War on the environment a distraction from climate change policy

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After almost six months in office, it seems that the Abbott government’s reputation for action on climate change and the environment in general is in tatters. Overseas, condemnation has been directed at a government now labelled as the ‘most hostile to its nation’s environment in history’. And that assessment is made with scant attention to what the Coalition government is doing on climate change, where it has pulled out all the stops to bring climate change policy to heel before the interests of big coal and big mining.

On the environment, the Abbott government has departed from the Howard years of striking a balance with conservation values and listening to the concerns constituents have for the environment.

Balancing economic growth with sustainability had been at the forefront of legislative and regulatory protection, including the Howard government’s Environment Protection and Bio-diversity Conservation Act (1999). But the scrapping of the Environment Defenders Office (EDO) is symbolic of the distinctive shift we are seeing with this government.

The EDO has played a crucial role in providing free legal advice to communities that wish to question and challenge decisions, such as coal seam gas drilling or dredging of the Great Barrier Reef. But in the context of a government that is driven to extract ‘every molecule’ of gas and every last seam of coal from the driest country on earth, it has deemed that opposition to mining is not to be tolerated.

The really bad news for climate change mitigation policy is that the Abbott government’s open season on the environment will distract Australian’s from climate policy settings, which is the one area to which all environmental issues will one day be subordinated. It is not to say that ‘environmental politics’ as we have known it in the past, which is focused on protecting or ‘saving’ particular sites, be it the Franklin, Jabiluka or the Leard State Forest, are unimportant, it is that such politics is about to be dwarfed by something far less tangible, but unimaginably more powerful.

The Abbott government has not only withdrawn the respect that was accorded to the environmental public sphere by previous Labor and LNP governments, it has also ramped up the assault on climate change mitigation to a level that could only be described as pure and total war. Sure, the Howard government refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, but concession to public opinion with initiatives like the Renewable Energy Target were important. By contrast, this government appears to be on a pre-meditated crusade to dismantle every policy and initiative that is remotely related to addressing climate change.

Australia is the only nation currently demolishing a working carbon price, which has, in its very short life so far, already mitigated 40 megatonnes of C02.

The administrative and advisory infrastructure put in place to tackle climate change has been all but eradicated. To rehearse the measures:

I. Abolishing the Climate Commission II. Axing of COAG’s Environment Ministers Forum after 41 years. III. Scrapping the Biodiversity Fund, Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Environmental Defenders Offices IV. Foreshadowing the abolition of the climate change Authority in July V. Cutting funding to the: Caring for our Country Program, Low Carbon Communities Program, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Perhaps the decision invoking the most contempt relates to the Clean Energy Fund. Originally, the Abbott government had claimed that abolishing Clean Energy Finance Corporation will cost the budget A$439 million. However, it now transpires that investing in renewable energies is highly profitable, and the taxpayer is actually going to lose $760 million instead. The contradictions here don’t stand up to even rudimentary analysis. On the one hand the Abbott government dogmatically claims that these cuts are economically driven, but this is patently false when it comes to the CEFC. But perhaps the worst recent decision is the mischievous way the Galilee Basin Coal mining and Abbot Point dredging decisions were made.

With Abbot Point, a dose of the finest ‘greenwash’ environmental values are being administered by the Department of the Environment to justify dredging a reef of three million cubic metres of mostly clay particles that that take so long to sink to the sea floor as to be certain to drift over protected zones of the Great Barrier Reef.

It remains to be seen whether the ‘most stringent’ protections will be at all effective given that the first environmental study on Abbot Point emphatically recommended that the dredging spoil be moved onto land. But the window-dressing of the dredging issue, as serious as it is , pales compared to the amount of coal (3.5 billion tonnes) that is to be exported through Abbot Point from Clive Palmer’s ‘China First’ mine in the Galilee Basin. That such a huge venture could be approved (as it was under the cover of the dying down of the news cycle five days before Christmas last year) is utter madness. The approval of this mine is the single most devastating anti-mitigation decision that this government has so far taken on climate change. The embedded emissions in the 3.5 billion tonnes of China First are equivalent to the total emissions that Australia will produce between now and 2020.

It makes the idea that the government’s “direct action” plan is supposed to reduce Australia’s emissions to 5% of 2000 levels by 2020 (which itself if looking like an interstellar long shot) into a cynical joke.

Of course, it is not just simply the jewel in an over-driven ideological campaign to enrage the climate crisis lobby. Rather, it is politically driven by the pragmatics of what is in store for Australia should the government have the expected Senate majority come July 1. At that point, Abbott will be sure to call in the debt that Palmer owes him over the Galilee Basin, and a flood of legislation is likely to be introduced to annihilate every last bollard of climate change mitigation infrastructure and policy. So narrowly driven is this government that believes climate change to be a socialist plot dressed up as environmentalism.

And this is 2014. Even Margaret Thatcher, who in the late 1980s expressed similar sentiments toward environmental social movements, was rolling out policies to tackle climate change. Thatcher was, after all, trained as a scientist and her ultra-conservative government nevertheless did listen to scientists. Thatcher was committed to protecting her constituents from the coming crisis. But not Abbott. The radical conservatism of the Coalition seems to be drawn from the same platform as the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), which has entreated Abbott to ‘Be Like Gough’.

In a document posted on its website, the IPA declares open season on just about every publicly interested authority and organisation in Australia for which climate change ranks at the very top. Of 75 recommendations, climate change figures in four of the first six. These include:

  1. Repeal the carbon tax, and don’t replace it.
  2. Abolish the Department of Climate Change
  3. Abolish the Clean Energy Fund
  4. Repeal the renewable energy target

With recent talk that Abbott is about to appoint IPA ‘anti-renewable zealot’ Alan Moran to a new independent panel to review the Renewable Energy Target, it looks likely that all four of these recommendations will be ticked off nicely.

Nowhere on the planet is there a region that is going to feel the effects of climate change on its population than Australia, with heat-stressed soils, heatwaves, firestorms, flooding and cyclones. And yet, we have a government doing its level best to maximise measures that will only exacerbate global warming.


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