“Swimming between the flags” on Climate policy threatens our future

Apr 4, 2023
The world is still in our hands.

At the last election, the Labor Party adopted a climate policy of “Swimming between the Flags”. This resulted in electoral success but it represented an unthinkable future for humanity.

“Swimming between the flags” was Albanese’s policy of safety from attack by the Coalition government and their media supporters at the last election. Policy did just enough to appear progressive but not enough to arm an Opposition. The 2030 emission reduction target increased from 40 to 43 %.

But this was not nearly enough to address the dire threat we are under with a warming climate. This situation requires the Prime Minister to be prepared to move out of the safety of between the flags and fight the inevitable dangerous rips and brave the many sharks, with mouths and teeth as big as the fossil fuel industry.

Katherine Murphy in her excellent Quarterly Essay “Lone Wolf” identified Albanese’s political strategy of “Swimming between the flags” in relation to his climate policy at the last election.

“I’ve come to think of formulating climate policy as an exercise in swimming between the flags. There’s now a bed-rock of support in Australia within certain parameters. But Labor’s view was, step outside those parameters and things start to get dangerous electorally”.

The policy is political and not based on facts and science.

“Swimming between the flags isn’t a highly calibrated science—it’s always a point in time assessment”.

Indeed one can speculate that the amicable negotiation with the Greens on Safeguard was welcomed and destined to succeed for it stayed between the flags and averted effective attack by the Opposition and media. However it did not accept the Greens’ proposal for no new coal or gas mines which would have encountered rough seas and sharks.

Clearly the Government would have been happy for the Safeguard mechanism to remain unaltered but Greens’ votes were required to pass it.

The Safeguard now offers more stringent control of Scope 1 and 2 (domestic) emissions from existing coal and gas projects by using a climate trigger which mandates their consideration by the EPBC Act. Crucially important is that this will also apply to domestic emissions from new coal and gas projects.

However new projects of gas and coal for export can occur and the government has diligently avoided any explanation at a time when Australia remains the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels.

In this enterprise we join our closest allies, the USA which is increasing its fossil fuel exports with new developments on their east coast and the approval of the Willow project in Alaska– apparently President Biden felt bound to approve it or he would run into legal difficulties! The UK, seeking former glory, has announced a huge new off-shore oilfield development.

The three Aukus countries now walk together down the same street, but unfortunately in the wrong direction. All are excluding themselves from world leadership on climate.

Together we apparently believe that we are obligated to provide oil and gas and particularly when there is an international shortage of gas – if we don’t supply it others will- the drug dealers defence. This is a false defence for the cost of gas will rise when supply is reduced and markets and governments will rush to renewable development as in Europe due to the Ukraine war.

Australia’s inadequate climate policy carries two additional burdens.

In a democracy the first duty of government is to provide security for its citizens. This requires leaders to explain to a wealthy and comfortable society that sacrifices are required and jobs terminated prematurely in coal may necessitate a basic income during their training in a transition.

Currently our leaders have to maintain their stance of looking in the eye the leaders of Vanuatu and the Pacific Island States when they plead for Australia to stop coal and gas production. We offer them only meagre measures to adapt to extreme weather and will hold their hands while they are submerged. This palliation shames all of us.

Fortunately this position has been challenged by a core group of climate vulnerable nations lead by Vanuatu. The UN General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution seeking an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on climate change is a milestone in defining the human rights obligations of governments to reduce emissions and for states which have caused the climate damage to be accountable.

Finally a warning that the following section of the article may distress many readers.

It is crucial that all who wish to understand our likely future read the article by David Spratt on the recent IPCC report. This explains that the huge scientific report has been significantly modified by the political representatives of governments but predominantly those of the fossil fuel producers, to provide the Summary for Policy Makers which guides governments. The scientific report itself indicates the current emission reduction targets of nations are totally inadequate to avert the dire consequences of a rise to 1.5 degrees.

This is well recognised by UN Secretary Antonio Guterres in a series of warnings about the world running out of options to defuse the “ticking climate time bomb” and responsibility to act lies with fossil fuel industries.

Australia has failed to follow the science, and its position fits alongside the major fossil fuel producers with policy grossly inadequate to the threat.

At this point in the discussion we must raise an alarming possibility by understanding some of the dark recesses of the human minds of power seeking leaders which have functioned in self interest to continue making conflict throughout history rather than understand and embrace collective needs.

We must confront the possibility that powerful fossil fuelled governments and their leaders who instruct their delegates to water down the IPCC report are intelligent enough to understand the consequences. Nevertheless, perhaps they cannot, nor do not want to, deliver an effective response; it is too difficult and could compromise their own future rule by re-election or by powerful cliques in autocracies.

Behavioural psychology might explain some of the malignant intents which emerge from subconscious thought which will define the future delivered by political leaders who have strived to attain their position and power.

Alternatively some democratic governments may have decided to do their best without rocking the boat and hope for technological miracles. The Safeguard mechanism could well be the consequence of such swimming between the flags.

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