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Does Australia need a 'climate policy' at all?

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A few days ago I thought I heard an MP or Senator saying, in an exasperated tone, that 'this means Australia will be without a climate policy!', as though a climate policy was something that every decent citizen should have, like clean undies. Now that the repeal of the carbon tax has passed the Senate, it is worth having a look at what such a state of ungrace might mean.

The radio news bulletin I heard soon after the bill had passed yesterday included a Labor woman politico's claiming that 'Australia will be the laughing stock of the world!' That too was said in an exasperated tone. I get puzzled by statements of this kind, for Australia plays a tiny place in the thoughts and actions of 'the world'. Novice Australian travellers learn quickly that there is no Australian news in any of the world's major papers, or on any nation's radio or television networks. When I lived and worked in the UK, before the days of the Internet, one needed a quick trip to Australia House in London to find out what had happened, and who had won what. Many, many Australians abroad needed to make such trips.

With respect to policies about 'climate change', 'the world' is divided into many groups. The UN and its agencies are for carbon dioxide reduction policies, and make a lot of noise and fuss about them. But in the world of 200 or so nation states, 'climate change' and global warming are not matters of much moment anywhere, if we can accept what opinion polling tells us. In the developing world, people want cheap energy, and seem uninterested in the debate about carbon dioxide and its impact, if any, on the planet's average temperature. In the EU there seems to be a growing sense that other things really are more important than fossil fuel emissions reduction.


I'll leave aside the other bits of the former Labor Government's 'climate change' policies that are still to be dealt with, because it is quite unclear to me how negotiations will progress about them. But let me put forward the proposition that our country has no need whatever of a 'climate policy'. Discussions about the right one so far have been a great waste of time, energy and money. The reasons are so straightforward that you wonder why the fervently orthodox don't come to their senses about them at least once a month.

First, no country can have a sensible policy on climate by itself, because climate is not governed by national boundaries. Second, not even the UN can have a sensible policy, because climate is not governed by laws and regulations. Third, we can do something about the effects of weather, which is much more concern to everyone because weather is local, and affects our daily life. Fourth, but we can't stop weather, or even predict it with any great success, because we lack deep knowledge about the basic components of weather (and climate). Fifth, it may be that we will never possess such knowledge. Sixth, the evidence continues to mount that carbon dioxide is not, after all, the control knob of the planet's temperature, and if it is not, then the preceding reasons become overwhelming.

So, at least in my opinion, Australia could stand proudly as the first developed country not to have a climate policy. How long would it be before other countries followed? The right answer is that other countries will do what seems sensible to them, and not care very much what Australia does or doesn't do. Having said that, it also seems to me that some other countries are moving in the same direction, especially in Canada, the UK and the EU. President Obama is going his own way, and keeps on harping on the villainy of CO2, but he cannot get legislation through the Congress, and in any case he is in his second and last term. The odds are not high that he will be followed by a Democratic President of the same frame of mind.

If you feel, nonetheless, that we really need some policies in this area, then we could have one that instructs the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO to concentrate their research in this area on good data about weather (and climate) and not on scary and newsy stories about the Horrendous State of the Australian Climate. We could have more research on efficient energy generation and use. We could have more research on the risks of building houses in areas that are prone to flooding, or plainly exposed to fire danger. We could have a policy on how best to anticipate and prepare for droughts in the inland. Yes, I know I have been saying these things for some time now.

But what I'm sure we don't need is any kind of 'climate policy'. Not even Direct Action. It's good to plant trees, because they are good for the local environment. But we don't need to plant trees to absorb more carbon dioxide. The biosphere takes up CO2 very happily right now.

Finally, Mr Shorten has vowed that Labor will go into the next elections with an emissions trading scheme policy. I do feel that he will come to regret making such a statement, no matter how much he felt yesterday that he had to make it.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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