KEVIN RUDD   has been quick to position his government as taking action, ‘historic’ action at that. Personally I do not define sitting round a table voting as ‘action’, but it is good to see that the federal and state governments are at least acknowledging some of the important issues.

Trouble is that although their words and ‘ambitions’ sound promising, they keep sending out mixed messages that are probably confusing more people than just this writer.

My main reservation about the entire emissions trading ‘scheme’ (their words) is that is a disincentive for other people to produce greenhouse gasses. It does not, in itself, reduce emissions in any way whatsoever, so in this context the mixed messages are starting to add up to the possibility that the government doesn’t intend to do anything except increase taxes and tell the rest of us what to do.

Mixed message 1

The Murray Darling is close to an irreversible condition (1), in part due to a growing concentration of toxic salts as water dries up and groundwater levels drop (2).

One obvious response would be to curtail any activity or program that takes water from catchments and/or lowers water tables.

The most obvious target is tree plantations that take 2 Ml/ha/yr of water more than agricultural cropping uses. Howard’s plantation plan (3) called for over 3 million hectares (ha) of tree plantations to be established by 2020 but no water impacts were studied and no bounds were placed on where the plantations might be established.

Australia’s current 2 million ha of plantations suck 4 million million litres of water from our catchments each and every year and the growth of that estate is being fuelled by generous tax incentives. That’s nearly as much water as flows in the entire Murray Darling system. Yet rather than cut or regulate the tree plantation program, the federal government has moved to expand it to now encompass tree plantations as carbon sinks (4).

Mixed message 2

We could discontinue activities that might adversely affect rainfall.

Again, one obvious candidate is to stop the clear felling of native forests because large areas of forest pump water from the ground into the atmosphere, making downwind rain more likely. The federal government has already approved Gunns pulp mill with its extreme regime of clearfelling trees from native forests just to produce paper for Gunns profit.

Mixed message 3

To avoid the dire impacts of climate change and power price increases surely we’d like as many people as possible to start generating their own clean power, create incentives for them to shift off the grid.

By contrast, Peter Garrett told us that the solar photo-voltaic panel program was ‘overheating’ and therefore needed to be curtailed (huh?), so the federal government changed the levels at which subsidies applied thus damaging the solar panel industry (5) and massively reducing sales of panels.

Mixed message 4

Whatever the merits or otherwise of an emissions trading scheme, it certainly makes sense for the government to focus on our climate and how to reverse or mitigate the current warming effects.

Our Minister for Climate and Water, Penny Wong, in a revealing moment stated “We are designing it (the emissions scheme) for the long term economic future of the country.” There seems to be a different priority here than trying to reverse the climatological threats. The same message (the economy is our main priority) comes across by restricting ourselves to an economist to advise us on how to protect ourselves from climate changes.  Surely a panel of climatologists and scientists could have been used.

Mixed message 5

Immediately reducing greenhouse emissions appears like a sensible policy.

In Tasmania, forestry continues its clear felling and burning activities. Blind Freddie’s hacking cough would tell him that the total conversion of all life over hundreds of hectares of land, into carbon dioxide and smoke particles must be contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide in a big way. Nonetheless the federal government continues to support Tasmanian forestry practices.

4 possible explanations

While I can think of plausible reasons that might be advanced for each of the government’s actions, none of them is consistent with dealing with climate change or housing as a priority. No matter how vexing the question, when the outcomes are as important as protecting our climate it seems reasonable to expect policy consistency so that the goals are more likely to be achieved.

One explanation for the mixed messages is that Labor just doesn’t understand how their decisions affect climate change, and equally importantly, voter perceptions of their government. When political messages conflict with the real world (e.g. asthma from the forestry smoke vs we’re cutting greenhouse emissions) it’s the politicians that lose their credibility.

A second possibility is that there are compelling reasons for the inconsistencies that over-ride concerns for the climate. If this were true, then it’s reasonable to suppose that any compelling reasons would be explained so that voters could understand. Absent such explanations, it’s hard to put much credence in this explanation.

Another explanation is that forestry burns, increased migrant numbers and changes to private health cover will have no such adverse effects. This explanation is very hard to believe.

A fourth possibility, and quite a compelling one, is that Rudd is a victim of his own minders and staff (6) who have already been reported as creating chaos in the Prime Minister’s office. It’s also possible, even plausible, that leaving so many Howard appointments in the public services has exposed his government to a loss at the next election, particularly if advice to Labor is skewed sufficiently to cause them to take serious falls.

There’s some evidence for this latter possibility in that letters and other communications from the community just don’t seem to get through. Many are unanswered, or answered with cut & paste responses that aren’t relevant to the subject matter.

Policy without action?

Given that 60% of our income goes to charges and costs created by government, it seems reasonable to expect the government to actually DO SOMETHING USEFUL to reduce emissions.

Stop forestry burns, stop clearfelling, expand research to engage in emissions reduction work (CSIRO was actually cut back), form industry/government research groups to find ways to reduce emissions, act to protect Australians threatened by climate change (e.g. coastal areas, food producers), turn off government building lights at night, create incentives to fuly insulate homes…some of you might remember…this is taking direct action.

Could the federal government be fixated on policy to the exclusion of all else.

It’s as if we’re lying on the floor wounded while the doctor says ‘I’m going to authorise the administration to go to public tender to find a solution to your pain!’

Yes, it’s reasonable to have an integrated policy approach to climate change, but it isn’t prudent to ONLY have that approach. It’s single point sensitivity writ large.

Creating a disincentive for others to produce greenhouse gases does not reduce greenhouse gases, neither is there any guarantee that climate problems will be turned around.

The theory that putting the price up and setting targets will solve the problem has been disproved with the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Price up, highly illegal, jail our kids – effect – more drugs used than ever before.

Obviously there’s a problem with the theory.

Even considering the awful risks of climate change described by Prof Garnault, putting all our eggs into a policy basket without taking other coherent action is frighteningly risky.

And who is going to measure the emissions? The industry? The government?

Watch this space.

Mike Bolan
http://www.abetteraustralia.com

Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.

1. http://canberra.yourguide.com.au/news/local/news/general/murraydarling-crisis-govt-to-act/792214.aspx
2. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23955628-11949,00.html
3. http://www.plantations2020.com.au/
4. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/06/27/1214472765340.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap2
5. http://www.theage.com.au/news/environment/shadow-on-solar-rebate/2008/05/15/1210765057398.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1
6. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23898071-601,00.html

Mike Bolan

Could the federal government be fixated on policy to the exclusion of all else. It’s as if we’re lying on the floor wounded while the doctor says ‘I’m going to authorise the administration to go to public tender to find a solution to your pain!’ Yes, it’s reasonable to have an integrated policy approach to climate change, but it isn’t prudent to ONLY have that approach. It’s single point sensitivity writ large. Creating a disincentive for others to produce greenhouse gases does not reduce greenhouse gases, neither is there any guarantee that climate problems will be turned around. The theory that putting the price up and setting targets will solve the problem has been disproved with the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Price up, highly illegal, jail our kids – effect – more drugs used than ever before.