Earlier this week I had a go at Lindsay Tanner, for preaching the primacy of price in the government’s approach to switching out of fossil fuels. He argued there is nothing to be done to stop climate change until the Ross Garnaut report comes down and goes through a few policy hoops and becomes legislation, some time in 2009. He is hoping that by picking the magic number for the price of carbon, the economy will internally recalibrate itself into an emissions-limiting machine, like a giant Hummer adjusting to a new biofuel.

This is not to say that Garnaut’s solution will not cut emissions, perhaps quite deeply.

But I would like to comment on the meaning of a carbon-market based approach, and what it communicates about climate change. Basically I think Garnaut’s valiant efforts will release goblins into our lives, which PM Rudd will find very hard to “capture”, once emitted.

Everyone is totally confused about just about everything to do with climate policy, but we know what we want. The poll from Essential Media Communications this week shows that three quarters of the population “trust” the government on an ETS, even though they do not understand it.

Miss Citizen is happy to compost, downsize the family sedan and pay more for green power, because she expects that any minute now, BHP Billiton will shut a few coal mines and the government will actually build more public transport. This is social contract 101 — we all do our bit, according to our sphere of influence.

Instead, the government have shunned taking symbolically-powerful, decisive action, instead relying on … the free market. Is this the same free market that makes healthcare costs around the world spiral up? Is this the same hidden hand that shattered the US sub-prime funds? Is this the free market we try to comprehend at the end of the news each night, when Alan Kohler reads its numeric entrails to us?

Imagine item one on the news in 2009 — another thousand species extinct because of global warming. Item two — some wealthy individual buys the “right” to pollute more. Then page one in the paper — an Australian regional community devastated when a business closes because it cannot buy emission credits. Page two in the paper — a multinational resource corporation buys a solar patent and sits on it, while making billions trading the “right to pollute”.

Say Rudd decides to respect the public’s trust in him, what does acting now look like? As I’ve written before, the Rudd government would have to produce these measurable outcomes EACH WEEK if we were to switch out of coal over the next decade (data from Australian Coal Association):

  • Cutting coal mining by 739,807 tonnes;
  • Replacing coal-fired electricity capacity (or demand) at the rate of 247,307 tonnes (black or brown);
  • Creating new jobs for 60 workers directly employed extracting coal.

But it’s not all scary. The government could take the credit for handing out largesse, those funds rescued from “stranded capital” currently wasting away in the coal sector. Our government could redirect about $3,715,385 of private expenditure in coal exploration to something socially useful, like renewable energy R&D, every single week.

Alan Kohler will explain it to us as best he can: “The Tarcutta cheese-sticks factory closed today because the Russian gas futures market factored in the overnight collapse of the US Carbo Index, which is trading lower than the number of penguins in Patagonia … “

This is a world of confusion, hypocrisy and inequity, just when we need to cooperate to build a better global politics. The goblins are laughing, all the way to the bank.

Dan Cass blogs at Green Funk

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