Purists and pragmatists clash on climate action

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.

Green groups struggle to turn anger to action

Life was never going to be easy for the environment movement under the Abbott Government. As expected, hard-won environmental gains from the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years were the first to go to the wall once the new ministry was sworn in.

Protections for Australia’s marine parks were diminished, legislation was introduced to abolishrestraints on progress-hungry state governments, and funding for environmental advocates was withdrawn.

Attempts were also made to access World Heritage-listed forests in Tasmania, and approval was given to senselessly cull sharks off the shore of Western Australia.

Perhaps most importantly the entire climate action architecture, created by the minority Gillard government in negotiation with the independents and Greens, was slated for demolition.

Given they faced a minimum of three years’ Government obstructionism, abetted by a socially conservative Senate crossbench, it’s surprising the environment movement didn’t simply decamp to the nearest beach to await the next federal election.

Maybe that’s what many were contemplating. That is, until the first Abbott budget ignited a spark of unrest in the Australian community that breathed new life into the protest movement.

Suddenly the value of environmental (and other) protest was re-established, and what had only recently seemed as pointless and painful as hitting one’s head against a brick wall suddenly became a vital part of the democratic process again.

Even so, it appears green advocates are unsure how to meaningfully leverage voters’ new appetite for dissent. This is particularly the case when it comes to addressing climate change.

Climate action undoubtedly remains a tough sell. The Australian public has been desensitised by almost five years of Abbott homilies on the evils of the “toxic” carbon tax, conservative media attacks on climate science, and progressive parties’ relegation of the issue to a matter of faith by jostling over the moral high ground.

To counter this, several attempts have been made over recent years to create a bandwagon effect – with the 2011 Say Yes rallies being the most prominent – to create a groundswell of support by suggesting there already is one.

However such rallies can be labour-intensive, unpredictable and to a large extent ignored by the media as an indicator of broader support. So climate action advocates have taken instead to commissioning opinion polls to suggest there’s growing public support for their cause and an inevitable consensus approaching.

This tactic can prove tricky, however, if the numbers are not moving strongly in one’s favour.

A time-honoured way of showing weak polling results in the best possible light is to selectively quote the numbers in a text-heavy report instead of publishing the full tables of data. Such cherry-picking depends on journalists being too busy to read more than the executive summary and discourages independent analysis of the outcome.

This approach was used last week by the lobby group, The Climate Institute, with its Climate of the Nation 2014 report.

In fact TCI’s tactics would have done a shonky corporate lobbyist proud. Their selective interpretation of the poll results was released at a media event replete with puppet dinosaurs and the Liberal anti-hero John Hewson, guaranteeing a great picture and headline but limited scrutiny of the numbers.

The “full” report was not launched until 24 hours later. Even then the results were only partially provided and obscured within 25 pages of mostly text. This allowed TCI to avoid any detailed examination of whether the questions were leading, what the real trends were, and what the percentages really meant. The report could well have been an embarrassing own goal if TCI’s pre-cooked summary turned out to be less than representative of the actual results.

Thankfully for TCI, they were saved by the Gore-Palmer spectacle, which could yet descend into a debacle for the environmentalists who brokered the deal.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time to offer Palmer some reflected Gorish glory and a blind eye on the scrapping of the carbon price in return for the retention of most of Gillard’s other climate action mechanisms.

But the Faustian deal with Palmer means the centerpiece of Australia’s emissions reduction effort, the carbon price, will be scrapped. And there is no chance Palmer’s zero-rated pseudo-ETS will take its place.

So Australia will have an increasing amount of renewables in the electricity supply mix but no price on carbon to drive down emissions from transport, agriculture or other forms of energy production.

Yes, something is better than nothing, and the retention of artefacts like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority could be seen as a win.

But let’s not forget Palmer’s commitments are as certain as the shifting sands. He moved from being a climate sceptic to a believer overnight, and took a similar time to shift from wanting the renewable energy target to be voluntary to insisting that it be untouched for two years.

Now the Member for Fairfax is reportedly moving away from the environmental rhetoric he used when standing alongside Gore, to argue that Australia needs to avoid as-yet non-existent climate tariffs imposed by our trading partners. PUP Senator-elect Jacqui Lambie has also jumped onto the economic bandwagon by insisting that businesses in Tasmania be exempted from the renewable energy target.

Meantime, The Climate Institute is running a campaign to stop the scrapping of the carbon price that was essentially sanctioned by their climate action compatriots.

It could all yet end in tears.

Nobody expected the Abbott years to be easy for the environment movement. But green advocates have been given a gift by the Coalition Government that they’ve squandered so far.

While the Government’s environmental vandalism has less immediacy for the community than other budget measures, the opportunity remains for it to be incorporated into the ongoing campaign about the unfairness of the budget.

Environmentalists should be tapping into this voter angst instead of spinning survey results and making devil’s pacts with unreliable politicians.