Kyoto: the empire strikes back

One of the nice things about being the resident opposition at the Financial Review is that, as well as lots of letters, my articles often attract full-length replies. Mostly these are from right-wing thinktanks, but on several occasions they’ve been from government ministers I’ve managed to prod into a response. This kind of thing tells me I’m doing my job (of course, I also welcome support in the form of letters to the Fin or directly to me).

Today’s Fin (Subscription required) has a piece from Ian Campbell, the new minister for the environment, responding to my piece on Kyoto, which I’ve placed over the fold. I’ve heard that my piece, which I thought was pretty mild, upset the government, and that the original draft was considerably hotter than the published version. I’m pleased to say that I agree with a substantial part (though not all) of Campbell’s intro which reads

Without intervention projected changes in global temperatures are expected to cause major environmental and economic impacts on agricultural industries, on human health, on businesses and through a greater number of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, drought, bushfires, storms and flooding.

Contrary to John Quiggin’s assessment (AFR, December 2), it’s precisely because Australia understands that climate change will not go away that we are working to meet our Kyoto target. However, we do not believe the protocol is an effective response to climate change.

At least on the science, this is a clear-cut rejection of the wishful thinking that still seems to have plenty of supporters.

The recent receipt by the United Nations of Russia’s formal ratification of the Kyoto Protocol has started a 90-day countdown. The protocol will come into force on February 16 with Australia and the United States the only major countries that have failed to ratify it.


At the same time, the scientific evidence of human-caused global warming has become overwhelming. The last piece of serious evidence against the global-warming hypothesis was the satellite data on temperatures in the upper atmosphere, first analysed by John Christy of the University of Alabama. Ten years ago, Christy’s data showed declining temperatures in the troposphere, the opposite of the surface trend and of the predictions of climate models. Sceptics used the data to suggest that the models, or the surface data, were wrong.

But improvements in analysis and more data have reversed this finding. Christy’s data now shows an upward trend, though not as rapid as that in the surface data. Alternative analyses show a stronger upward trend. This work has been reinforced by hundreds of other studies, and Christy himself has acknowledged the reality of human-caused global warming (although he still thinks it will be less damaging than is suggested by standard models).

There are, of course, plenty of people who will stick to a self-described “sceptical” position, on the basis of ideological commitments, financial self-interest or simple ignorance. However, the number of independent, practising climate scientists around the world who agree with them could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In these circumstances, the “sceptical” position is one of faith-based wishful thinking.

These developments have fatally undermined the Howard government’s position, which involves committing Australia to reach the Kyoto targets for reductions in emissions, while not ratifying the treaty. Such a position made some sense while there was a reasonable chance that the whole problem would go away or if there was a chance to produce some alternative policy option more favourable to Australia.

It is now as clear as it is ever going to be that the climate-change problem is not going to vanish. As for alternative policy options, they have been doomed by the unwillingness of the Bush administration to take any serious action. The most promising such option was the McKibben-Wilcoxen plan, put forward by Australian economist Warwick McKibben and his US colleague Peter Wilcoxen.

A crucial argument for the plan was that, because it fixed the unit cost of mitigation, it would be more appealing to reluctant Kyoto signatories such as the US. But the Bush administration wasn’t interested, and once the Kyoto Protocol is in force, no one else will be either.

Under these circumstances, a policy of meeting the Kyoto targets but not ratifying the protocol leaves Australia with all the costs of Kyoto and few of the benefits. Most obviously, Australian businesses are in effect excluded from international trade in emissions rights. With Australia having taken a leading role in pushing reluctant European governments to adopt a system of tradeable emissions, rather than fixed national targets, this is a perverse outcome.

This point was illustrated by the recent estimate of the Australian Farm Institute that, in the absence of tradeable permits, restrictions on land clearing were costing Australian farmers $600 million a year. While there are complex issues involved here, it is evident that the sooner we implement a tradeable permits system, the sooner we can move towards a rational policy on climate change.

Our failure to ratify Kyoto also weakens our bargaining position in relation to the really tough issue: what to do to reduce emissions beyond the Kyoto targets when the present bargaining period expires in 2012. Our government expended a lot of diplomatic capital driving the hardest possible bargain on the current targets. Whereas most other developed nations agreed to reduce emissions below 1990 levels, we demanded, and got, an 8 per cent increase. Clearly, if we are not signatories, we can’t expect anything like this generous treatment next time around.

Sooner or later, the reality of global warming and the need for international support on other issues will force the US to ratify Kyoto. Because of its central importance as the world’s largest energy user, the US will undoubtedly get the chance to come in on favourable terms, no matter how long it waits. The same is not true for Australia. If we don’t grab the favourable terms we secured at Kyoto, we will certainly not be offered the same chance next time around.

52 thoughts on “Kyoto: the empire strikes back

  1. Pardon, Louis, how have I vilified you? I quoted your statement that Velikovsky had genrally got it right and linked to the source so anyone could check the context. Have you changed your mind about Veliskovsky or something?

  2. I think this is getting a little out of hand, so I’m closing comments. Discussion of the substantive issues can be put on the weekend reflections thread. I may also repost on Velikovsky some time.

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