Climate change experts, green groups and business leaders have greeted John Howard’s diminishing scepticism on climate change and his announcement yesterday of a new carbon emissions taskforce with cautious optimism.

The people who’ve been campaigning on this issue for years are hearing something that they thought they’d never hear – concessions on climate change coming out of the PM’s mouth.

But they’re walking a delicate tightrope because they don’t want to alienate or discourage the flood of press coverage, the enormous public interest and the new groundswell of support by appearing too churlish, negative, lefty or too green. At a time when the issue of global warming has hit the mainstream hard, these groups are desperate to make sure they don’t blow it.

Which is why they’re not shouting down the PM’s carbon trading conversation. It’s a step in the right direction, some are saying. It’s the beginning of a U-turn, say others.

That’s the positive, public line – but what are they saying in private? Crikey spoke to a number of climate change industry insiders, and what they’re saying behind closed doors is much more interesting:

  • “This is about public image, not policy.”
  • “A global emissions market? It already exists and it’s worth $30 billion. If that’s what they want, why aren’t they moving towards aligning with that? All of this stuff exists under Kyoto mechanisms… and we can’t get access to any of that money because we haven’t signed Kyoto. “
  • “This is disingenuous. The Howard government are calling for something they don’t want and they know won’t happen….” 
  • “Announcing inquiries is a way of not doing anything… they’re making it up as they go along…”
  • “The government’s concern is watering down the media fire, not the climate fire…. It’s trying to get it off the news cycle… “
  • “Kyoto is not just a symbol. It’s a very serious international system which is starting a process of major cuts in emissions. It took ten years of really hard negotiation to get a scheme under Kyoto that imposes caps on emissions.” 
  • “I’m deeply sceptical. The PM has been spooked by the politics and he’s looking for a way out. There’s no evidence this is anything but a political move.”
  • “You have to be naïve in the extreme to think that Howard is serious about reducing emissions… At the heart is the coal and aluminium industry…”
  • “I think in the end, Howard hates greenies. It’s as visceral as that. Doing something about climate change feels like caving in to them to him…. Look at what he says about Al Gore.”
  • “To talk about AP6 is just lunacy, it’s completely disconnected from what it takes to get an international emissions cap and trade system….”
  • “As soon as you step outside Australia and go to an international meeting you realise the debate in Australia is carried on in a cocoon. People at the international conferences laugh at Australia and the position it takes. But because so few people go and talk to the rest of the world on this issue… you get an epidemic of foolishness.”
  • “There’s no international diplomacy behind this. They’re going to get slaughtered in Nairobi, New Kyoto just doesn’t exist….The thought that suddenly everyone’s going to listen to Australia after ten years of us not doing anything is laughable.”
  • “It’s all spin and no substance. There’s no U-turn in policy.”
  • “If our scheme in Australia doesn’t follow Kyoto rules we can’t join in.  We need domestic carbon rules to fall in line with Kyoto rules. If you want to trade a carbon product it has to fall in line with global schemes…”
  • Gerry Hueston from BP was way off the ball. And it already indicates that Howard is manipulating the business community.”
  • “New Kyoto is either spin or the product of Ian Campbell’s overactive imagination. Campbell has the mark of death on him…”
  • “Costello and Howard have said we have to do something about this but that we have time and this is profoundly ignorant. Stern gave us ten years and that’s realistic. Howard and Costello still haven’t got it.”
  •  “The irony is that 80% of our coal goes into the global market so it will already be restricted….”
  • “In politics, there’s this weird support for the coal industry… I can’t explain  it… it has a long history, and it’s bipartisan… but it’s totally disproportionate. With Labor it’s the unions, with Liberals it’s the companies.”
  • “The game that Howard is playing is a global game to undermine initiatives to preserve the game for Australia’s coal exports… The only way you can stop this stuff harming our exports is to wreck any global agreement which puts Australia in the camp of Saudi Arabia and the other oil nations.”
  • “Unless Howard stops talking about it being an international agreement it’s still part of the delay, it’s not part of the solution. Domestic systems are key.”
  • “Our scheme should fully interact with Kyoto and to do that you have to ratify the protocol… It’s very straightforward, there are systems already in place…”
  • “Howard’s proposal is not adequate. He’s studiously made a point of not making any reference to the states’ proposal which is in full swing, they have a discussion paper, they’ve been having workshops around the place around it…. He’s still playing politics.”
  • “This government is always arguing that you don’t do anything until you have an international agreement, that’s just a way of saying we won’t do anything at all…They’re still running the same line, ten years later.”
  • “If Howard was serious he’d engage with the work that has already been done. They’re pretending it doesn’t exist.”