The harrowing events that began to unfold in Ukraine at the end of last week firmly put into perspective the preceding fortnight’s wrangling in the Senate.
The seemingly endless days of political point-scoring, filibusters and guillotines seemed even more shallow than usual, and the supposed victories felt all the more hollow.
Any enjoyment of the proceedings, either in witnessing the repeal of the carbon price or Clive Palmer giving the Prime Minister a lesson in wilful obstructionism, was dispelled by the singularly horrific act of barbarity.
Having therefore been stripped of its triumphalism and schadenfreude, the scrapping of the carbon price revealed the stark quandary that remains: is some climate action better than none at all?
The “idealist or realist” dilemma goes to the heart of the deal that former Greens’ adviser Ben Oquist reportedly shepherded between former US vice-president Al Gore and parliamentarian Palmer, who happens to own one of Australia’s top 400 greenhouse gas emitters.
The realists would emphasise that without the Gore intervention, Palmer would have sided with the Coalition to completely scrap the Clean Energy Future package negotiated by Julia Gillard with the Greens and country independents in 2011.
Palmer vowed instead to protect key elements of the package including ARENA and the CEFC, which support development and commercialisation of the next generation of renewable energy technologies, and the advisory Climate Change Authority.
Palmer also said he would protect the Howard-era RET (until the next federal election), which drives the adoption of mature renewable energy technologies.
The idealists would in turn point out that Gore took a hit to his credibility by appearing with Palmer, and that by being seen to sanction his vow to repeal the carbon price Gore and his handlers were essentially turning a blind eye to the miner while he continued to benefit from enterprises that produce high levels of carbon emissions.
They’d also note that saving a few climate action entities, at no political expense or financial cost to his coal and nickel operations, would have seemed to Palmer a negligible price to pay for the world-class green-washing bestowed by the former US vice-president.
There is of course no easy solution to this impasse.
The idealist-realist conflict has long been a point of contention within the environment movement. Purists like Greenpeace refuse any government or corporate funding and rely on high-visibility media campaigns to make an impact on public policy.
Pragmatists like WWF see benefit in stepping inside the tent to work with businesses and governments to improve environmental standards throughout the economy. This cooperative approach can extend to WWF endorsement through vehicles such as the forest certification scheme, which many purists see as just another form of green-washing.
Much of the friction between the idealists and realists on climate action was minimised with the launch of the CEF package. Granted, the purists wanted a much higher price on carbon to drive changes in consumer behaviour, but were placated with serious money being directed to the development of renewables instead. And the pragmatists saw compensation to middle-income households as a necessary concession even though it neutralised the price signal.
Things remained relatively quiet until the election of the Abbott Government and the prospect of Gillard’s climate action architecture being totally dismantled became reality.
The differing interests have since begun to clash again over what is the best approach to maintaining climate action under the Abbott regime.
Prior to the great unveiling of the Palmer-Gore “understanding”, the most notable recent example of the purity/pragmatic contention on climate action was the struggle within the Greens to finalise a position on petrol excise. Greens Leader Christine Milne took the idealistic view, supporting the indexation of excise in accordance with party policy. However, political pragmatists within the party prevailed with cost of living concerns instead.
No increase in the cost of a fossil fuel was preferred to the sub-optimal alternative, just as had been the case when the Greens rejected Kevin Rudd’s seriously flawed ETS in 2009.
A similar choice will befall the Greens, and Labor, when Palmer’s “dormant” ETS and the Government’s Direct Action package of greenhouse gas mitigation initiatives are considered by the Parliament after it returns in late August.
The idealists will want to dismiss the initially zero-rated trading scheme as a hollow gesture, while the realists will want to support it in the desperate hope that a benevolent future government will one day transform the fake into the real thing.
Similarly, the purists will press to have Direct Action denounced as the fig leaf policy that it is.
And what position will the pragmatists take? If they adopt a similar approach to the one taken with Palmer, they’ll turn a blind eye to Abbott’s carbon emission free-for-all and accept the limited emission reductions that are on offer as better than nothing.
While the realists usually dominate when it comes to the vexed question of climate action in Australia, in the case of Direct Action it’s a fair bet the idealists will be the ones to prevail.