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The shame of the Australian Liberal climate change denialism

December 2, 2009

What an amazing week it has been in Australian politics. Poised as we were for pre-Copenhagen Emissions Trading legislation to be passed, a leadership spill in the opposition Liberal Party and their subsequent radical and swift retreat from climate change policy caused the second defeat of the legislation in the Senate. Presumably, the Rudd Government has a fallback for Copenhagen that will allow us to stand with our face forward, rather than ashamedly staring at our shoes.

Perhaps the Rudd Government always intended it to play this way, as Ian McHugh on Crikey’s Rooted speculates, but Senator Penny Wong,  Minister for Climate Change and Water, ran a marathon battle to work through the amendments negotiated previously with the Liberal Party, as well as amendments and comments put forward by the Greens, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, and Family First Senator Steve Fielding.

Through all of this, those of us tragically obsessed with politics were glued to our seats to see if enough Liberal Senators would cross the floor (voting against the new policy position of their Party) to pass the legislation in defiance of their Party’s new position. That Senators Boyce and Troeth chose to take this rare and very serious action was sensational, but not enough. Seven such brave souls were required to pass the bill.

The Greens are appropriately saying that the legislation proposed was not strong enough and that’s why they voted it down. Their assessment is likely accurate. After all, this was a bill based on wide consultation with the opposition – before the Liberal Party back-flip – industry and some parts of civil society. It was, without doubt, conservative in its vision and certainly fell short of where Australia should be positioning itself on the world stage. However, it was a position, and positions can always grow, evolve or develop.

Now, we Australians find ourselves in climate change limbo-land, with a newly emboldened opposition leader running a scare campaign about climate taxes and hip pocket impact, backed by conservative cronies once again flying the flag of climate change denialism that many of us had hoped was finally shredded.

Minister Wong is not pulling her punches, telling the ABC that the Coalition is trying to spook voters. “When you cannot fight the argument you run a scare campaign,” she said. “These are people sprinting back to the past. They are sham arguments from people driven, and now led, by people who do not believe climate change is real.”

The opposition rebuts this saying that Australians do not want to rush ahead on the legislation and have started to question climate change science. Really? From where I sit it is far from clear who these skeptical Australians are and on what basis they are making their determination. If they even really exist, George Monbiot at the Guardian has given us some clues, but we are still considering an older generation minority voice at best, and as Alex Steffen at has said “when confronted with generational conflict, we naturally tend to see the elders as seasoned and realistic, and the youth as passionate and ethical, and to seek a middle ground of tempered realism … [but] realism now means very different, incompatible things to the two generations….The world looks dramatically different if the year 2050 is one you’re likely to be alive to see. To younger people, Copenhagen isn’t some do-gooder meeting; it’s the first major battle in a war for the future. Their future.

The irony is that far from being some radical, left wing plot, the climate science is the result of years and years of careful and very cautious consideration, from some of the world’s most respected, published and often conservative scientists – some of who work for Governments – all within the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. You would think that this would appeal to those who wanted to see careful, measured and reasonable arguments as the basis for making important decisions.

Perhaps the Liberal Party has determined that winning a future election by exploiting this divide is more important than the future of the planet. If McHugh is right, perhaps the Labour Party has as well.

Presumably, the Rudd Government has a fallback for Copenhagen that will allow us to stand with our face forward, rather than ashamedly staring at our shoes. I hope so.

Cross posted at WDCS – From the Front Line

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