Carbon action gathers global pace
That’s the title of my Fin piece on Thursday (over the fold). As happens more or less routinely, it attracted a letter from Des Moore, formerly prominent as a Treasury official, then a rightwing economist, and now a climate science delusionist. Strikingly, and like most advocates of inaction, Moore doesn’t bother to debate the economics, where he would at least have some credibility as a commentator, if not much of a case. Instead, he recycles a bunch of the usual delusionist talking points.
It goes without saying that Moore has no qualifications relevant to climate science (I don’t either, but then I don’t set myself up as being able to refute the experts). What’s even more striking is that he, like so many delusionists, seems to be totally ignorant of basic statistical principles, and even to have forgotten stuff he must have been at least vaguely aware of in his former career as an economist. What else can be said about his repetition of the claim that “global warming stopped in 1998″? Every economist knows that you can’t measure trends properly without taking account of cyclical fluctuations about those trends. The worst thing you can do is take a peak to trough measurement.
As delusionists were very keen to point out at the time, 1998 was an extreme El Nino year, when temperatures rose well above the long-run (increasing) trend. Fortunately, we haven’t had such an extreme since then, and 2008 saw a fairly strong La Nina, which provides Moore and others with their talking point.
But eyeballing the data shows the obvious trend,
and anyone with a simple regression function on their spreadsheet can confirm it.
Carbon action gathers global pace
After two weeks in which the attention of Australian political insiders was consumed by the increasingly absurd utegate/emailgate scandal (I admit, I couldn’t avert my eyes either), two events over the weekend brought us sharply back to global reality.
The first, widely publicised, was the passage by the US House of Representatives of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, commonly referred to as the Waxman-Markey Act. The proposed Act establishes an emissions trading scheme, and commits the US to reduce emissions by 17 per cent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020.
The margin of victory was narrow. However, in pushing for the passage of controversial legislation in the US, it is normal for an Administration to make concessions, and call in favours, sufficient to secure a majority. Since there is no point in wasting favours, majorities in cases like this are often slender.
The same process is likely to operate in the Senate. Under the conventions surrounding the so-called ‘filibuster’, a majority of 60 votes (out of 100) is needed to pass legislation through the Senate. There are 60 Democrats, but some defections are likely. So, the Administration will need to pick up some moderate Republicans, potentially including John McCain, an activist on climate change.
The second event, less widely noticed, but equally significant, was the release of a joint report on Trade and Climate Change by the World Trade Organization and the UN Environment Program. After noting the ‘compelling’ scientific evidence on climate change, WTO and UNEP endorse ‘Multilateral agreement on a target for greenhouse gas stabilization in the atmosphere, as well as firm and binding commitments on the level of global greenhouse gas emission reductions’.
The WTO-UNEP report rejects claims that more open trade is necessarily harmful to the environment, but notes that the global nature of the climate change problem presents new difficulties.
In this context, the report report gingerly picks up one of the hottest potatoes in the climate change debate: the possibility that participants in a global agreement to mitigate climate change might impose border taxes on imports from countries that choose not to take part. The report notes that ‘some degree of trade restriction may be necessary to achieve certain policy objectives, as long as a number of carefully crafted conditions are respected. WTO case law has confirmed that WTO rules do not trump environmental requirements.’ The report notes, however, the need to avoid using border tax adjustments as a vehicle for disguised protectionism.
The issue has already arisen in the US context. The Waxman-Markey Act contains provisions to protect US industries against competition from non-compliant countries. President Obama has opposed such provisions, but even the possibility that they might be imposed in the future will greatly increase the pressure on countries like China to reach an agreement in Copenhagen. And once the US, EU and China reach such an agreement, a decision by any smaller country to stay outside would be economically suicidal.
The WTO report also presents a dilemma for those supporters of free trade who have opposed international agreements to stabilise the climate. They can get behind the push for a global agreement and accept climate mitigation as a legitimate part of trade policy. Alternatively, they can undermine the WTO and prove the point of those protectionists who argue that environmental protection is inconsistent with free trade.
There are also some interesting problems for Australian political parties. Should the Liberals dump their current untenable position and support the government’s emissions trading scheme, at the cost of a split with the Nationals and the likely defection of some diehards in their own ranks? Should the Greens stand out for a purist position, or seek to improve the government’s scheme and promote a leadership position for Australia at Copenhagen?
The choices for the Rudd government are perhaps most interesting of all. The government has clearly enjoyed the discomfiture of the Opposition on this issue, but climate change is more important than party politics. Looking beyond this Parliament, the government needs to decide whether there is any real prospect of a long-term bipartisan commitment from the Opposition.
If not, the alternative is obvious. With the Opposition in total disarray, and lacking a credible position on climate change, a double dissolution would give the government excellent odds of increasing its majority in the House of Representatives and producing a Senate where climate legislation could be passed with the support of the Greens. If Labor and the Greens can resolve their differences, this would be the best outcome on offer.