What a terrible hypocrite Marius Kloppers is in calling for a carbon price.

Before the head of BHP is elevated to the status of climate change forward thinker, it pays to recall the wrecking and rent seeking engaged in by BHP-Billiton in relation to the CPRS.

BHP was in the forefront of the gloom and doom warnings about the impact of the Government’s scheme in 2008 and 2009. As the material painstakingly gathered by the Australian Climate Justice Program showed (here — large file), BHP publicly warned of disruptions to gas supply (possibly of “Longford levels”, according to one executive), claimed mining companies would be driven offshore, that the CPRS would cost thousands of jobs, “severely strain the Australian economy” and halt new investment.

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Any of these claims from a mining company sound familiar?

In fact there’s little new in what Kloppers has said. He explicitly said he wants big-polluting exporters compensated under a carbon price scheme. This is despite the Grattan Institute demolishing the case for compensation in its close analysis of the way the CPRS addressed the purported problem of carbon and jobs leakage.

Kloppers, however, perfectly demonstrates business “support” for a carbon price. It’s support for the idea of doing something about climate change, and of providing investment certainty, but without any support for the consequences of a carbon price — even when they never amounted to more than 4-5% of revenue for emissions-intensive-trade-exposed industries.

This is why, despite declaring support for an emissions trading scheme, most of Australian business went missing in action when it came to the CPRS. Just as they did with the mining tax, they sat back and watched a weak Government be mugged by rentseekers and whingers like the Minerals Council. And this is why, incidentally, Labor and even the independents should think long and hard about taking advice from the likes of the Business Council of Australia on the tax summit next year. Because the politicians can be sure of one thing — Australian business will leave them in the lurch if the going gets tough.

Kloppers’s comments also continue the fetishisation of a carbon price as the only credible climate change policy. As I outlined on Tuesday, the national interest is best served by a three-part policy of pursuing an international agreement to minimise global temperature rise, developing a coherent adaptation policy and pursuing a mechanism — probably a carbon tax — to start ending our world-beating levels of carbon addiction.

There has, I gather, been some debate about whether my elevation of adaptation means I’ve somehow run up the white flag on “real” climate action. There are indeed “adaptation” advocates for whom adaptation is a cover for doing nothing — let the planet cook and we’ll handle the consequences later (coupled with the spurious claim that we’ll be richer by then if we don’t take any action on climate change now, and therefore have more resources to throw at the problem).

But unless you subscribe to the view that a comprehensive, effective and rapid international agreement to halt global temperature rise is imminent, a prudent approach would be to prepare for the consequences of the rise in temperatures already under way, which will be quite enough to cause economic dislocation in more fragile communities in regional Australia. A policy that emphasises reducing Australia’s emissions (whether via a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme or, for example, Warwick McKibbin’s Byzantine scheme) is necessary but not sufficient; adaptation to the likely consequences of our long-term recalcitrance about facing up to the problem of climate change is also required, as is the halting of the remorseless rise in the other 97% of emissions globally.

But Kloppers’ comments ensure the focus will shift back onto the Coalition on the issue, especially given Malcolm Turnbull appears quite happy so far to discuss issues in Greg Hunt’s portfolio as well as his own. For nine months the political focus has, rightly, been on the Government’s position on climate change. Now, perhaps in a manner similar to Clive Palmer’s sudden shift on a profit-based mining royalty regime, Kloppers leaves the Coalition and its “great big new tax” rhetoric looking mildly irrelevant to a debate that has sparked into life in a way that appeared very unlikely before 21 August.

The person who could add most to this debate from the conservative side is Greg Hunt, but he won’t be joining in, except to warn about a great big new tax and the impact on electricity prices of a carbon price — to be distinguished, of course, from the impact on electricity prices of his own policy.

What a terrible shame this once promising figure in climate change politics is now not so much sidelined as an active impediment to effective action.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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