Kevin Rudd, to his credit, is now seriously challenging climate denialism. His Lowy speech set strong performance benchmarks against which Labor itself will be held to account in 2010.

There is widespread public disillusionment now with the ETS weak-target approach. It is over-complex and opaque, a feeding trough for consultants and rent-seekers, and as it stands incapable of reducing Australia’s carbon emissions.

This ETS will pass, but is worth little unless Rudd moves to real 25% – 40% targets and supports them with an active government-led decarbonisation strategy: starting with serious and unbiased R&D into how the different forms of alternative energy might be rapidly integrated into a dependable, emissions-free national grid, using all available off-the-shelf technologies.

To drive such a decarbonisation process, the government could give coal-power owners an economic stake in renewable energy by giving them government-funded alternative energy grid bonds, as compensation for asset values of closed-down coal-power stations.

The measure of success at Copenhagen is changing. Most commentators now forecast that a ‘grand global bargain’ for sharing and trading the costs of global climate change mitigation and adaptation is beyond the reach of negotiators. Some are preparing to pronounce Copenhagen a diplomatic failure. But this is incorrect. Copenhagen will produce a set of loosely linked national commitments to pursue meaningful carbon emissions reduction strategies, expressed in quantitative measures of nations’ own choosing, which will collectively add up to a serious global commitment.

If world leaders can move away from the market-rationalist mindset of striving for international deals in which one’s nation cannot be cheated by others into paying more than its ‘fair share’, they may bring more useful shared values into play, such as constructive emulation. One sees this already in the different – but mutually supportive – pre-Copenhagen emissions reduction commitments now being announced by the United States, China, India, Japan, Korea, and the EU.

After Copenhagen it would be reasonable for Kevin Rudd to report back: “We have not achieved a grand global bargain, but there is now a basis for Australia to go forward with our own rapid national decarbonisation program.” If he does not, Rudd will be increasingly out of step internationally: Australia, Canada and Russia are already seen as the climate dinosaurs in G20.

Quite apart from the political problems created in 2009 by denialists and coal lobby status quo defenders, the environmental movement is weakened by its present confused and factionalised state, and losing sight of the supreme policy goal which environmentalists share: safe, rapid decarbonisation.

It was a sorry scene in 2009: like directionless wild geese circling aimlessly, waiting for a flight leader to emerge. Purist climate scientists seemed to resent ‘non-experts’ putting forward independent perspectives. Greens Party ideologues demanded that their whole political agenda be pursued along with their climate message, thereby alienating non-Greens. ‘Pragmatic’ environmental groups continued to try to work with the Labor Government, no matter how phoney and unproductive its policies became.

For market rationalist ideologues, no solution was acceptable unless it worked through market mechanisms (and there was a sub-argument here too, between carbon traders and taxers). Renewable energy advocates argued with nuclear energy advocates, and many of the former could not see far beyond their own particular preferred form of renewable energy (or gas).

Following Copenhagen, the Australian climate movement needs to take a hard collective look at itself, with the aim of achieving unity and inclusivity around the crucial goal to reduce Australian greenhouse house gas emissions to zero by 2030. Based on latest climate science, there is no alternative to this, if Australia wants to play its part in achieving 350 ppm CO2 – which is needed to hold global average temperature rise to two degrees.

In this search for inclusivity, Al Gore and James Hansen are inspirational leaders. They know the importance of working with nuclear energy adherents. They are even courteous to clean coal fantasists, while knowing that this vain quest will quietly be abandoned. They know the task is to build a politically strong mainstream climate policy coalition, which major party leaders will have to heed.

A clear-headed united message from the Australian climate movement would compel Kevin Rudd’s attention, and move the present ineffectual political debates on climate change to a serious level.

Australia’s major climate change organisations and interest groups should organise an emergency joint national policy summit very soon after Copenhagen. Such a meeting should be genuinely inclusive, and free to come to an agreed, not predetermined, outcome. It should not be dominated in advance by any political party or interest group.

We currently have an elective federal dictatorship in Australia. If this strong Prime Minister could resolve to act now and act effectively, Australia’s progress to real energy decarbonisation could be extraordinarily rapid. The opportunity is waiting for Rudd, but it is also up to the Australian environmental movement to get its act together. Only then will Rudd listen: if not, he will just go on wedging, as in 2009.

We have met the enemy: it is us.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin is the author of ‘Crunch Time; Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era’, (Scribe, September 2009) a thought-provoking exploration of Australia’s climate crisis policy challenges.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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