Environment & energy, Government and governance, Law | Australia

6 February 2020

The effects of climate change are spurring endless debate on what to do next, but without adequate oversight, governments can’t be held to account for their climate policies, Greg Raymond writes.

Australia’s institutions of governance are failing. This is the unavoidable conclusion the public has reached as the nation experiences its unprecedented bushfire crisis. Australian decision-makers have known since at least 2008 that climate change would devastate our country, yet the political process has been unable or unwilling to implement the strategies needed to reduce emissions, nor to exert influence globally to encourage others to do the same. Why is this?

One aspect of this problem is clearly the relationship between science and politics. While science transforms our lives continuously, it only rarely intrudes into politics in significant ways. For the most part, scientific research into vital areas like weapons, medicine, and farming are handled by well-established ministries like defence, health, and agriculture. Each of these has its own policy-making ecosystem, of journalists, think-tanks, and academics feeding experience and expertise into crucial decisions.

It is rare that science comprehensively transforms our lives in a very short amount of time. The rise of science itself in Renaissance Europe was one such juncture when figures like Galileo and Newton changed worldviews fundamentally in ways that eventually relegated religion into a more subordinate place in human affairs.

More on this: With crisis comes opportunity

Dealing with climate change is likely to be a challenge of similarly transformative proportions, touching on all aspects of life. Even a successful transition from fossil to renewable energy may not be enough to avoid the immorality of bequeathing a wrecked environment to future generations.

The importance of science in managing the implications of the Anthropocene – the era in which human actions on planet earth are of equal or greater importance than natural processes in affecting our physical environment – is only gradually being recognised.

Climate change is currently the most crucial aspect of the Anthropocene, since the rapid warming of the planet will almost certainly have devastating consequences for the ecosystems on which our lives depend.

But the all-encompassing nature of this problem, and the scale of the response required, has overwhelmed our political institutions. It is exposing the periodic weaknesses of democracies, where instead of grasping the necessity of leading uncomfortable change, governments and partisan media organisations collude in fostering regressive identity politics.

Accountability is at the heart of successful liberal democracies, and when accountability is not delivered, problems fester. But, accountability can only be delivered where there is agreement on what constitutes success and failure. A significant problem at the heart of Australia’s torrid climate policy debate is the absence of agreed metrics for measuring Australia’s performance.

The concepts required to understand climate change, and to make policies to combat it, are relatively new, and journalists are much less confident in using these to analyse policies and hold politicians to account than in other issues.

Compare the effectiveness of journalists on economic issues to that of climate policy. The language and concepts of managing budgets – like budget deficits or monetary policy – are over a century old. Journalists, quite naturally, are well schooled in these, and it helps them to hold governments to account.

More on this: Educating Australia on the climate crisis

The bushfire crisis has shown us that the environment must surely rank as a concern of importance equal to the economy – indeed, it is inextricable from it, as the economic cost of the 2011 floods, and now the 2019-2020 bushfires, have shown. But journalists and the media, sophisticated and adept in matters of economic policy, the language of debt, deficit, interest rates, and government expenditure, are much less sure-footed when it comes to climate change concepts.

Whether it be the relationship of individual disasters to broader climate trends, or the quality of our carbon abatement policies, both in absolute terms and in relation to what is required globally to avoid catastrophe, they, perhaps understandably, aren’t as familiar with what is required of the government, and so struggle to keep it accountable.

Given that time is running out to address climate change before the planet reaches tipping points – after which natural processes, such as the release of methane from Siberia’s permafrost, will make even the most ambitious policies irrelevant – trying to improve the capacity of our political system to navigate the problem of climate change is imperative.

One possibility that should be considered by the next government, or the current government if it is prepared to undertake real reform, is establishing a Parliamentary Carbon Office (PCO), modelled on the principles of the Parliamentary Budget Office.

A PCO would have a similar mission; to improve transparency around climate change and carbon issues, and to evaluate the economic and environmental costs of climate change policies prior to elections.

The PCO would inform the Parliament by providing independent and non-partisan analysis of climate change, emissions policy, and the financial implications of proposals. By developing a standardised approach, a PCO would ease the burden on journalists currently struggling to reconcile the different methodologies employed by various actors with various agendas.

It could also overcome the problem of key ministries such as Treasury and Environment being used to produce partisan talking points for the executive, rather than provide impartial recommendations. It is important to note, this was a key rationale for the founding of the PBO.

The time for ‘business as usual’ thinking has clearly passed. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently commented, we must have the “courage to think in new ways, the strength to leave well-trodden paths, the readiness to venture into new territory, and the resolve to act more quickly … guided by the conviction that unfamiliar approaches can succeed.”

Giving Parliament greater capacity for supporting accountability could help sterilise the toxic politics of climate change while moving us towards better solutions for meeting this fiendishly complex existential challenge.

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