The carbon price is dead. Australia thus slips back into its pre-2007 role as an active opponent of serious action on climate change, having removed a functional, effective and low-impact carbon pricing scheme and replaced it with nothing except the promise of a witless policy of handouts to corporate mates.

In doing so, we undermine the chances of meaningful global action on climate change. We’re one of the world’s most emissions intensive economies — in fact, we’re a carbon junkie, hooked on cheap coal for power, and flogging coal to the world even as the price slides and the mines shut. And apart from the last six years, Australia has tried to sabotage global climate action. What we do matters, even if we only account for a small fraction of the world’s greenhouse emissions, because when we demonstrate our seriousness in tackling climate change, we increase the chances of countries that don’t enjoy our high standards of living also taking action.

Now we’re back to our Howard-era role as an international greenhouse vandal.

We’re also imposing higher costs on our children and their descendants; the longer we delay the process of decarbonising our economy — and one day, we will need to decarbonise it, like it or not — the higher the costs. Or at least, that’s the view of environazis like the Federal Treasury and the International Energy Agency. And to the extent that we undermine genuine international action on climate change, they’ll pay a far greater price in terms of the higher costs, poorer health and lower economic growth that will result from Australia’s exposure to climate change impacts. The cost to the economy of a carbon price between now and 2050 will be trivial compared to the cost inflicted on Australia by climate change.

Future citizens will thus look back on the actions of this government and the senators that supported it and see an intergenerational economic attack on them, in which we used the trivial costs of a carbon pricing scheme as an excuse to saddle future generations with much greater costs from climate change and decarbonisation — for all the Coalition’s incessant rhetoric about not saddling future generations with debt. It’s an attack, primarily, of old white men, men in complete denial about climate change, on the future and on the young.

“Let us wish them all long and healthy lives, so that they can witness how much their poor judgement and opportunism will cost Australia.”

There is some hope: the inability or unwillingness of governments to rein in fossil-fuel energy producers and distributors — who have played a key role in urging the repeal of the carbon price — has meant that Australian households and business are paying far more for energy than they should. As a result, demand for coal-fired power has fallen while interest in renewable energy has surged. We thus have a de facto carbon price on the most critical greenhouse sector, one much higher than the actual carbon price repealed today. And the Renewable Energy Target remains in place for now — although who knows how long it will remain given the capriciousness of Clive Palmer. The unwillingness of governments to impose export restrictions on natural gas will also result in the cost of gas rising significantly in coming months and years.

The decarbonisation of the Australian economy may thus proceed despite the best efforts of Tony Abbott and climate denialists to freeze us in the late 20th century. But if that happens, it will be slow and inefficient compared to the policy repealed today.

This isn’t merely a failure by the Coalition, or the crossbench senators who backed its killing of the carbon price. Australia has gone from the 2007 election, where there was bipartisan support for an emissions trading scheme, to this moment, when a working carbon pricing mechanism — soon to shift to an emissions trading scheme — is being abolished. Kevin Rudd bears much responsibility for his appalling mishandling of emissions trading while prime minister and his view that climate change was simply an issue with which to wedge the Coalition. Julia Gillard also bears much responsibility, not so much for those words before the 2010 election, but for leading the charge against the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme within government in early 2010 and going to the election later that year with a climate action policy of manifest absurdity — cash for clunkers, anyone? A citizens’ assembly?

But ultimately, this is the result of the right-wing putsch in 2009 that replaced Malcolm Turnbull, a man genuinely committed to action on climate change, with Tony Abbott, a climate denialist and rank opportunist who, in a short period of time, had occupied every single possible position on climate change and what to do about it, except the one he ended up advocating as policy — the risible “Direct Action” policy mocked from the most froth-mouthed climate denialist all the way to the most fervent Trotskyite environmentalist.

Let us wish them all long and healthy lives, so that they can witness how much their poor judgement and opportunism will cost Australia.

Peter Fray

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