Climate Change is ALP Business
An op-ed I wrote, published in The Australian today, to accompany the release of the statement on sustainability and climate change:
The passage of carbon pricing this month is the end of a bumpy and bruising process. We might have had a scheme in December 2009 if Kevin Rudd’s legislation had not been blocked when the Green Party in the Senate voted with the Coalition. Of course, if John Howard had won a fifth term, he would have been bound to implement a promise for an emissions trading scheme based on cap and trade. We would have had “a big bad tax” under the Coalition.
But enough of the alternative histories. The legislation is in place. And the Federal Labor Government could be forgiven if it wanted to put the contentious politics behind it. It might be drawn to distance itself from carbon pricing, to dedicate itself to economic management, health, education and industrial relations.
A generation of state Labor premiers and chief ministers held office when changes in climate were first beginning to worry Australians. We don’t now want to see the issue become a fifth order one. Climate change can’t be seen as a nature conservation issue alone. It can’t be left as a slogan for the Green Party which after all, delayed carbon pricing by two years. In our view, climate should be a core Labor Party concern.
Of course, even if we were inclined to relegate it, circumstances will correct us.
Tuesday saw the release of research providing the first snapshot of climate change altering the dynamics of the Southern Ocean. It confirmed the more rapid melting of Antarctic ice sheets, the ocean becoming less salty and the waters becoming more acid.
Our focus has been on chemical changes on the earth’s upper atmosphere – overwhelmingly believed by scientists to be caused by human activity and to be the cause, in turn, of global warming. But this might be overtaken by a new anxiety about the state of our oceans as they struggle to absorb the surplus carbon being pumped out by the world’s coal-fired power plants.
Until John Howard, seeking re-election, took up the issue of climate change in 2007, all the action was at the State level. For example, in 1996, the government I led in New South Wales introduced the first controls on broad-acre land clearing. Peter Beattie did the same in Queensland in 2007. These actions restrained what had previously been a “let it rip” approach to tearing out Australia’s native vegetation on farms. The state-level restraints were responsible for Australia coming close to meeting its Kyoto obligations, even though, until Kevin Rudd, we’d never signed the treaty.
In January 2003, New South Wales launched the world’s first carbon trading scheme, the NSW Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme. It was introduced a full two years before the European scheme and is treated by the World Bank as the world’s first.
Steve Bracks in 2005 employed Ross Garnaut to prepare a cap and trade scheme for all the States to sponsor. Victoria then bequeathed its work to the incoming Rudd Government. Mike Rann is able to boast that if South Australia were a country, not a State, it would be second only to Denmark in terms of wind power generation. Geoff Gallop saved the old growth forests of Western Australia, huge breathing carbon sinks that had been slated for logging.
As the Labor Party gathers for its National Conference, marriage equality and uranium exports make the headlines. But climate change must not be relegated: following through on the legislation must be core for this Labor government.
Great Labor leaders of the last century stood up for workers rights, public services, economic modernisation and national security. Their names will be invoked in speeches by a party proud of Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating. In a like spirit, the Labor leaders of this century will need to continue to fight, and fight again, to see a resilient Australia liberate itself from over-dependence on destructive fuels and help steer the world that way as well.