Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A blistering critique of climate change politics

by Kamala Emanuel

Green Left Online (June 01 2007)

Review of Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change by Clive Hamilton (Black Inc Agenda, 2007), 266 pages, $29.95 (paperback)

Scorcher will leave you fuming. Clive Hamilton's well-written account of the politics of climate change blows the whistle on the corporations, their lobbyists, the politicians, the climate change denialist front-groups and websites, the media and others that have obstructed efforts to ensure Australia plays its part in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate change from doing its worst.

Hamilton traces the development of the Australian government's greenhouse policies. He presents a wealth of evidence to argue that the Howard government's policy has been crafted by those Australian corporations with most to lose if the world reduces its reliance on fossil fuels.

The lobbyists responsible for the Howard government's climate change policy are by and large the executive directors of industry associations in the coal, oil, cement, aluminium, mining and electricity industries. They have been dubbed the "greenhouse mafia" by one insider.

Hamilton traces the origin of the power of the fossil-fuel lobby to their economic weight. "The rich countries have become rich by burning fossil fuels", he explains. Fossil fuels are the key energy sources in industrialised countries. Their importance to industrial economies, Hamilton writes, give the big suppliers and users "unrivalled political influence".

By contrast, the industries built on new forms of energy are "relatively small and less powerful than the established industries and they therefore do not have the political influence to induce governments to take action faster". Hamilton demonstrates this with reference to the Australian situation.

While the Office of National Assessments (ONA) produced a report in 1981 spelling out the problems of greenhouse gas production and its likely affects, and warning of the potential for this to have an impact on coal exports, it wasn't until 1988 that climate change really became a national public issue. In that year, several state governments adopted the "Toronto Target" of eighty percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2005. The federal government followed suit in 1990.

But under the influence of the "greenhouse mafia", Australian state and federal governments have promoted individual "green consumerism" for the population and voluntary emissions reductions by industry, even when these had clearly been demonstrated to have a negligible impact.

Hamilton offers a clear critique of green consumerism, calling it the "privatisation of responsibility" in sync with the neoliberal approach in which "everything is left to the unfettered market, even when the market manifestly fails".

Between 1990 and 2004 (the last year for which figures are available), Australia's greenhouse gas emissions (excluding those from land clearing) rose by around 25%. By contrast, in 1997 at Kyoto, the Australian government agreed to limit emissions to 108% of 1990 levels. Australia's policy has been characterised by the attitude "do nothing at home" and "work hard to prevent others doing anything".

The Howard government identifies the "national interest" with "the profits of the export coal industry". It works hard to prevent the world (and particularly China) from adopting mandatory emissions reductions targets that would necessarily lead to a decline in Australia's coal industry profits.

Hamilton also outlines the Howard government's approach to the Kyoto negotiations. The government used flawed economic modelling to argue that Australia would be relatively more economically disadvantaged than other industrialised countries by the adoption of emissions reduction targets.

They used the spurious argument of "equity" to call for the inclusion of China and India, at least, in the first round of reduction targets. This fails to acknowledge that industrialised countries are responsible for 75% of the extra greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, and that it will be decades before the "developing countries" account for even half. Even if that wasn't the case, an "equity" argument worthy of the name would recognise the fairness in the approach that those who can most afford it should pay most.

The Australian government has used the fact that the Kyoto agreement was a consensus-driven process to hold out for their demands of allowing for Australia to increase its emissions to 108% (while European nations, for example, pledged to reduce theirs to 92%) of 1990 levels; and including land use change and forestry in the figures. Australia's land clearing having peaked in 1990, this resulted in a sizeable cushion that would enable Australia to meet its target even while substantially increasing industrial emissions over the overall 108% allocated.

Even after repudiating the Kyoto protocol, Australian diplomats have done all they can to remain in the negotiations on implementation and future targets - as Hamilton writes, so they could "be in the tent, pissing in".

The Australian government has seized on the idea of "clean coal" as the way forward, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the US-initiated "AP6" - the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate - which pledged money to fund clean technology investments. Although this was ostensibly not in contradiction to Kyoto, then-environment minister Ian Campbell let slip the government's real hope that it would evolve into an "alternative" to it.

But if the Australian government, the "greenhouse mafia" and their supporters in the media, have so far resisted efforts to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control, they are beginning to lose their hold. Despite the conscious promotion by them of disinformation regarding climate change, the message that scientists are unanimous in recognising that global warming due to human activity is real is widely accepted in the community. Coupled with the drought and more dire warnings of the seriousness of the threats we face, there is mounting political pressure for meaningful action.

Hamilton outlines the splits that have developed within and between industry bodies, and outlines his hope for positive change, which he pins on the adoption of a global emissions trading system, based on the European model.

Here it becomes clear that Scorcher's strength is its critique of the politics of climate change in Australia to date. It has less to offer regarding what should be done now. The weaknesses in the European trading scheme (leading to its collapse because of over-allocation of pollution credits) was not addressed. And the role of ordinary people in bringing about change is ignored - or assumed to be limited to the ballot box.

Having attended the launch of Hamilton's promotional speaking tour and now having read Scorcher, I find his optimism misplaced. People do want action - but it is not more market signals that we should be demanding, but direct, accountable, public control of the utilities that must be transformed in order for us to avert disaster.

Scorcher shows that current business owners have no moral right to continue to reap profits at the expense of the environment and future generations. It will be up to us to put the genie back in the bottle and, as a society, make a plan to revolutionise our economy so that it doesn't take from us our very means of life. That said, Scorcher gives an excellent account of the politics of climate change in Australia and will be useful for those climate change activists who want to follow the dictum "know thine enemy".

Bill Totten


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