Those hoping that Malcolm Turnbull’s sudden rise to the prime ministership will usher in an immediate and radical overhaul of Australia’s climate change position should take a deep breath.
Any instant effect is likely to be much more subtle.
It’s true Turnbull is better attuned to the problem than his predecessor (yes, that’s an understatement). But he will also be careful not to spark a war to his political right by moving quickly to a stricter carbon regime.
After all Turnbull has already once lost his party’s leadership over climate change once (that time as opposition leader over a deal with the Rudd government to implement an emissions trading scheme).
In this light he described the Coalition government’s current policy as “very well designed” at his first press conference after Monday’s leadership ballot. This is the same man who in 2009 intimated the main pillar of the Coalition climate plan – the Direct Action scheme, then in its infancy – was “bullshit”.
The real influence Turnbull may have on climate change policy is more likely to emerge post-election – if he wins of course.
The government has created a reset point for climate policy in 2017-18 because it knows it has a policy gap between the programs that are in place and what needs to be done to meet Australia’s 2030 target to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 levels.
At that point a Turnbull-led government could seek to put some much needed teeth into the Direct Action policy, pushing it towards something that looks more like a trading scheme or at least a stronger cap on industry emissions. It could also implement strong new measures alongside it such as emissions standards for coal-fired power plants.
In the short-term Turnbull will hopefully turf the ideological excess that Tony Abbott and his office too often indulged in on climate change.
That includes the subtle, but real, pressure that had been felt within government scientific institutions, such as the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, to downplay climate change work.
It may see an end to the government hostility to bodies like the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which has brought it nothing but political pain.
The shift in Australia’s position at the United Nations climate talks in Paris at the end of the year, where it is hoped a new global deal to tackle climate change will be signed, will also be likely be more nuanced than revolutionary.
That is because in recent times Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and others in the Australian negotiating team, have already re-engaged Australia in the talks as a reasonably constructive player, even if its target is on the weak side among developed country pledges.
Turnbull may attend the Paris talks, but the French government only wants world leaders to be there for the opening days. Much of the nitty-gritty of the talks is to be left to foreign ministers and negotiating teams.
The difference Turnbull may bring to Australia’s position in Paris is allowing Bishop, who has emerged as a strong diplomat, more scope to negotiate on the ground.
By comparison Abbott famously sent a ministerial chaperon with his Foreign Minister to the last major round of the UN climate talks in Lima. Bishop also had a hard fight with her colleagues back home to get Australia to make a contribution to the Green Climate Fund.
These potential short-term tweaks under a Turnbull leadership will not address some of the fundamental gaps in Australia climate policy, such as the gaping distance between our post-2020 target and current policies.
But it could be a welcome first step to depoliticising what is essentially a debate about the future survival of our planet.
One might even describe it as adult government.
Via The Age