Not going away - the climate challenge
Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be hoping the pending repeal of the carbon tax will leave the issue “dead, buried and cremated”, much like a previous contested policy, WorkChoices.
Tony Abbott has campaigned about a carbon price since 2009. Photo: Penny Stephens
That hope, though, is likely to be a forlorn one not least because the ultimate driver of the problem - climate change caused by human activity – isn’t diminishing.
Politicians in Canberra have been debating whether to introduce an emissions trading scheme as the best way to curb greenhouse gases since the 1990s. Those arguments are likely to linger, with Clive Palmer joining Labor and the Greens to demand an ETS – even if it has a zero starting price – and rejecting the government’s alternative $2.55 billion plan to pay polluters to restrain emissions.
The Senate voted on Thursday (July 17) to repeal the carbon price.
Good for surfing in winter but not so great in mid-summer. Photo: Sylvia Liber
The real action, though, is going on above Canberra – and every other centre of power – as soaring greenhouse gas emissions mean the planet is trapping ever more heat from the sun, a process identified in 1896.
In a coincidental but timely release, the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organisation overnight called on agencies globally to consider raising their standard baselines more frequently as what was considered "normal weather" is becoming less so.
The baseline used by most nations, including Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, is the 1961-90 period, which is due for an update by 2020. However, rising atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases “are changing the Earth’s climate much faster than before”, meaning we can't wait that long.
A record 12 months to the end of June for mean temperatures. Photo: BoM
Climate-sensitive industries such as farming are relying on information “that may be out of date”, the WMO said.
“We’re breaking records by margins that have us shaking our heads,” one senior bureau official said. It was “crazy talk” to say – as sections of the media do – that global temperatures haven’t risen for 17 years, with 2005 and 2010 the twin peak years in records going back to 1880.
Thirteen of the 14 warmest years on record have occured this century, the US government says. Last month is likely to go down as the warmest June on record, adding to a record warm May and equal-warmest April this year.
With an El Nino weather pattern currently brewing - when the Pacific Ocean reverts from being a heat sink to giving off warmth – Australians’ concerns about the climate are likely to rise. For Australia, such years are typically hotter and drier, with more active bushfire seasons.
“The issue of climate change will simply not go away,” said Frank Jotzo, director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Climate Economics & Policy. “It will also come back more strongly for the public when the next heat- or drought-related series of natural disasters arrive.”
The latest Lowy Institute poll showed 45 per cent agree “global warming is a serious and pressing problem” requiring steps now “even if this involves significant costs”. That ratio overtook an alternative view, that the effects will be gradual and require only a low-cost response (38 per cent), for the first time since 2010.
And a ReachTEL poll conducted for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition last week, found 74.6 per cent of the 2195 respondents phoned were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change.
Even 53.9 per cent Liberal/National Party supporters and 66.4 per cent of Palmer United Party were either very or somewhat worried.
On the agenda
Politicians may be fatigued over the past 15 years of wrangling, but global warming will remain on the domestic agenda.
For one thing, the Coalition has pledged to review Australia’s emissions reduction goals in 2015 and Labor will examine its climate policies again before the 2016 elections.
In between, though, global calls for greater action are likely to mount, with pressure on Australia to pledge a deeper cut than the current 5 per cent of 2000 emissions by 2020.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a climate change doubter if not complete sceptic, can expect to have to address the issue on his overseas trips, such as occurred during his recent swing through Europe and the US.
Similarly, it will be difficult for him to bury the matter under an "energy efficiency" rubric when he hosts the summit of G20 leaders in Brisbane in November.
President Barack Obama has made climate change one of his legacy issues during his final years in office. China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emissions, remains on course for a national ETS to build on the seven pilot markets already under way, while countries such as the UK are pushing for ambitious targets at the global climate summit next year.
Even South Korea, a major trading partner for Australia, this week slapped a tax of about $18 per tonne of coal, and starts its own ETS next January.
A reminder of the buffeting Abbott can expect came this week from Lord Deben, the chair of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change. The former head of the UK’s Conservative Party recently attended a conference in Mexico of former parliamentarians from 80 countries, where he said Australia was lambasted for becoming the first nation to have a price on carbon and then ditch it.
“Australia was constantly raised as frankly the pariah, the odd one out,” Lord Deben told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
“To build your argument on the basis that you can trash tomorrow in order to make profits today doesn’t seem to be a proper position,” he said. “I don’t think the rest of world will take that very kindly.”