Monday, May 31, 2010

Mine tax defence makes case for climate campaign

Today The Age published my response to Saturday's page one story, "Taxpayers fund mine tax defence". Essentially, I argue that if a resources ad campaign is justified, a climate campaign is justifiable on the same grounds, but it isn't in the offing – why? Here's the letter:

I support Labor’s campaign to explain the Resources Super Profits Tax. While any exemption of a Government campaign from political advertising guidelines should be questioned, the mining lobby’s “active campaign of misinformation” identified by Wayne Swan calls for an urgent and honest response.

A further question we should be asking, however, is why an “emergency” exemption should be granted for a public interest campaign about a tax, but not one to address the even more pervasive misinformation directed against the scientific reality of climate change.

The resources tax campaign will cost $38 million. The recent budget announced $30 million over two years for better communication on climate, but expects this funding to be drawn from the existing resources of a climate change department called on to find savings of $200 million.

If the Government is going to honestly claim exemptions for its advertising, a public interest campaign on climate change based on the latest science should be one of the first cabs off the rank. The trouble is, a truly honest campaign on the climate issue would show that the Government’s current climate measures simply don’t stack up when it comes to ensuring a safe climate.

Comments welcome

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fiona Richardson: climate change 'delivered'?

Darren Lewin-Hill presents a letter to Northcote MP, Fiona RichardsonLabor's Member for Northcote, Fiona Richardson MP, has already switched into election campaign mode with a string of local visits to shops, including today's sales-pitch at Northcote Plaza.

Richardson is pushing local achievements she claims to have 'delivered', but Darebin Climate Action Network is making sure the community also makes the link with the climate track record of the Brumby Labor Government that Richardson represents.

With the Federal Government shelving emissions trading until at least 2013, the pressure is on the Victorian Government to fill the climate action vacuum. Yet the State Government is committed to expanding coal mining and addicted to coal-fired energy generation through plants such as the massively polluting Hazelwood.

DarebinCAN distributed fact sheets about our dirtiest power station, and to drive the message home, I presented Richardson with a letter asking that she tell Northcote voters where she stands on climate (click on the arrow at top right to expand).

Part of Richardson's promotion was a flyer indicating she could help constituents by 'Raising an issue in Parliament'. I call on my local State Member to raise in Parliament the issues communicated in my letter, so they can be heard by every Member of the Legislative Assembly, including Peter Batchelor and Premier John Brumby. I'll also be awaiting a written response from Richardson, as will other community members who presented their own letters to the MP.

Like Martin Ferguson, the Federal Member for Batman, Richardson is gearing her campaign to the local achievements she has 'delivered'. While these certainly need to be debated, we should also ask what else is being 'delivered' for Northcote. Emissions from Australia's fossil fuel exports and domestic power-generation are delivered to the global atmosphere, but the impacts of climate change will be localised - everywhere. Questioning politicians about climate change is therefore vital.

Fiona Richardson, where do you stand? Are the only issues you'll raise in Parliament those that are consistent with Labor Party policy? That's too easy for you, too hard on our climate.

Comments welcome

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rudd drops the ball in climate time-on

In his recent “meltdown” on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Kevin Rudd was ruffled like a man on the boundary receiving a hand-pass under pressure, a “hospital ball” as footy-speak sometimes has it. The ball was climate change, and it was coming back to him after a much earlier play when he’d got free on a wing – steel-rimmed specs clear and in place – surging forward with his eyes on inside 50.

That was the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, when Rudd ultimately swept to power partly on the promise of strong action on climate change, “a great moral challenge of our time”. Now the hot ball came not from Geelong’s Cameron Ling, but another fiery redhead, the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien – put whatever jumper you like on him, the ball was coming in fast.

When O’Brien took the PM back to his own past words on the imperative for climate action, confronted him with the charge of “cowardice” Rudd had himself levelled at an Opposition seeking delay, the prime minister found himself with nowhere to go. He was angry, but inept, and finally, with no-one on the lead, sent the ball out of bounds.

Now is the political moment when the crowd holds its breath waiting to see if the umpire will call for a free kick to the Opposition for “deliberate”, or a throw-in and the resumption of play late in the third quarter in the race to the imminent federal election.

Like a player dragged for a “clanger” and on the phone to the coach, Rudd had plenty of excuses for the ABC audience. He was shelving his emissions trading scheme until after the current Kyoto commitment period because climate talks in Copenhagen had confirmed the stalled progress of international action. His legislation had been repeatedly rejected by the Senate.

There was, of course, nothing to differentiate the starkly divergent motives of the Greens and the Coalition for rejecting the ETS. Tony Abbott will always think climate change is “crap”, but the Greens see the ETS in its shelved form for what it is, a climate placebo that, if enacted, would at best give the mere appearance of action while committing Australia to worsening droughts, floods and bushfires.

While O’Brien challenged the PM on why he isn’t taking the ETS to a double-dissolution election, the possibility of the Greens much simpler interim carbon price was not even canvassed. As for Copenhagen, like a footy writer nailing some weird and unpopular rule-change in the AFL’s pre-season competition, O’Brien highlighted the discrepancy of the PM’s past views on waiting for international action.

All this has given rise to an Opposition narrative about a prime minister who stands for nothing, a prime minister turning aimlessly on the boundary, who has backflipped on home insulation, and now on the climate action he had called for with such urgency. Maybe, Abbott suggests, the ETS is really about – and only about – a Great Big New Tax.

Leaving aside the Opposition leader’s dismissal of climate change – his knowledge in that area has more holes than his budget reply speech – we should consider that the ETS might well have been the wrong tool to achieve the right objective.

The science is clear that we need deep cuts to our carbon emissions, and the electorate needs to be clear that this is a process founded on science, one that can be managed as a transition instead of the drastic disruption painted by the opponents of change – including the fossil-fuel energy generators and the mining industry.

If the public does not understand this, it is partly because, floating between government messaging and the science on climate impacts is a fluid layer of political expedience.

First there’s the budget allocation of $30 million over two years for better climate communication – meaningless when that money is to be drawn from the existing resources of a climate change department expected to find savings of $200 million (1).

More significantly, how can the government be serious about climate change when it actively encourages the expansion of the coal industry? This is the alarming message of Guy Pearse writing in The Monthly. Australia, heavily dependent on fossil fuels for its own energy, is on track to become the world’s largest exporter of carbon – ahead, even, of Saudi Arabia.

Contributing to a massive carbon tally disproportionate to our population is the planned significant expansion of oil exploration off Australia’s coast. In the context of our own Montara spill, and the US Gulf Coast disaster, energy and resources minister Martin Ferguson is willing to countenance unacceptable environmental risk in the rush for deep-water oil.

That’s where mere calls for better communication fail. Unless there is some bedrock of reality to which communication is anchored, unless it is consistent with the government’s other actions, it will be rightfully perceived for what it is: empty spin. A genuine commitment to action precedes honest communication.

Rudd’s difficulty does not result just from a failure to communicate, but on the reality that accurate communication would highlight the yawning gap between the government’s professed commitment to climate and the vanishing opportunities for the urgent action demanded by science.

When I met in April with energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson, I put to him the pressing need for strong action and a public education campaign. Disingenuously, he said the government had made things very difficult for itself with “political advertising”. Yet the kind of truthful climate campaign we need would be about as political as a televised bushfire evacuation warning, or a public health announcement about the closure of airports due to a threat from avian influenza.

Ferguson, himself a champion of fossil fuels, is a symptom of the climate split-personality of this Labor government. When the government should be vigorously taking on the miners, the minister has embarked on a “listening tour” of mining companies to gather the views he seems to have missed from their Canberra lobbyists.

Instead, Rudd should be communicating that strong action on climate – including a price on carbon – is consistent with the need for an appropriate resources tax. Aside from the fact that the royalties paid by mining companies have been declining as a percentage of their super-profits, the climate cost of mining activities will never feature in the strident blasts of the Minerals Council of Australia.

With the election fast approaching, Kevin Rudd should be hoping like hell that the ball is thrown back in, not handed to Tony Abbott for a free kick that will lose us the larger game. It might be the third quarter in the electoral race, but it’s time-on in the fourth for climate, and the siren’s coming. Prime minister, for the moment you’re the captain–coach. Whose side are you on?

(1) Katharine Murphy, "Of backflips and backchat", The Age Insight, 15 May 2010, p.5

Comments welcome

Monday, May 17, 2010

Batchelor uses ETS failure to defend Hazelwood

In responding to Environment Victoria's plan to replace Hazelwood with a combination of gas-fired power, renewables and energy efficiency, energy minister Peter Batchelor has said that jobs from "cleaner energy industries" will only flow when an emissions trading scheme becomes law.

In effect, the minister is using the federal government's ETS failure to defend Australia's heaviest emitting power station. Instead that failure places an urgent obligation on Victoria to implement its own strong climate measures, as individual states have done in the absence of federal action in the United States.

Predictably, management of International Power Hazelwood has questioned the feasibility of the Environment Victoria plan, but the real question is how feasible it is to continue the massive emissions of Hazelwood as the world approaches climate tipping points that loom closer with emerging science.

James Hansen, the world's leading climate scientist, considers it essential to leave remaining coal reserves in the ground unless emissions from burning coal are captured as of now. With carbon capture and storage a distant and unproven prospect at best, and with realistic renewable strategies at hand that will save emissions and yield thousands of jobs, the choice is clear.

Victorians must reject the coal lobby's notion that a switch to renewables means they will not be able to switch on their lights - a realistic transition period is possible in a timeframe that will contribute strongly to a safe climate.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Resources tax may help climate

Today's edition of The Age carries my letter responding to yesterday's page one coverage of the reaction by the mining industry to Kevin Rudd's proposed resources tax.

Here's the edited letter, followed, as usual, by the letter as submitted:

RIO Tinto chief Sam Walsh thinks he's making a case against the new resources tax when he says that $7.5 billion of iron ore, alumina and coal projects are on hold as a result (''Miners step up for fight with Labor'', The Age, 6/5).

However, there's a significant climate upside with any slowing of the emissions-intensive resources industry - particularly when Australia is too reliant on coal for its energy, is the world's largest coal exporter and is among the top-10 worst nations for its environmental impact. If we map the resources industry to its impacts on the planet, we may finally realise that this should be a fundamental measure of business viability, and therefore place greater emphasis on sustainable industries, such as renewable energy generation.

As for Tony Abbott saying the government must be changed to stop the tax, we should note the converse of his argument: we must keep the government to keep the tax.

The submitted letter was slightly longer:

Rio Tinto chief Sam Walsh (News, p.1) thinks he's making the case against the prime minister's new resources tax when he says that $7.5 billion of iron ore, alumina and coal projects are on hold as a result.

However, there's a significant climate upside to his argument with any slowing of the emissions-intensive resources industry - particularly when Australia is too reliant on coal for its own energy, is the world's largest coal exporter and, as your newspaper also reports (News, p.11), among the top-ten worst nations for its environmental impact. If we map the resources industry to its impacts on the planet, we may finally realise that this should be a fundamental measure of business viability, and therefore place greater emphasis on sustainable industries, such as renewable energy generation.

As for Tony Abbott saying that the government must be changed to stop the tax, we should note the converse of his argument: we must keep the government to keep the tax. Thanks for the clear market signal to voters, Tony. Provided Rudd does not water down his proposal with loopholes that allow industry to escape payment, this is a strong move by the Labor government.

I was in two minds about this letter. I certainly didn't want to convey the message that the resources tax was anywhere near sufficient as a climate measure, or a substitute for a strong price on carbon. Nor did I want to exclude the possibility that, in keeping the current government, voters might well like to alter its composition with a few climate progressive independents or Greens. On the other hand, I thought that Tony Abbott deserved a measure of scrutiny as I made the broader point about sustainable industry.

Getting back to Labor, today's edition of The Age carried news that Batman MP and energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson, was set to embark on a "listening tour" of resources companies. I find it hard to believe that he's somehow missed all their lobbyists over the years! He'd do better to go on a listening tour of people already suffering climate impacts fuelled by our addiction to burning and exporting coal.

Let's hope the resources tax does put some sort of brake on our emissions-intensive resources industry, but we must still hold the Rudd Government to account on renewable energy and effective, science-based climate measures that include a strong carbon price.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rudd's climate backflip deadly in empty pool

In Saturday's edition of The Age, Michael Gordon offerered an interesting analysis of Kevin Rudd’s climate backflip, but highlighted its game-playing political dimensions over the objective impacts of the prime minister’s failure to act. Gordon suggested the backflip “does matter”, but largely as a mistake of arrogance and communication with consequences for voter sentiment.

It was from this perspective that he noted the “case for shifting ground on climate change”, pointing out the decline in still substantial public concern about climate both here and in the US. It was almost as if, were that concern to decline beyond a certain point, the problem of climate change would disappear. Instead, it grows only more compelling as science finds serious impacts occurring at ever lower levels of warming, as the ANU's Professor Will Steffen noted in his address at the launch of the Transition Decade campaign in Melbourne back in February.

Gordon did argue that the prime minister should have stood by Penny Wong to build a “consensus for action”, but this ignores the reality that the currently proposed emissions trading scheme does not amount to the “credible action” the prime minister is demanding of the world before he moves on "the great moral challenge of our time".

A double-dissolution election over the ETS is not the answer, however. If Labor could overcome Martin Ferguson's aversion to a deal with the Greens, an interim carbon tax would be a start while the details of a much stronger scheme are hammered out. Honest, public-interest communication by Government is also needed to persuade voters of the necessity for urgent measures.

In the same edition of the paper, Adam Morton reported Penny Wong's view that deferring a decision on action until the end of 2012 offered “a good opportunity to assess the level of progress internationally”. Unfortunately, without science-based action now, that “progress” is likely to be towards worsening impacts and the realisation that our chance to avoid climate calamity may well be gone.

In the paper's Insight section, Tony Wright gave welcome emphasis to the physical impacts over the political game-playing when he highlighted accelerating changes in the melting of Antarctic ice that featured on last Thursday's excellent ABC TV Catalyst program.

In the business pages, Paddy Manning looked at the Greens interim carbon tax, finding value in the "overlooked" proposal. Business also featured Ross Gittins in a clear but flawed piece on why progress is supposedly being made by the Government, via Copenhagen etc. It's worth reading, but my question to Gittins is how long can we "prepare to prepare" to take weak action?

He also offered a tired argument similar to that advanced by the Australian Industry Group that a 5 per cent cut on 2000 emissions by 2020 is really a much bigger cut on projected, business-as-usual levels by that year. Unfortunately, the more our projected emissions are talked up and characterised as almost inevitable, the better such meagre cuts look. Instead of inflating inadequate actions by comparing them to catastrophic projections we have yet to emit, we should compare every proposed cut to what the science says is needed.

Finally, on a more positive note, in an excellent piece for The Sunday Age, Guy Pearse warned that the campaign for stronger climate measures to replace Rudd's failed CPRS must press for genuine domestic cuts through limiting the use of international carbon credits and pushing for a coal "phase-down" that targets exports, not just power generation in Australia – a must-read.

Don't miss ABC TV's Q&A tonight, which features Senators Wong, Minchin and Milne.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Help launch the 100% Renewable Community Campaign

Tomorrow, Sunday 2 May, will see photo-shoots take place across Darebin to support the 100% Renewable Community Campaign for Clean Energy. Come along and be part of the crowd to help send a clear message to our politicians about clean energy.

1.00pm Alphington Railway Station - Rowe St side
1.30pm Fairfield Railway Station - Wingrove St side
2.00pm Northcote Town Hall - 189 High St, Northcote
2.30pm Thornbury Village - Corner Normanby and High Sts
3.00pm East Preston Primary School - Corner Sylvestor Grv & Dean St
3.30pm Reservoir Railway Station - High St side
4.00pm Martin Ferguson's Office - 159 High St, Preston

Each shoot will require only a short amount of time, but will help to send an important message!

The photo-shoots are being organised by Darebin Climate Action Now to support the campaign.

Inquiries to, mobile 0466 210 959 or see the flyer for contacts at each location.