Posts Tagged ‘Activism’

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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 ?

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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 ?

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Doha climate talks: Gateway to hell?

15 December 2012

The Doha climate talks (COP18) reached an agreement on Saturday night. They’re calling it the “Doha Climate Gateway”. To me it looks like a gateway to probable inaction and climate catastrophe.

Delegates blatantly ignored the urgent warnings being screamed at them from all directions, and put off consideration of ramping up ambition until next year, or the one after that. They agreed an extension of Kyoto with meaninglessly weak 2020 targets and enough carried-over surplus permits to lock in business-as-usual for many countries until at least 2020. They failed to agree a pathway for global emissions or significant finance for poor countries. Meanwhile, our governments still expect us to wait until 2020 for a possible global binding regime. In the showdown between developed countries and small island states in Doha, rich countries won hands down. Ultimately, we all lose.

One of the most depressing parts of humanity’s annual cycle of procrastination on the climate crisis is that after the conference fails to achieve much of significance, 195 government spin machines kick into action to sell the outcome as a step forward. This time the main justification is that Doha “crossed the bridge” to a new regime. Ministers say things like “where would we be if we had failed to agree and the process had collapsed?” While of course I don’t want the climate talks to collapse, I don’t think it has ever been likely and it occurs to me that it would have a bright side: there would no longer be a false sense of security that the climate crisis is being addressed.

The message that progress is being made is seductive to those of us desperate for climate action, but one we must see through. After the high-profile failure of Copenhagen, governments have gone into Cancun, Durban, and Doha conveying low expectations, which in many cases I suspect was a deliberate public relations strategy so that at any hint of incremental progress they could reemerge proclaiming they met or exceeded those expectations. It’s a psychological manipulation technique called “under-promise and over-deliver”. Judging outcomes relative to the expectations governments set for themselves is playing into the hands of the delayers. Instead outcomes must be judged on real-world merit, and in this context the Doha Climate Gateway is worse than nothing.

The climate talks have gone on my entire life, yet despite the negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, the situation has deteriorated at an accelerating rate. Global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 58% since 1990 and 2.6% this year (with most of the recent growth in China), and the Earth is headed for a catastrophic 4-6°C global warming by 2100, plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming. If we allow anywhere near that level of warming, humanity faces a very uncertain future. To be sure of preserving a habitable climate and avoiding feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of our control, we must aim to reduce CO2 to ~350 ppm (limiting warming to ~1°C). That means we must phase out fossil fuels globally as fast as possible. Politically, this has never looked more impossible. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Doha climate talks: Island states stand up for ambition

5 December 2012

“We have not seen concrete progress on the issues that are important to ensuring the survival of all our members. How many conferences do we have to endure where we go back to our countries and say, ‘next year we will increase ambition to reduce emissions, next year we will see finance, next year we will save the climate’? No more next years.”

Sai Navoti, lead negotiator for Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)

The elephant in the room at the Doha climate talks (COP18) is the cavernous “ambition gap” between the pathetically weak pledges on the table and the rapid emissions cuts urgently required to keep global warming below the 2°C limit agreed by the world’s governments, let alone a truly safe global target.

Last year’s conference in Durban established a process to close the ambition gap, Durban Platform workstream 2, yet in Doha it is being sidelined in favor of competing negotiating streams. The state of those other streams has reached a new low: the Kyoto Protocol is set to lock in meaningless targets for its few remaining participants diluted by endless loopholes, Long-term Cooperative Action has devolved into a system of inadequate voluntary pledges, and Durban Platform workstream 1 will not be implemented until 2020 when it will be far too late. An informal note from the Durban Platform chair suggests Doha’s outcome on ambition could consist entirely of planning future negotiations. Indeed the talks may even be going backwards on ambition, with Russia backing away from its pledge to cut emissions 25% by 2020.

Only the Earth’s most vulnerable countries, the small island states, are exposing the emperor’s lack of clothes. “The science is absolutely clear,” AOSIS said in a recent statement. “If emissions are not lowered immediately, the opportunity to avert the worst impacts of climate change may be irrevocably lost.” AOSIS is calling for Kyoto 2 to end in five, not eight years; for there to be no legal gap between commitment periods; for surplus permits to be severely limited; for access to Kyoto offsets to be restricted to those bound by Kyoto targets; and for more ambitious targets from all parties, especially rich countries. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Roundup of RET review submissions

3 October 2012

I’ve been through every submission to the Climate Change Authority review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), and categorized them by their recommendations (background on the review here).

The categories are as follows:

  • “Increase” = increase the 2020 Large-scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET). This category includes recommendations that the Government recognize the urgency of climate action, set targets of up to 100% renewable energy by 2020, make complementary policies and voluntary action additional to the RET, replace the present Renewable Energy Certificate scheme with a feed-in tariff, and/or limit the scope of future reviews to strengthening the RET. My submission (here, with commentary here) falls into this category.
  • “Strengthen without changing 2020 target” = strengthen the RET without necessarily increasing the 2020 LRET. This category includes calls to increase targets beyond 2020, make Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) investments additional to the LRET, revise the trajectory so it goes up each year, index the shortfall charge, and/or improve the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES).
  • “Status quo” = no change. Usually the justification given for this recommendation is to give investors certainty.
  • “Weaken” = weaken the RET, usually enough to significantly sabotage the policy goal. This category includes proposals to adjust the LRET to lower demand forecasts, abolish or cap the SRES, reduce the solar multiplier to less than 1, expand the definition of “renewable energy” to include low-emissions technologies or carbon capture and storage, link to international renewable energy targets, phase out the RET after 2020, and/or abolish state-level renewable energy policies.
  • “Abolish” = terminate or phase out the RET. The typical justifications were that the carbon price makes the RET redundant, that the RET is inefficient and costs consumers, and/or that it should be replaced with funding for R&D.
  • “Other” = does not quite fit into any of my categories. Submissions in this category may advocate particular technologies, may communicate pertinent facts or discuss issues without making specific recommendations, may be too technical for me to judge, or may just be plain incomprehensible. Read the rest of this entry ?
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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 ?

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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 ?