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It’s 'Crunch Time'

By Tony Kevin - posted Monday, 21 December 2009

When I began a year ago to write my book Crunch Time, the Rudd Government had just whittled Garnaut’s recommended 25 per cent Australian emissions cut by 2020 down to a meaningless 5 per cent cut. Through 2009, the emissions trading scheme (ETS) negotiations built in increasingly lavish subsidies to big coal energy polluters. In the end, the bill agreed between the two major parties wasn’t an emissions reduction plan at all: it was a phoney ETS, subsidising the energy status quo while creating profit opportunities for financial deal-makers.

Meanwhile, more radical environmental organisations were marginalised, as mainstream groups tried to maintain useful dialogue with government. The environmental movement split over whether it could do more good inside or outside the government tent.

My challenge in writing Crunch Time was to explore how to bridge the gap between true environmental stewardship based on climate science, and short-term economic governance. What were the impediments to a responsible policy which would give top priority to protecting our children’s climate security?


I found many factors at work: the short-sighted self-interest of the coal lobby; the bizarre psychology of climate change denialism; the professional propensity of market economics to undervalue the future, and to brush aside massive market failures; false assumptions about how international policy negotiation works; indifference to intergenerational ethics, and a reluctance to seriously imagine social futures under climate change; energy engineering professionals missing in action; and so on. I came to understand that there are complex social dysfunctionalities here.

One perplexing question: why does the environmental movement so often marginalise itself at the outer edges of public discourse - why isn’t it seizing the mainstream middle ground, when the climate science on which it bases its policies is so credible? As I saw it, the environmental movement’s number one message - that Australia must stop burning coal for power - is being lost in a plethora of other, contestable priorities.

I found inspiration in the work of William Wilberforce, who ended the British-protected transatlantic slave trade in the early 1800s, and John Maynard Keynes, who ended public acceptance in the 1930s of the inevitability of massive long-term unemployment. Both men achieved revolutions in public policy through the power of persuasive ideas, and through a disciplined focus on their main goals.

This is what we need to do now with coal. We must achieve an end to coal burning for power by 2030, by moving to a 100 per cent renewable energy based national electricity infrastructure. This change will shake many assumptions and power relationships of our present society. Yet it can be done without sacrifice of present living standards, if society so chooses. It will not be done, unless the majority can be convinced of this technical and economic fact. I aimed Crunch Time at those many people who fear change, and therefore incline towards climate scepticism because it offers false hope that change might not be needed.

I doubt that either an ETS or carbon tax can suffice to dislodge coal from its present hegemony as a power source. Events in 2009 confirm my view. After rejection of the deeply compromised ETS by both the Greens and the Coalition, public debate is now moving towards supplementary direct action or regulation.

The sincerity of Tony Abbott’s drastic rewriting of the Opposition policy is doubtful. At heart, he is probably still a climate change denier: but he knows that he must now pay lip service to the climate science. He will rely on dog-whistle politics to keep the deniers actively working in his support. He and they both know he won the party leadership through their mass mobilisation. Rudd would be unwise to underestimate their power.


Labor will have to look at credible policies for supplementary action or regulation, if it is to lead a national move to a renewable energy-based society. If Labor relies solely on the now widely mistrusted ETS, and on its clean coal fantasy, it will be in electoral trouble.

I hope Labor policy-makers will study my book from this practical perspective; they will find it a mine of useful ideas. (And it’s a great book to give your climate-sceptic father or grandfather for Christmas!)

We cannot rely on market forces to deliver a 100 per cent national renewable energy electricity grid and fully electrified transport systems by 2030. Yet this is what we must achieve in Australia, irrespective of what the rest of the world does. Only in that way can we build some protection for our children, in the hard climate times that are now inevitably coming.

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First published in Eco online on December 12, 2009.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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