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Some are unaware the heat is on.

Peter Christoff's article on the Howard Government's stance on Climate Change (Arena Magazine No. 75) diagnoses a dangerous case of policy autism. It's a first class analysis of the policy development process. An inability to read and process critical signals into coherent and appropriate policy could be a complete explanation except that the Howard Government has, from their perspective, managed the issue far too well for far too long for it to be the product of anything other than able management.

The parable of the slow boiled frog helps to shine some light on the political story. Apparently, if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly bring it to the boil, the frog will not jump out to save itself because it lacks the perception (foresight) to act sensibly. The frog's problem is that the solution to its problem is simply beyond the extent of its evolution. This is not an inability of process or function; the frog is working just fine. The circumstances are just too much for a frog; there may as well be a lid on the pot.

In the case of the Howard Government's stance on climate change, there is a lid on the pot. It's an ideological lid and it's welded on with the Government's identity. In short, the Howard Government lacks the ideological wherewithal to tackle climate change. As Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane was reported to have told the Sydney Morning Herald: Whether or not those emissions are causing climate change, I don't know. If you go back across history, millions of years, carbon dioxide levels go up and down, and global warming comes and goes. I mean, the Earth is a lot warmer than it was when the glaciers formed (SMH, 16 February 2005).

If healthy policy development is an ability to read and process critical signals into coherent and appropriate policy, then perhaps the Howard Government is suffering from late-stage dementia, wherein particular policy options and outcomes are simply inconceivable: for example, environmentally and socially directed economic development, non-'business-as-usual' growth and long-term consideration. Unfortunately, the unprecedented physical and temporal nature of climate change requires such approaches to be taken with some urgency.

The conservative ideology is in itself unable to grasp the enormity of climate change, simply because the effective remedies appear, to a conservative mindset, to be politically incorrect. When those in government do concede that Australia needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, they come face-to-face with the reality that their political values aren't much help. How do you significantly reduce emissions without touching the hand of free enterprise?

To reconcile ongoing scientific and political developments with the unchanging objective of Australia's climate change policy--that Australian greenhouse emissions be allowed to grow without restriction--the Government frequently recalculates and adjusts its stance. The most recent example, in response to the impending enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol, was the Government's notice that it is considering some form of carbon currency and that it now believes there is a 'dominance of science' which says greenhouse emissions have contributed to climate change.

With certain basic courses of action unavailable, the unimaginative conservative is ill-equipped to appreciate climate change, much less seriously address it. Hence the current policy exists: minimise the political ramifications and espouse your default belief that she'll be right. The issue's importance is successfully diminished in the eyes of the media and the public.

There is, though, a small but growing number of Coalition MPs facing facts, particularly the fact that the market cost of Greenhouse emissions cannot be zero. Those thoroughly exposed to the truth soon realise they're on fundamentally thin political ice. Often found clutching at technology as a faith preserver, this group is confronting an internally vexing and potentially troublesome electoral issue.

Duty bound, all three Environment Ministers--David Kemp, Robert Hill and the current minister Ian Campbell --have made timid public efforts to advance Australia's climate change policy, and have made modest efforts in Cabinet, only to be rolled by the Prime Minister and others more at ease with dated ideology than with the modern world.

In January of this year, Campbell told the Sydney Morning Herald:

I think we need to engage the climate sceptics, those people who are pulling the doona up over their heads, and get past the debate over whether or not climate change is real. There is a dominance of science which does say that the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions has contributed to human-induced climate change.

Australia's proportionately enormous emissions are rising. In Australian homes and in climatology labs around the world, the dominant opinion is that, in the interest of justice, we need to reduce emissions. The Howard Government's policy response has been to maintain the status quo rather than reduce emissions. More than $500 million has been expended to this end. The Howard Government's pre-packaged media material, stakeholder buy-outs, sly lobbyists and promising rhetoric heralding technological saviors are, at best, buying it time to evolve by keeping climate change out of marginal electorates. At worst, they are balm for frogs in pots.

Martin Callinan worked on the Kerry-Edwards Campaign and was an advisor to the Shadow Environment Minister, Kelvin Thomson, during the Australian Federal Election.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Author:Callinan, Martin
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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