Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:34 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:34 | SYDNEY

Climate politics, high and low


Graeme Dobell

21 December 2009 14:56

The high politics of climate change in Australia shifted significantly even before the Copenhagen summit drove into the snow.

For nearly three years, there was a surprising degree of agreement between the Labor and Liberal parties on the high politics of global warming. By 'high politics', I mean the definition of the central issue and the principle of the response to the problem. Low politics is just as important, but it is about the mechanisms, not the principles. Low politics is about who wins and loses, who pays and who profits.

With the coming of Tony Abbott, the high politics agreement in Australia was blown apart. By contrast, the Copenhagen Accord managed to hold together some measure of international consensus on the high politics of climate change. Just.

What this means heading into Australia's election year is that the international dimension of climate change will be marked by private negotiations between states on the actual emissions-reduction targets they will commit to. The Rudd Government will hope fervently that the 1 February deadline for countries to reveal their pledges produces better responses than the shambles just delivered by the summit scramble in the snow.

In thinking about the impact of this international manoeuvring on Australia's federal election, start by considering the implications of the collapse of the high politics consensus in Canberra. That consensus was crystallised in the 2007 election. At that poll, both sides of politics agreed on the science of the human impact on the climate. And both sides agreed on the principle to be used in responding – the creation of an emissions trading scheme.

The ETS was one of the key pledges in the election policy platform of the Howard Government. Go to the Liberal Party website today and the first thing to come up is a virtual bumper sticker proclaiming, 'Say No to Rudd's us fight Labor's Enormous Tax Slug now.'

One reason Malcolm Turnbull thought he could roll over the top of the climate change sceptics and deniers in the Liberal Party was his assumption that the high politics consensus reluctantly accepted by Howard would prevail. Instead, the consensus broke and so did Turnbull's leadership.

The high politics breakdown is not just over the principle of the response mechanism. It is also a rupture over the central issue – human impact on climate. Is this science or is it just politics? As noted before, Senator Nick Minchin has delineated that difference in explicit terms.

The death of the high politics agreement on climate change means it will be a far more contested (rancorous?) issue in the 2010 election than in 2007. Back then, Kevin '07 could trump Howard on most levels of the global warming argument. Howard was a late convert – that was why the high politics consensus only firmed in the year of the 2007 election. And internationally, Rudd was able to promise to immediately ratify Kyoto, which was just a step too far for Howard.

Rudd will not be able to use Copenhagen against Abbott as he used Kyoto against Howard.

Photo by Flickr user 10 Ninjas Steve, used under a Creative Comons license.