Sunday, May 1, 2011

Drawing lines in the carbon price debate

This was written as a guest post for my friend Doug Evans' blog Earthsign while he's away.

The proponents of the carbon price framework are suggesting that we must support it, even if it’s only a first step, otherwise Labor won’t get any climate legislation through (again) and we’ll end up with Tea Party Tony as PM after the next election.

Many climate activists and supporters of the Greens agree with this analysis to some extent. I heard people castigating critics of the carbon price in these terms at the grassroots Climate Action Summit of which I was an organiser. Others say that supporting an unjust market mechanism will raise prices and give Abbott a free kick.

Nevertheless, Greens party loyalists and independent climate activists and the far left mostly agree that a carbon price alone isn’t going to do anything near enough (if anything at all) for climate, and we need other measures. We all marched together against the earlier version, the CPRS.

Melbourne Climate Emergency Rally, 2009. Photo borrowed from Takver

But this is not prominent in the current debate. A rhetorical line has been drawn: either you’re a supporter of Tony Abbott, or you’re a supporter of the carbon price framework.

To map the political spectrum in Australia as the pro-carbon price Labor partisan would paint it I’ve drawn up the following chart, positioning Australia along a spectrum from extreme climate action to extreme climate change denial, where the rhetorical line would be drawn roughly around the middle (where Julia Gillard is):

Click to view enlarged image

Disclaimer: The scale of people along the bottom is not representative of any particular data, just a rough illustration

So according to this we must mobilise the half of the population that’s on the left of the scale by presenting a reasonable, moderate plan such as a carbon price/emissions trading scheme, leading to gas displacing coal power stations (as spelt out by Greg Combet, and also confirmed by critical modelling from Beyond Zero Emissions) for moderate reduction in emissions intensity. Anything else will marginalise us as the numbers are skewed to the right.

This pragmatic view reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s bullying mantra “There Is No Alternative”. It was her way or the highway.

I’m not just being a dissenter for the sake of it: a low carbon price (and that’s all that is promised, so far) is a long way from serious action on climate change.

If we want to envisage the Australian political landscape in a way that is more useful to charting our own course, let’s consider where the political forces fit in on a scale from the “emergency climate action” position, all the way over to the forces of darkness. Suddenly, Gillard is not in the comfortable middle ground!

Click to view enlarged image

Once again this chart is only a rough illustration (and you may not exactly agree with my characterisations of the various policy positions). If we were to draw the “line in the sand” for effective climate action, in this illustration, it would be somewhere around where the Greens policy is, and only a small part of the population would be on our side of it.

That’s the real point. Not enough of the population yet understand the need for urgent measures. This weak position is probably why a lot of climate activists are feeling desperate and some have internalised the TINA mentality that says any action on offer is better than no action.

The carbon price, a weak market-regulation mechanism, has had pretty poor results in Europe where carbon trading and carbon taxes have been in place for some time. The Labor Party’s aim is probably to get this adopted so they can tick the “climate action” box and get on to worrying about something else.

Given that, it would be na├»ve for the climate movement to think that this represents the first step toward real climate action. Labor will likely seek to make this the first and last step toward real climate action. They will tell the public to ignore the “extremist” greenies and accept their legislation is all that can be done.

Meanwhile, price rises are happening inevitably for many basic items like food and fuel. Future price rises will be blamed by the Liberal Party (rightly or wrongly) on the carbon tax. Abbott’s unholy alliance can be relied on to stir up any real or imagined injustice in the carbon price implementation for their agenda.

So rather than trying to draw lines in the sand over supporting the carbon price vs supporting Abbott (which is where Labor would love for us to draw the line), we should consider: how do we mobilise people for more serious action? What measures will bring more people over to our side? Will supporting the carbon price help? Will outright opposition to it help? Will it help to ignore it and simply focus on the “positives” like campaigning for a feed-in tarriff?

Since Tony Abbott is mobilising right wingers in the streets, we need to be bringing numbers into the streets. We can all rally for “a price on pollution” in abstract, but we haven’t yet seen the detail of this particular price framework. That in itself is cause for skepticism.

I think rallying for the results we want is an important bridging tactic. We want so many thousand megawatts of solar thermal baseload power plants. We want a ban on gas fracking. Let’s not reify the “carbon price framework” as the goal, whatever our opinion of it, because it will inevitably be a political compromise and not enough. The climate movement needs to keep clear goals and not swerve from them.

The TINA mantra was challenged by South African activists with the reply: THEMBA – There Must Be an Alternative! Themba is a Zulu word meaning hope. If we aren’t given any alternative, we must create our own – that is our only hope!

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