Solidarity spoke to two leading climate activists, John Hepburn from Greenpeace Australia Pacific and Damien Lawson from the Victorian Climate Action Centre, about the campaign against Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme
John Hepburn, Co-ordinator of climate change campaign at Greenpeace Australia Pacific
The CPRS is orders of magnitude off the mark. The government has announced a target of 5 to 15 per cent. The scheme looks to be designed for a 5 per cent target. We need emissions reductions of 100 per cent as fast as humanly possible. It’s clear now we’re facing a climate emergency. We’ve only got a few years to make urgent reductions to avoid hitting tipping points that are likely to be irreversible.
Our reading of the scheme is that it’s probably worse than nothing. The obligation that companies should have as a result of polluting for decades is going to be turned into a right to continue polluting. So I think people should oppose it in its current form.
If the government doesn’t manage to get this scheme passed in the Senate they’ll be going into an election year next year with one of their key election promises unmet. Climate change is going to continue happening faster than it has before, and public demand for action on climate change is going to increase.
So if the scheme doesn’t get up this year then I think the government’s going to be under pressure to come up with something much better.
Until 2020, the CPRS will lock us into quite a high polluting future. We’re also concerned that it will lock in the right to pollute for the big polluters, [making] it much more difficult for any new government that comes in to push for higher emissions reductions than have been agreed through the CPRS. One of the other fundamental problems with the scheme is that it allows 100 per cent trading of permits on the international market which means that Australia doesn’t have to reduce polluting at all, we can just buy permits from Indonesia for example.
It’s pretty clear that the Rudd government has succumbed to vested interests in the coal, gas, oil, cement and steel industries, who are lobbying for their short term financial interest and against the interest not just of Australians but people all over the world and in fact the viability of the biosphere.
A lot of people were active on climate change in the lead up to the 2007 election and then when Kevin Rudd was elected they thought: great he’s ratified Kyoto—the Labor party will solve the problem for us. What people learnt when they announced the target at the end of last year is that the Labor government are just as beholden to vested interests as were the Liberal government.
More people are starting to realise that we need to take direct action, including civil disobedience actions that physically stop the expansion of the coal industry and start the phase out of coal and its replacement with renewable energy.
Last year we saw 160 people arrested taking direct action on climate change. This year I think we’ll see a lot more as people realise what’s at stake and realise that our political system is failing.
I think one of the key challenges is our engagement with the union movement. We’re not going to see the kind of action on climate that we need without organised labour getting really involved in the campaign.
Clearly you’ve got different vested interests at play within the union movement. Some unions would really benefit from the growth of the renewable energy industry and the growth of green jobs, whereas other unions are interested in protecting existing jobs in the coal industry and other polluting industries. [This] is particularly difficult in areas like the LaTrobe valley and the Hunter valley where you’ve got coal dependent communities but the union movement are very influential over the ALP and have got a key role to play.
I think another challenge is [that] the climate movement is still politically immature and there needs to be quite a rapid politicisation.
A lot of people who’ve been writing to their MPs for years and have seen no action need to step up their engagement and start shifting to direct action if we’re going to see the change we need.
I think that’s a cultural leap for people because the climate movement is not from the traditional left. It reflects a much broader cross-section of society and people that don’t have a political framework that allows them to understand the history and the politics of direct action.
We’ll see action on climate change when the climate movement is more powerful than the vested interests that are blocking action, and have a lot of economic power and direct influence on government today.
For the climate movement to win the changes that we need it needs to be a lot bigger, it needs to involve a lot more people and the pressure that it poses to the government and the ALP needs to be a lot more potent.
Damien Lawson, Co-ordinator of the Victorian climate action centre and Friends of the Earth Australia
We need urgent reductions in carbon pollution, at emergency speed. Climate change is already happening and the scale of the changes are at a rate that’s far worse than scientists had predicted.
So the 5 per cent cut proposed by the government and indeed the 15 per cent cut if the rest of the world signs onto [an international agreement] is way too low.
The government’s treating it just like any policy issue where you give something to business and you give something to the environment. But you can’t negotiate with the planet.
The CPRS won’t do the job that the government’s saying it will. They’re handing out free permits and large amounts of compensation to polluters—for instance the coal industry is getting half a billion dollars. Overall there’s at least $6 billion in handouts to polluting industries. It will primarily provide windfall profits to polluters and have very little effect on the amount of pollution.
Part of the reason for that is that individual, voluntary action, for example of an individual putting a solar panel on their roof, will just free up pollution permits for the big polluters and lower the carbon price.
Secondly it’s going to be part of a global trading market and the government has said that polluters will be able to buy an unlimited amount of carbon credits.
Thirdly there’s a strategic reason. While the international negotiations leading up to Copenhagen are incredibly flawed and many rich countries have an interest in stopping a good outcome at that conference, Australia’s position is so woeful relative to the rest of the world that even a bad international agreement is likely to come up with targets in excess of what the Australian government is proposing.
If the decision on the scheme is delayed until next year the worldwide demonstrations leading up to Copenhagen plus the decision at Copenhagen may change the political context in which decisions in Australia are being made.
[Otherwise] the reduction target will be set in stone effectively for five years and if there’s any attempt for example after one year to strengthen the target the government will probably be required to provide a second round of compensation for big polluters.
There has to be greater government planning, regulation and investment to lead a transition to a low carbon economy. We’re not going to get there through creating some market scheme. We need the same approach we’ve seen at other periods in human history [such as] after the Great Depression, or during the Second World War where governments have planned large scale transformation and investment in terms of technology and the way society runs.
That’s only going to happen if there is an enormous public mobilisation in support of that. Big polluters are more powerful than the public at the moment. There’s widespread [public] support for action on climate change but understanding of the problem is very shallow. The job of the climate movement is to develop the biggest political movement we’ve seen in Australia. This has to be an international movement like we’ve never seen before—we had an inkling of [that] in the leadup to the Iraq war.
Building the movement
If you think about where we were two years ago we’ve come a long way. We’re still in a growth phase of the movement. We’re getting contacted by people from communities across the country saying they’re forming local climate groups. The climate summit was really well attended and was able to come up with a unified program for the year.
We’ve made important steps but we’re clearly nowhere near where we need to be. We need hundreds of thousands of Australians mobilised, not the thousands active currently.
Many people understandably had high expectations of the Rudd government. I think climate change after the issue of workplace laws was the most significant [issue] in them being elected. To me [their failure on targets] brings home that we can’t rely on just changing governments without a mobilised population that is able to exert power on those governments. That’s the only way we are going to get the widescale change we need.
On March 27 there’s a national day of action opposing the CPRS calling it for it not to be brought in at all. It’s going to involve actions at MP’s offices around the country. There’s at least 25 actions at MP’s offices planned already.
There will be mobilisations in every capital city on World Environment Day opposing the CPRS and putting forward the other key demands of the climate summit. In every state now there are networks of climate actions groups—so people should get involved in their local climate action groups and in those networks.