Lack of vision in the Australian senate

Milan Ilnyckyj, Sasha Ilnyckyj, Alena Prazak, Mica Prazak, and Oleh Ilnyckyj

Australia may be the rich state with the most to lose from climate change, in the near- and medium-term. Almost all of the country is already either unsuitable or marginal for agriculture. They have major problems with erosion, invasive species, drought, and salinization. They are also one of the rich countries closest to low-lying poorer states, where climate change could induce a surge of migration.

Nonetheless, the Australian Senate seems likely to defeat the Rudd government’s attempt to introduce a carbon trading scheme. The principle grounds of opposition seems to be an unwillingness to act before others do. This is in spite of the fact that the plan calls for emissions-intensive and trade-exposed industries like steel and aluminum production to be given 95% of their permits for free. Barnaby Joyce, the leader of Australia’s National Party, has expressed his desire to delay climate change regulation for as long as possible, probably in ignorance of the fact that all states behaving likewise would threaten the long-term viability of Australia as a self-sustaining society.

This suicide pact mentality is especially inappropriate coming from a state as vulnerable as Australia, which could become almost entirely agriculturally non-viable with a multi-degree increase in mean temperatures. If anybody should be willing to step out a bit ahead of the pack, it should be a highly rich and highly vulnerable state, with excellent renewable energy opportunities. The fact that even politicians in this drought-stricken state don’t have the foresight to embrace carbon pricing speaks ill of the intelligence of politicians, as well as raises doubts about whether any society is going to be able to act effectively in time to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

33 thoughts on “Lack of vision in the Australian senate”

  1. “The principle grounds of opposition seems to be an unwillingness to act before others do.”

    It’s imperative not to underestimate the power of this highly suspect form of moral reasoning. I find it even creeping into my own thinking, i.e. “why reduce personal transport” (i.e. something I can do) “when our social organization relies on so much goods transport” (i.e. something others do). Not that it isn’t relevant to talk about the actions of others – but is only apparently moral (talking about others actions independantly of your ability to do anything about it is actually theoretical rather than practical reasoning) – unless the theory (what the facts are about what others do) informs action (what I can do about things given the facts about the world and about others’ actions and motivations).

  2. The big difference between their case and yours is vulnerability.

    When the hammer comes down, they will be right underneath it. Even so, they are dithering.

  3. Given that Australia is one of the most vulnerable rich states, they are actually in a position to be a free rider. What they spend on fighting climate change will be a small fraction of what emitters in general will spend, and their setting an example might help motivate action elsewhere.

    Having their senate squash climate legislation six months before the Copenhagen negotiations certainly won’t make them very popular, and will make the negotiations less likely to succeed.

  4. Australian Senate to delay emissions trade vote
    Tue Jun 23, 2009 3:08am EDT

    By James Grubel

    CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia’s parliament is set to delay any vote on the government’s controversial emissions trading scheme until August, further confusing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s options for a possible early election.

    Conservative opposition lawmakers, who hold the largest voting bloc in the Senate, struck a deal on Tuesday with two independents to effectively delay a vote until August in a move the government described as a political stunt.

    “They have been filibustering, wasting time, using every tactic they can to delay debate on this bill,” Climate Change Minister Penny Wong told reporters.

    If the Senate delays a vote this week, as expected, the delay could qualify as the first rejection of the laws. If laws are rejected or fail to pass twice, with an interval of three months, the prime minister gains a legal trigger for an early election.

  5. Australian Emissions Trading Plan in Trouble

    Published: June 21, 2009

    NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA — On the windswept streets of Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port and a hub of Australian heavy industry, people get nervous when asked to give their opinions on climate change.

    Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, which pumps billions of dollars into the economy, supplies more than 80 percent of the country’s electricity and keeps tens of thousands of people in their jobs — particularly in and around Newcastle. But the carbon dioxide produced from burning coal is also a major contributor to climate change, a problem the center-left Labor government has vowed to address.

    Two years after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd drew worldwide applause for reversing Australia’s longstanding refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the government’s ambitious plan to change the way Australians use energy is facing major obstacles, raising the prospect of an early election with climate change as the central issue.

  6. It’s a shame that Australian politicians don’t understand the situation they are in, or the extent to which climate change will make problems like drought and illegal immigration much worse.

    Protecting the coal industry today, to the detriment of your whole society tomorrow…

  7. Cap-and-fade for Australia’s conservatives
    The defeat of Australia’s climate plan is not bad news for cap-and-trade

    Posted 9:01 PM on 12 Aug 2009
    by Todd Woody

    It may be tempting to view the Australian Senate’s defeat Wednesday of climate change legislation as a portent of things to come as the U.S. Senate prepares to take up a cap-and-trade bill.

    But the rejection of the Australian legislation reflects the peculiarities of Aussie politics rather than the viability of cap-and-trade. More importantly, it could trigger what might be the world’s first national election fought over climate change—an election that could give the ruling center-left Australian Labor Party a renewed mandate and perhaps the cojones to strengthen what is widely viewed as a weak emissions-trading scheme packed with perks for Big Coal and other carbon polluters.

  8. Australia’s Minor Voice on Climate Change

    December 3, 2007

    New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol on Dec. 3, giving his country a stronger voice in U.N. climate negotiations in Indonesia and slowing U.S. efforts to form a Pacific-based consensus on climate change. In the long run, however, the views of China and the United States are stronger factors in determining international climate policy.

  9. Australia leads world in carbon emissions

    CANBERRA, Australia, Sept. 14 (UPI) — Australia has surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest per capita producer of carbon emissions, according to a report by a risk consultancy.

    The study by British-based Maplecroft released last week finds that Australia tops the CO2 energy emissions index, which measures how much carbon dioxide a country spews into the atmosphere relative to its population size. Carbon emissions are blamed for global warming.

    Coal-fired power stations, known for high CO2 emissions, generate about 80 percent of Australia’s electricity.

    Maplecroft said Australia’s per capita output is 20.58 tons per person annually. That’s 4 percent higher than the United States, which came in at 19.78 tons, and above all the other 185 countries on the list. The remaining top five on the index were Canada, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

    China, which recently overtook the United States as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter overall, has a per capita average of approximately 4.5 tons per person.

  10. Australian senate rejects climate plan

    Australia’s parliament has rejected draft carbon-trading legislation that is at the centre of the government’s plans to tackle climate change.

    The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had planned to have it voted into law before the Copenhagen conference next week.

    However, the upper house voted the plans down, with climate change sceptics arguing it would harm the economy.

  11. “Having passed the lower house of Parliament, the climate legislation was stuck in the Senate, the upper house, where the government lacks a majority. In August an unlikely alliance of Greens (who thought the scheme too weak), the coalition and two independents rejected it. Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal leader, then persuaded his party to strike a deal with the government to make the scheme more business-friendly. To start in 2011, it set targets to cut carbon emissions by 5% of 2000 levels by 2020, or 25% depending on post-Copenhagen global action.

    Mr Turnbull had long championed such a scheme. His deal secured an extra A$7 billion ($6.4 billion) in sweeteners over ten years for coal-fired electricity generators and high carbon-emitting industries. It excluded agriculture altogether. But even this was too much for the Liberals’ climate-change sceptics, led by Nick Minchin, the party’s Senate leader. He recently dismissed action against climate change as an extreme-left plot to “deindustrialise the Western world” after the collapse of communism. Just as Senate Liberals were preparing to pass the climate bill, Mr Minchin and several other sceptics revolted. On December 1st Liberal members of both houses unseated Mr Turnbull and replaced him as party leader with Tony Abbott, one of the prime sceptics.

    Mr Abbott beat Mr Turnbull by just one vote. But he quickly killed any commitment to the compromise and resolved to kill the bill in the Senate. Two Liberals, nonetheless, defied their new leader and tried vainly to save it by voting with the government. One, Judith Troeth, told the chamber of her rural experience: “Droughts are longer. Rainfall has dropped…I believe there is global warming.””

  12. Australians in fifty years will wonder why their predecessors in 2009 voted for such dunces.

  13. “Mr Rudd has said he believes in “a big Australia”. More people, he argues, will contribute to the country’s prosperity and boost its influence in Asia. But since these latest demographic projections, he has been touring Australia’s big cities warning that the country must lift productivity, or risk unsustainable budget deficits later on.

    Some experts argue that the environmental costs of a big Australia are an even bigger worry than the fiscal ones. A decade of drought has left the country’s water supplies depleted. Until recent rains, the Lachlan river had stopped flowing in some of the farming regions of New South Wales, the most populous state. The Treasury’s report says climate change poses as serious a threat to Australia as does the ageing of its population. This week Mr Rudd’s government brought back to Parliament a bill to create an emissions-trading scheme, though the upper house rejected it twice last year. He seems determined to force a showdown over the issue.

    Ken Henry, the head of the Treasury, questions the capacity of a country as hot and dry as Australia to sustain so many people. He is also pessimistic about the prospects for biodiversity. He recently cited the granting of permits over the past decade that have allowed the commercial slaughter of 50m kangaroos “primarily to give household pets a bit of variety in their diet”. This suggests, he said, that even with only 22m people, “we haven’t managed to find accommodation with our environment.” The Treasury report does not include a kangaroo-population forecast.”

  14. Australia and carbon emissions
    A change in the climate
    Make us greener, oh lord. But not yet

    Apr 29th 2010 | SYDNEY | From The Economist print edition

    ONLY a few months ago Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, was painting a dark picture about looming storm surges, rising sea-levels, a fall of over 90% in irrigated farming and a drop of nearly 2.5% in GNP over this century unless Australia took action against climate change. “Action now,” he declared. “Not action delayed.” But this week Mr Rudd climbed down from what seemed a defining pledge of his leadership. Instead of using this year to get parliament to adopt an emissions-trading scheme that would put a price on carbon pollution, action will now be delayed until 2013 at least. Some wonder if it will ever happen at all.

    Few leaders have staked more than Mr Rudd on tackling climate change. The issue helped him lead the Labor Party to power in late 2007, after the former conservative coalition government had largely ignored it. Relying on coal for most of its electricity, Australia is one of the world’s highest carbon-emitters per person. Mr Rudd hoped that forcing it to change how it uses energy would give the country clout in forging a global consensus.

    All that unravelled late last year. His government’s planned cap-and-trade scheme set targets to cut carbon emissions by 5% of 2000 levels by 2020, or 25% as part of concerted global action. Having initially supported the scheme, the main opposition Liberal Party used its controlling numbers in parliament’s upper house in early December to block it for a second time. The failure of the Copenhagen climate summit that month took more shine off the vision.

  15. “Mr Rudd has little political capital to spare on a fight over mining. His opinion-poll rating has plunged by 14 percentage points in less than a month. More voters now disapprove of him than approve of him. The main cause for the slide seems to be his shelving of plans for an emissions-trading scheme to fight climate change, seen as one of his administration’s main goals. This will save the government A$652 million over five years (although the same amount will be invested in renewable energy). The budget, though, discloses an even bigger climbdown: instead of being delayed until 2013, the emissions scheme will now happen “only…if there is sufficient international action”. At least Mr Rudd can boast that he has been faithful to another important manifesto commitment: he won power in 2007 claiming to be a “fiscal conservative”.”

  16. The removal of Mr. Rudd – best known as one of the West’s few Chinese-speaking leaders and for helping to broker the Copenhagen climate change agreement – showed his party had lost faith that he could win a second term at national elections due within months.

    The leadership change immediately eased hostilities between the government and big mining companies over a proposed tax on so-called super profits from burgeoning mineral and energy sales to China and India.

    Ms. Gillard on Thursday immediately ended an advertising campaign that is promoting the tax, keeping a Labor promise that Mr. Rudd broke to never use taxpayers’ money for political advertising.

    The world’s biggest miner BHP-Billiton responded by suspending counter-advertising that claims the new tax would cost jobs and harm investment in the mineral sector, which is driving Australia’s economic growth.

    Ms. Gillard said her government is willing to negotiate with the miners on the proposed tax. Opinion polls show the tax debate is doing increasing harm to the government’s re-election chances.

    “I have said to the mining companies of this nation publicly that the government is opening its door and we are asking them to open their minds,” Ms. Gillard told Parliament.

    Mr. Rudd had ridden high in opinion polls until he made major policy backflips, including a decision in April to shelve plans to make Australia’s worst polluters pay for their carbon gas emissions.

    “I’m proud of the fact that we tried three times to get an emissions trading scheme through this Parliament, although we failed,” Mr. Rudd told reporters.

    “I’m less proud of the fact that I have now blubbered,” he joked, as he struggled to contain his tears.

  17. Australia changes prime minister
    Rudd on the tracks as Gillard takes over
    Losing popularity, the Labor Party stages a surgical strike in the leadership

    Jun 24th 2010 | SYDNEY

    Mr Rudd started by ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change, then issued a long-awaited formal apology to Australia’s indigenous people for past injustices. His approval rating reached 71% in April 2008; it was still at 63% last October. Until recently the Liberals, the main opposition party, looked as if they would present no threat in this year’s election: since their defeat, they have swapped leaders three times.

    All that changed in early May, when polls turned badly against Labor. In one month Mr Rudd’s approval rating fell by 11 points, to 39%. Another poll earlier this month, showing the government’s vote had fallen to 33%, sent tremors through Labor powerbrokers. Votes leaked more to the Greens than to the Liberals; but the poll still gave the opposition a winning lead, even after the distribution of second-preference votes.

    The trigger was Mr Rudd’s decision in late April to defer a planned emissions-trading scheme (ETS) until at least 2013. Legislation for it is stuck in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, where Labor lacks a majority. Mr Rudd had made attacking climate change a defining pledge of his platform. His apparent decision to abandon it dismayed voters and damaged his credibility on other issues.

  18. BEFORE her election last August, Julia Gillard, Australia’s prime minister, had promised “no carbon tax under the government I lead”. So she had some explaining to do when announcing, on February 24th, plans for what looks rather like a tax: a mandatory carbon price. Carbon policy is becoming the “third rail” of Australian politics. An earlier failure by the ruling Labor Party to set a price led to Ms Gillard’s coup against her predecessor as party leader, Kevin Rudd. This time around, the party’s latest carbon pledge will test Ms Gillard’s own political survival.

    Voters are sceptical. An opinion poll on March 8th by Newspoll showed 11% more people against a carbon price than for it. Worse, polls of voting intentions look calamitous. The number who will cast their first vote for Labor has fallen to 30%, the lowest in Newspoll’s 26-year history.

    Ms Gillard tried to brush the problem aside by declaring that Australia had to transform its “carbon-pollution-intense economy”, and that she was determined to win the debate. On the first point, at least, she is right. Coal, a dirty source of carbon dioxide, is Australia’s biggest export commodity and fuels about four-fifths of its electricity, making the country the world’s highest carbon emitter per person. But Ms Gillard will achieve her vow to win the debate only with a grubby political fight.

  19. Mr Rudd was visiting his home state to sell the message that Queensland’s resource-rich economy was humming again after the floods. Ms Gillard was in Brisbane to meet victims who are still fighting with insurance companies to settle claims. Hovering like a political equivalent of Yasi, the cyclone that ripped across northern Queensland soon after the floods, was a television appearance by Mr Rudd a couple of days before. In it, he revealed much about the Labor government’s divisions over the issue that led to his downfall: climate change, the “third rail” of Australian politics.

    Mr Rudd got Labor into office in 2007 on a pledge that Australia would do its bit to tackle climate change. As prime minister, he later dropped the pledge. The decision triggered Ms Gillard’s leadership coup. After months of silence, Mr Rudd used Q&A, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation programme, to admit that his decision was “a wrong call for which I uniquely am responsible”. But he then talked of “massive conflict” among ministers. And he intimated that Ms Gillard might have been among those who had urged him to make that call. Exploring the decision’s entrails, he said, “may not be a pretty story.”

  20. Many Australians do not seem to appreciate that they live in an unusually successful country. Accustomed to unbroken economic expansion—many are too young to remember recession—they are inclined to complain about house prices, 5% unemployment or the problems that a high exchange rate causes manufacturing and several other industries. Some Australians talk big but actually think small, and politicians may be the worst offenders. They are often reluctant to get out in front in policymaking—on climate change, for instance—preferring to follow what bigger countries do. In the quest for a carbon policy, both the main parties have chopped and changed their minds, and their leaders, leaving voters divided and bemused. There can be little doubt that if America could come to a decision on the topic, Australia would soon follow suit.

  21. The environment
    A preference for green
    So long as it doesn’t cost too much

    AUSTRALIANS LIVE CLOSE to nature. Not on the face of things, it’s true: since three-quarters of them inhabit cities of over 100,000 people, they would seem to be well insulated from their natural surroundings. Most have probably never seen a koala or a platypus outside the zoo; many won’t often come across a kangaroo. But for Sydneysiders, say, the chances of meeting a venomous snake or even a deadly spider are not trivial. And above all, literally, is the weather, benign and beautiful much of the time, but often by turns scorching, soaking, dehydrating, burning, blowing, parching, cyclonic, cancer-causing and generally destructive.

    That may be one reason why Australians seem especially concerned about the environment. Another, if they are informed, is their awareness that one of their finest natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef, is under threat from pollution, overfishing and the warming of the sea; to Australians the reef is a source of pride, not to mention $5 billion a year from tourists. Indeed, many parts of the natural world are under threat in Australia. About 40 animal species, it is said, have disappeared there in the past 500 years, and hundreds more are vulnerable.

    That is partly because Australia is an ancient continent with all sorts of ancient creatures. Some of the microbes that built the strange rock-like structures of Shark Bay in Western Australia, for instance, trace their genes back 1.9 billion years, though the structures themselves, called stromatolites, go back only 2,000 or 3,000 years. As an old continent, Australia has fragile soil, which the country’s indigenous animals treat with respect, preferring on the whole to bounce on it rather than to stomp. The sheep, horses, goats and pigs brought by Europeans, however, have hard hooves, which compress the thin soil and cause erosion. Some of the beasts that have been introduced, such as foxes, eat the native species, or their food, and many imported plants prove invasive and overwhelm the locals.

  22. Australia’s PM shows political courage on climate change
    Jeffrey Simpson | Columnist profile | E-mail
    From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
    Published Saturday, Jul. 16, 2011 2:00AM EDT

    Last Sunday night, the Prime Minister of Australia went on national television.

    Prime ministers in democratic countries take to the airwaves only if they have something extremely important to say. And Prime Minister Julia Gillard did. She said something inconceivable in Canada, at least under Stephen Harper’s government.

    “Most Australians now agree our climate is changing,” she said. “This is caused by carbon pollution. This has harmful effects on our environment and on the economy. And the government should act.”

    And act it did. Next July 1, the Australian government will put a price of $23 a tonne on carbon for the country’s 500 largest emitters. Three years later, the government will convert that tax into an emissions trading scheme, or cap-and-trade, whereby the government will mandate emission limits and let the market set the price.

  23. Carbon policy in Australia and Britain
    Poles apart
    Australia’s plans for cutting carbon emissions are welcome, if imperfect. Britain’s are fundamentally flawed

    WHEN asked how he had persuaded Britain’s senior doctors to withdraw their vociferous objections to a National Health Service in the 1940s, Aneurin Bevan, the NHS’s founding minister, replied: “I stuffed their mouths with gold.” Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, born like Bevan in south Wales (the old one), this week took a leaf out of his book with her proposal for a carbon price (see article). It came groaning under the burden of generous golden giveaways to Australian consumers and businesses.

    Unsurprisingly, this newspaper dislikes the amount of cash going to Australia’s dirtier industries; the plan does nothing to limit emissions from coal exporters; and there is also a muddle-headed attempt to pick winning renewable schemes. Against that, some gold probably had to be offered to win support. And Ms Gillard deserves credit not just for putting a price on carbon—still the best way to discourage its use—but also for selling it as a way to shift taxation, not raise new revenues. Thus some of the cash which the plan generates will pay for tax cuts that will offset increases in electricity bills. It is better to tax pollution than work or saving.

  24. Australia Senate backs carbon tax

    Australia’s Senate has approved a controversial law on pollution, after years of bitter political wrangling.

    The Clean Energy Act will force the country’s 500 worst-polluting companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions from 1 July next year.

    The Senate vote is a victory for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had given strong backing to the plan.

    Environmentalists have broadly backed the scheme, but there have been large public protests against it.

    Opposition parties have argued that the tax would cause job losses and raise the cost of living, and they have promised to repeal the legislation if they win the next election, due in 2013.

  25. Coal port growth threatens Barrier Reef: Greenpeace

    Australia’s rapid expansion of coal ports in the next decade will threaten the Great Barrier Reef as increased ship traffic, port infrastructure and dredging put pressure on the world’s largest coral reef, Greenpeace said on Thursday.

    Coal is one of Australia’s top export earners, and the Great Barrier Reef sits off the coast of the eastern state of Queensland, the country’s largest coal-producer.

    “The creation of mega mines in central Queensland, the accompanying export infrastructure and increases in shipping traffic, as well as the burning of the coal they produce, place an incredible burden on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef,” the environmental group said in a report.

  26. Climate science
    The extended reach of Australian drought
    Journal name: Nature


    Volume: 483, Page: 8
    Date published: (01 March 2012)
    DOI: doi:10.1038/483008a
    Published online 29 February 2012

    The Big Dry, a prolonged drought that affected southeast Australia from 1997 to 2011, was more extensive than previously thought.

    Gavan McGrath at the University of Western Australia in Crawley and his colleagues analysed satellite data from across the continent and found evidence of decreased water storage, rainfall and plant growth throughout the country between 2002 and 2010. In the southeast, the drought correlated with an irregular Indian Ocean circulation, whereas in the northwest it was associated with a decreased frequency of tropical cyclones. The authors say that the northwest drought coincided with and probably exacerbated the one in the southeast.

    The findings suggest that distinct climatic factors such as decadal cyclone trends and changes in ocean circulation can combine to create a continental-scale drought.

  27. Climate change ‘irrelevant’ in coal mine decision

    Queensland’s Land Court has recommended the state government approve Xstrata Coal’s massive new thermal coal mine at Wandoan, in the Surat Basin, and deemed objections based on the mine’s likely contribution to climate change as ‘‘irrelevant’’.

    The Wandoan project, in planning for years and potentially the largest thermal coal mine in the southern hemisphere, was challenged by environment group Friends of the Earth (FoE) on the grounds that it would be responsible for 1.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime – equal to twice Australia’s annual emissions – and displace 11,000 hectares of agricultural land.

    In a decision handed down this afternoon, Land Court president Carmel MacDonald recommended approval of the project, subject to groundwater monitoring and make-good obligations, and to excision of certain lands, but found that the concept of the environment in the state’s environment protection law was ‘‘limited to Queensland’s environment’’.
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    ‘‘The reference in the ESD (environmentally sustainable development) principles to ‘the global dimensions of environmental impacts of actions and policies’ appears to allow the Court to take into account the global impacts of the project,’’ Justice MacDonald said.

    ‘‘But whilst the FoE argue that limiting the consideration of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions to the extraction of the coal would be inconsistent with this principle of ESD, it is my view that the court can only be concerned with the global impacts of the “mining activities” which are the subject of the environmental authority application before the court – that is, the physical activities of winning and extracting the coal that may be authorised.

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