David Holmes. Australia’s climate politics on a high wire.

(or – Murdoch and Abbott in climate dial duet)

While the politicisation of climate change has transformed climate reporting into something of a circus, the Coalition’s announcement of a 26% emissions reduction target on 2005 levels for Australia by 2030 has surely placed its climate policy on a dangerous high wire.

The high wire is not that the target has been set too high. It is that trying to balance this “defeatist” target is going to lead to the collapse of Direct Action, and will impair the ability of the Coalition-News Corp publicity machine to defend fossil fuels.

Already, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is resorting to increasingly desperate and absurd arguments, such as his comments on the ABC’s AMon Wednesday morning about exporting coal to India and China:

The great thing about the Australian coal industry is that it’s actually helping countries like China to reduce their emissions intensity, if not their overall emissions, because our coal is better quality coal than the Chinese and Indian coal.

Never mind that the floor price for coal is set to continue diving worldwide. Here is an unfathomable argument that Australia’s increasingly worthless coal is better than everyone else’s unworthy coal, and is helping fight climate change.

With coal, as with its new target announcement, the Coalition’s honesty about its climate policy in the past will be unveiled. The ruse of a long and sustained campaign of impression management is about to be exposed by the high wire act.

In the context of every anti-renewable, pro-coal and denialist utterance from Coalition ministers over the past two years, the revised targets are a complete stunt that have little to do with decarbonisation.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, Peter Hartcherargued that the Coalition doesn’t make any of its:

… big decisions based on science, economics, markets, or any value other than politics. So let’s set aside the pretence that this is really about climate change.

The Coalition is continuing to play out a strategy that has worked for them in the past. This is to mount a defence against any charge that it is doing nothing about climate change, and then turn attention away from itself, by attacking Labor and the Greens as having scary policies that will hurt the economy, jobs and electricity prices.

This is why the Abbott government was sure to mention that while 26% is guaranteed, it might think about 28% if it is not going to hurt the economy. Never mind that the only target 26% meets is to keep Australia at the bottom of the league of nations that can actually afford to do something about climate, while having a per capita carbon footprint four times the world average.

The Australian revealed that while Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Environment Minister Greg Hunt lobbied for a more ambitious target of 30% at the cabinet meeting prior to the announcement, it was Abbott who pushed for the lower target.

So while this all-too-risky high wire act is wanting to draw attention to “the economy”, it does so only as a means of attacking policies that actually do address decarbonisation.

Abbott is banking on a number of things here: that a “toxic carbon tax” scare campaign can be recycled for the next election, and that News Corp will do the heavy lifting for him by continuing to heavily editorialise against Labor.

And, right on cue, the day before the government announced its 2030 emissions target, the Daily Telegraph produced another of its signature attacks on Labor’s climate policy. Its front page prepared the way for a “responsible”-looking policy from the Coalition, citing rising power bills, job losses and a collapsing economy.

The News Corp tabloids are capable of ferociously nationalising their editorial stance toward a Labor emissions trading scheme and caricaturing it as a toxic carbon tax at a moment’s notice. But, such a stunt is looking rather worn-out. What both Abbott and the Daily Telegraph have ignored is that the electorate has noticed that power bills have spiked substantially under Direct Action, and that carbon emissions have dramatically increased.

Curiously, however, while two of The Australian’s columnists professed their love for coal and the Adani mine in the Galilee Basin, reporters David Crowe and Sid Maher ran an article that floated the inadequacy of the announced targets.

The Climate Council’s Tim Flannery, so often pilloried by The Australian, had the story lead with the quote:

Over the next few days, there will be a lot of spin to try and confuse Australians into thinking that we are doing more than we actually are. But no amount of smoke and mirrors will cover up the fact that an emissions reduction target of 40 per cent on 2000 levels by 2030 is the bare minimum and this target is far below that.

Crowe and Maher then go on to quote independent senator Nick Xenophon and Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler’s dismissal of the target, before going on to conclude:

The Australian target would be below Canada’s ambition of 30% by 2030 and would not keep up with the US target of 26-28% by 2025 or the EU promise of a 40% cut from 1990 levels by 2030.

However, more significant is that the government is ignoring advice from its own Climate Change Authority, which has consistently recommended cuts of between 40 and 60% by 2030. With the Climate Change Authority providing a benchmark target, in a rational world you would think this would create a bidding war between the parties for the highest targets – especially given the level of public anxiety over global warming.

Climate change is set to be the main battleground of the next election campaign. Labor has declared it so. And newspaper polls, think-tank polls and even the major parties’ own internal polling show climate change to be front and centre of voter concern.

What is needed is a budget approach to framing policy that the Climate Change Authority itself uses. Globally, carbon emissions should not exceed 1700 billion tonnes between 2000 and 2050 if we are to give ourselves a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees warming. Australia’s share of this, adjusted for relativities with poorer nations and per capita carbon footprint, is calculated by the Climate Change Authority to be approximately ten billion tonnes of C02 between now and 2050.

However, unless the major parties listen to the Climate Change Authority’s advice, what risks getting lost is the comparability of effective action. By being pre-occupied with abstract targets rather than carbon budgets, parties will continue to compare their policies to other nations, and other timeframes, which end up becoming meaningless – for climate policymakers, economists and the public at large.

David Holmes is Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University. This article was first published in The Conversation on August 12, 2015.

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