The sabotaging of climate policy

17 July 2012

On this blog I have covered the many flaws in government policies on climate change (I’ve focused on Australia, but similar criticisms could be made of climate policies around the world). There are seemingly endless complexities which might be bewildering to casual observers, but one of the most important things to understand is: the flaws in these policies are generally not accidental. Although stupidity and short-sightedness surely make a contribution to bad policy, I am convinced the main culprits are industry lobbyists constantly trying and so far succeeding, to systematically undermine any policies which might threaten their wealth by filling them with as many holes as Swiss cheese, sometimes even twisting them to have the opposite of the intended effect.

Specific examples are far too numerous to mention, but to be diligent I should mention at least some sources. I have summarized the general state of Australian politics here, including some recent successes and ongoing campaigns by business lobby groups. This information is by no means secret; it’s in the newspapers. The latest example of overt industry lobbying in Australia is a campaign by vertically integrated electricity generators/retailers to weaken the Renewable Energy Target (which I may cover in a future post).

More broadly, the fossil fuel industry has a very long history of bad behavior. The 2009 book Climate Cover Up: The crusade to deny global warming by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore documents the industry’s multi-decadal effort to spread misinformation discrediting climate science and prevent action (they provide more up-to-date information at http://www.desmogblog.com/). The 2007 book High and Dry: John Howard, climate change, and the selling of Australia’s future by former government insider Guy Pearse exposes a decade of successful lobbying by Australia’s polluting industries against climate action (his more recent writings are listed at http://www.guypearse.com/).

Readers might mistake my concerns for perfectionist nitpicking, and respond “we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. But this argument is an obscurantist red herring: strategic decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, requiring an understanding of the characteristics of the issue at hand. I’m not arguing for perfection; I’m arguing for functionality. The flaws in climate policies are calculated to neuter their effectiveness in addressing the problem. Creative accounting might be tolerable if the issue is whether or not a government’s budget is in surplus, but it is no small matter when the habitability of the entire world is at stake.

Furthermore, I fear it is naïve to dismiss policy flaws by assuming they can be corrected later. Once holes creep in, they become difficult to get rid of. And so far, the fossil fuel industry has managed to consistently out-gambit everybody else.

The justifications industry makes for its demands are merely excuses, as demonstrated by instances of industry lobby groups blatantly contradicting themselves depending on what suits their current argument (eg. on the future value of Australia’s carbon price). In many cases, the justification for the exact same policy (eg. free pollution permits) changes over time, but nobody seems to care.

I have concluded one of their tricks is to build flaws into government policies which can be exploited to justify future demands. For example, sabotage an international agreement then argue at home that unilateral action will undermine national competitiveness. Secure an unambitious federal emissions cap and then argue it makes all other climate policies redundant. Ensure a grant program is badly designed and starved of funds then argue its failure proves government subsidies are inefficient. As shown in High and Dry, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network has been intimately involved in designing Australian climate policy for 24 years (even being included in Australian delegations to UNFCCC conferences), so probably know the flaws in government policy better than even the incumbent government.

Industry lobbyists sometimes protest that they shouldn’t be seen as the enemy, but the only scenario in which the fossil fuel industry would cease to be the enemy of climate change activists would be if they agreed to phase themselves out. Failing that, which seems extremely unlikely after two-and-a-half decades of peddling denial and greenwash, any attempt to make a deal with the fossil fuel industry is a deal with the devil.

What can be done?

Presently, no climate policy survives contact with the enemy, because the fossil fuel industry is just too powerful. No amount of negotiation can change that, so attempting to compromise on policy only makes things worse. To counter their power, we have to increase our own.

Does this mean real action on climate change is impossible in a democracy? Such a possibility, brought to the front of my mind by a recent conversation, I find confronting as I am philosophically opposed to dictatorship. However, I believe we can reduce the enemy’s advantage by making our political system more democratic instead of less so. Here are some steps we can take.

One of the many advantages possessed by industry lobbyists is that they work virtually unseen, exerting their power behind the scenes, and that’s why we have to shine a light on them. If only we can get the public to understand what is going on, the vested interests will simply be outvoted. Thus the number one step is louder, clearer communication. We must:

  • Counter the misleading arguments of climate change contrarians
  • Explain the urgency of rapid emissions cuts
  • Expose government greenwash and its roots in industry lobbying
  • Demand government action on the scale that is truly necessary

As well as exposing the influence of money in politics, we should also advocate policies to reduce it (eg. banning or restricting political donations, increasing transparency of lobbyists). We must do everything we can to keep the Australian media independent of the mining industry. Journalists could routinely scrutinize the power plays of corporations in the same way they examine the relatively inconsequential power plays of politicians.

As well as demanding government action, we should lobby investors to shift funding away from fossil fuels. From an investment perspective, the fossil fuel industry’s Achilles heel is that their valuation depends on the assumption that their reserves will be burned. Yet if we wish to avoid unimaginable global catastrophe, we must leave the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. These two facts combined imply the global economy contains a “carbon bubble”, and when it inevitably bursts fossil fuel reserves will become stranded assets, causing the companies’ value to plummet. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: spreading the idea of a carbon bubble will help to bring about its bursting.

It’s not that our political system is too democratic to solve global warming. The problem is that it is not democratic enough.


One comment

  1. One example of just how much the media has failed us is that Monday night’s Q&A had Greg Hunt – Shadow Minister for Climate Action – on the panel, and yet there was no discussion on climate change.

    If you read the political forums in Australia (e.g. The Drum, Crikey) almost everyone who posts is a locked-in, hard-core, fanatical supporter of one party.

    I’ve yet to read a comment from a Labor supporter who accepts that much more action is needed on climate change than the current carbon tax.

    And we have just had a week where the media have repeated again and again and again and again that the Greens are “loopy” and “extremists”. So the only party which does recognise that must more needs to be done has become irrelevant to most voters.

    The combination of the two major parties and a complicit media have, I fear, already destroyed any true democracy in Australia. But I guess that I’ve just got an old fashioned view that democracy requires and educated and informed electorate. Silly me.

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