Saturday, July 24, 2010

Towards a Citizens' Assembly: In defence of Gillard's climate change plan

This week Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a major speech on climate change that was almost universally reviled. The left, including Larvatus Prodeo didn’t like it because it didn’t nominate a carbon price, the right including Andrew Bolt believes Gillard is doing nothing on climate change while pretending to do something. Centrist Club Troppo’s Ken Parish was not impressed saying the deliberative democracy proposal is unlikely to work. And senior members of the commentariat like Laurie Oakes didn’t like it because it abdicates responsibility.

In rushing to condemn Gillard, no seems to have listened to what she said. Here is an excerpt of the speech:
“Global temperatures are rising. 2009 has been ranked the fifth warmest year on record globally and finished off the hottest decade in recorded history. The temperatures are largely driven by pollution created by carbon emissions. Climate change has a particular environmental and economic impact on Australia. 2009 was the second hottest year in Australia and ended our hottest decade. Each decade since the 1940s has been warmer than the last. With climate change, the number of droughts could increase by up to 40 per cent in eastern Australia, and up to 80 per cent in south-western Australia within the next six decades. Without action to reduce our pollution, irrigated agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin is projected to fall by over 90 per cent by 2100. About 85 per cent of Australians live in coastal regions. Just under 250,000 residential buildings, worth up to $63 billion, will be at risk from sea inundation if the sea-level were to rise by 1.1 metres. Coastal industries, such as the tourism industry, will also face increasing challenges with climate change.”

I agree with every word of that, and as Julia Gillard realises, many other people do too. Probably even a majority. Certainly all of the above commentators would (except Bolt). But the point is undermined by public hypocrisy. The majority does not yet appreciate “there is not a switch to flick or one single behaviour to change.” What Gillard won’t do yet is spell out what we can flick and all the behaviours that must change.

Her predecessor Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, partly on his promises to act on climate change. He came close. We would now have a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on the books if not for the poor decision making of the five Greens in the Upper House who could not join Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce in their courageous departure from party line. It would have been a flawed ETS, possibly even counter-productive. Nevertheless, getting it on the books would have been a great start to getting it right. It also meant the 2010 election would have been a contest of ideas between Rudd and Turnbull rather than the race to the bottom it has become under Gillard and Abbott.

I do not blame Julia Gillard for circling the horses as she attempts to win the election. I suspect that like Garrett’s fateful 2007 joke “she’ll change everything when she gets in” but for now she is moral powerless at the moment as a leader. She also knows meaningful action on climate change is impossible without a consensus. She might get that if she wins the election by a handsome majority (and if that Kingston poll is replicated widely she will get it too).

But even if she wins, consensus on climate change is out of the question with Tony Abbott as Opposition leader. It also needs an advocating (or at least understanding) media that accepts the inevitability of action to stop climate change. The mainstream Australian media has made no such concession. With their quotidian needs for conflict, they handle platforms to contrarians who prefer to focus on the immediate cost and its impacts, rather than the virtues of the long-term solution and its impacts.

Gillard explained what she meant by consensus. “I do not mean that government can take no action until every member of the community is fully convinced,” she said. Her solution is a Climate Change Commission. Those that think climate change is a communist plot will detest the new CCC with a passion. The same people will equally loathe the Citizens’ Assembly, with its name a whiff of the French Revolution. The media will attack both as toothless tigers redolent of the apparent pointlessness of the 2008 Summit.

But the Summit wasn’t pointless and neither will be these two new bodies. Deliberative democracy may not change votes but it should help push the effect of making the denialists look like flat-earthers. The remaining devil will be in the policy detail which can be ironed out over time. Gillard remains committed to a CPRS and if she wins she will be dealing with the Greens who will have the balance of power after July 2012 (the Senate election is as important as the Lower House one if not more so but is ignored by the media because it lacks the one-on-one drama). Let us hope by then the Greens wake up to the need to grab whatever power you can get and not repeat their mistake of 2009.

Until a proposal becomes the law of the land, we remain headed towards the final act climax of the Tragedy of the Commons. Australia’s electricity generation is projected to grow by nearly 50 per cent between now and 2030 to meet growing demand. Each of us takes a little much out of the garden, knowing all the while its stock is not being replenished. People can be educated out of their selfishness, by being bought or commanded to change. Maybe the CCC or the Citizens Assembly will help. But as long as there is an adversarial nature to our politics and our media, nothing will be done until we move into disaster recovery.

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