem” in his 2008 Climate Change Review.  In my posting Initial Analysis of the Gillard government’s ‘Clean Energy Future’ Proposal last year I wrote the following:

The public debate on this topic to date has been heavy on misinformation and outright falsification, heavy on narrow self-interest, and heavy on misplaced fear, at the expense of a proper analysis of the urgency of the climate threat.

Participants in the climate policy debate can overcome this toxicity by making sure they (1) understand the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change (regardless of whether they agree with it or not, (2) understand the broader rationales for pricing carbon and the mechanics of carbon pricing policies, (3) be ready to adapt to changing legislative as well as ecological circumstances, and (4) be suspicious of any public figure with a silver tongue and simple solutions.

No-one wants to see hard working local businessmen like Doug McMillan lose their livelihoods.  If people with climate-related expertise can work cooperatively with local businesses and other impacted members of the community, we can constructively adapt to the many challenges posed by climate change instead of further fracturing the community for the sake of argument.  However for the cooperative approach to work, everyone has to begin from a position of informed empowerment.

As always, I’m interested in readers’ thoughts.

Further Information:

* For a chronological list of key scientific, governmental and inter-governmental reports, and international legal documents dating from 1972 to the present, see the Key Climate Documents page compiled by Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH).

Ross Garnaut, The Garnaut Climate Change Review.

Antony Green, What Chance a Double Dissolution in the Next Three Years? ABC Online.

Matt Grundoff, Carbon tax: for Abbott it’s appalling policy or appalling hypocrisy, Crikey.

Ben Habib, Initial Analysis of the Gillard government’s ‘Clean Energy Future’ Proposal, Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

Jane Shaw, The Coalition’s race against time, The Drum.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: The Kyoto Protocol (1997).

  ______________________________________________________________________

Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

 The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

 ______________________________________________________________________

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7 responses to “Observations on My Role in Commenting on the New Albury Anti-Carbon Tax Group

  1. Ben. Excellent analysis and commentary as ever.

    I had no idea the Australian carbon tax system will transmutate into an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This is not the way forward; as only carbon pricing will drive behaviour modification. ETS does not provide any incentive to individuals to moderate their consumption. On the contrary, it will guarantee a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ outcome.

    See The solution to all our problems (13 March 2012).

    • I don’t disagree that the Clean Energy Future plan is a deeply flawed beast, but given the alignment of domestic political forces in Australia and the narrow time window in which carbon mitigation needs to begin, it’s the best we can expect at the moment. Clearly this legislation is a political compromise that doesn’t really please anyone, but it is better than Kevin Rudd’s CPRS.

      If this legislation is as good as it gets for climate mitigation in Australia then it will be a failure. If it is a piece of legislation that provides a foundation for increasingly stronger mitigation measures then it will have served its purpose. Holding out for a purer green mitigation policy this late in the game is tactical stupidity. My feeling is that it will be easier to ammend existing legislation, particularly if it proves to be less offensive to people than the deniers outrageous contrarion rhetoric would have us believe, than it would be to go through the whole process of introducing completely new legislation.

      For my full appraisal of the package, see: “Initial Analysis of the Gillard government’s ‘Clean Energy Future’ Proposal.”
      http://politicsalburywodonga.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/initial-analysis-cleanenergyfuture/

  2. An awesome article, I could fill pages with how it made me feel but I think these next few words should be enough.

    it is hard to find an unbiased person such as yourself in the field of climate warming, very good of you to offer readers the chance to find out the issues by themselves instead of feeding them your own thoughts. people like you are rare, mate!, they are called “real teachers” and I hope you never change, we need more like you. always will. Good on yah!

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