Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category


Greens denounce Gillard Labor government

19 February 2013

The Greens have publicly distanced themselves from the Labor government in the leadup to the Australian federal election on 14 September.

Last month, Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal leader Tony Abbott each launched their party’s election campaign with a National Press Club speech. (Gillard discussed economic policy, hinted at more budget cuts, and announced the election date; Abbott reiterated past promises including a budget surplus.) Today, Greens leader Christine Milne similarly addressed the National Press Club. In a strong speech, Milne argued Labor has flouted the principles it agreed with the Greens in 2010: “transparency and accountable government”, “policies which promote the public interest”, and “policies which address climate change”.

The move is long overdue. As I’ve written before, the Greens’ support has given credibility to a government which has gotten away with: Read the rest of this entry ?


The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?


It’s high time we talked about coal

19 January 2013

Gillard two-faced

As Australia bakes in record-breaking heat and burns in devastating fires, the country’s political and media elites have yet again lined up to defend the industry driving global warming and cast those who speak out against it as extremists. Read the rest of this entry ?


Why the RET review matters

18 September 2012

Last week, I made a submission to the Climate Change Authority review of Australia’s federal Renewable Energy Target (RET). In August, the Climate Change Authority released an Issues Paper on the review, inviting public submissions (which closed on 14 September, but you can still have your say in a poll by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition). A discussion paper with draft recommendations will be released in October, followed by final recommendations by 31 December. The Government must respond within six months.

The RET review is the first in a series of independent reviews of climate policies, intended to allow them to be strengthened, secured by the Greens in last year’s Multi-Party Climate Change Committee negotiations in return for agreeing to initially inadequate and potentially ineffective policies. However, a number of businesses and business lobby groups invested in fossil fuels are using the review as an excuse to demand the RET be weakened.

An internal document obtained by the Australian Financial Review in April showed the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network is lobbying for the RET to be to scrapped or weakened. Meanwhile, TRUenergy has joined Origin Energy in its more public campaign to weaken the RET. These two “gentailers” (companies who both generate and retail electricity) argue the RET should be adjusted downward so that it accounts for no more than 20% of 2020 demand. Such a move would cause renewable energy deployment in Australia to stop completely in 2016, with only gas-fired electricity generation built post-2016:

Projected new and retired electricity generation capacity under the reduced Renewable Energy Target advocated by TRUenergy. Green and purple bars are renewable energy sources; dark blue and red are gas-fired; light blue are retirements. (Image source: Renew Economy.) Read the rest of this entry ?


Laggard to Leader

11 September 2012

A landmark report was launched a few weeks ago by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), Laggard to Leader: How Australia Can Lead the World to Zero Carbon Prosperity.

Laggard to Leader is at its heart a response to the oft-heard arguments that Australia is too small for our actions to make a significant difference to global warming, but it is much more than that. The report debunks Australia’s claims to be taking meaningful action at home and in UN climate talks. It comprehensively outlines a whole different way of thinking about the role of individual countries in climate change than that of the Australian government and political elite. It challenges the economic excuses for inaction. And it proposes an innovative set of bold actions Australia should take to make a real difference.

The report is professionally presented but accessible, as it is mostly written in plain language. It sometimes seems to confuse CO2 with CO2-equivalent, but its arguments are convincing.

The report begins by summarizing the urgency of the climate crisis and contrasting it with the lack of achievement in international negotiations. Humanity must rapidly phase out fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, leaving the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. The UN climate talks have gone on my entire life, but far from negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 50% since 1990 (and Australia’s emissions by 30%). The Kyoto Protocol has been sabotaged by offsets and creative accounting, and Canada has gotten away with completely flouting its obligations. Despite agreeing in 2010 to take urgent action to limit global warming to <2°C (a target which climatologists now realize is itself quite dangerous), countries’ national emissions targets do not remotely add up to that global objective, and the world remains on track for a catastrophic multiple degrees of warming. Most recently in Durban, they agreed to negotiate a global agreement that would not be implemented until 2020. But as the Australian government’s own Climate Commission says, this is the critical decade.

As the negotiations currently stand, the best-case outcome will be far too little far too late. BZE argue therefore we cannot rely on the UN process and its associated top-down model of climate action, which they describe as “Treaties, Targets, and Trading”. The aim of Treaties, Targets, and Trading is for all countries to agree a global binding treaty in which national emissions targets add up to achieve a safe global objective, and countries may trade pollution rights. (Laggard to Leader skips an important nuance here: this is Australia’s particular view of the ultimate aim of climate talks, as advised by Ross Garnaut.)

In accordance with UN accounting, Australia is generally considered responsible only for emissions occurring within its borders. The problem is we do not yet have a global framework in which national targets add up. Thus we need to look beyond our domestic emissions to a larger “sphere of influence”, which also encompasses emissions from the burning of fossil fuels we export and the manufacture of products we import. Global trade means countries have overlapping spheres of influence. This shared responsibility makes more sense from an ethical and practical point of view. Read the rest of this entry ?


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 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

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. Read the rest of this entry ?


Stop saying yes: Conclusion

20 June 2012

This is the conclusion of a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

In this series, we’ve seen how Australian climate activists have increasingly failed to advocate, let alone achieve, action proportionate to the scale and urgency of the global climate crisis which threatens human civilization. We saw how the movement squandered the opportunity presented by the 2010 election result, choosing to uncritically “Say Yes” to any carbon price that might be agreed by the politicians. We saw how activists misguidedly campaigned on the side-benefits of climate policies, failing to explain the need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels to avoid dangerous global warming. We saw how our timidity has helped to push the political centre toward our industry opponents, and our failure to expose greenwash has enabled them to systematically sabotage government policy. We saw how the Greens have piled compromise upon compromise in negotiations with the Government. We saw how all this resulted in a weak policy riddled with flaws. Finally, we saw how even our meager achievements are at risk, and are already being used to argue against further action.

We can’t go back and change what happened in 2011. What we can do is think about how to do things differently in the future.

The strategy of 2011, flawed as I believe it to be, succeeded in winning us a limited victory: a carbon price. Now that strategy has served its purpose it is time to retire it, and it is high time to return to expressing the true urgency and scale of action required to solve the climate crisis. We’re running out of time to preserve a safe climate; we cannot afford to continue to mess around with incremental demands. We could still support pragmatic improvements, but we must not shy away from explaining where they fall short. Instead of mindlessly saying “yes” to any action at all, we should consider saying “yes, but”, “yes, if”, “no, unless”, or “no, because”.

We need to protect the carbon price, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Renewable Energy Target, and all the other climate policies against the attack from business. But it’s not enough merely to demand the Government keep its inadequate promises. It’s time for the Australian climate movement to go on the offensive. We need to call out Labor on the myriad flaws in the Clean Energy Future, and campaign for them to be fixed. Read the rest of this entry ?