23 July 2010

Julia Gillard Lays Out Her Approach to Climate Policy

In a speech today at the University of Queensland in Brisbane,, Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard has laid out her approach to dealing with climate change in the context of an upcoming national election (see the news report above). At the core of her proposal is the convening of a "citizen's assembly":
And so today I announce that if we are re-elected, I will develop a dedicated process – a Citizens’ Assembly – to examine over 12 months the evidence on climate change, the case for action and the possible consequences of introducing a market-based approach to limiting and reducing carbon emissions.
It is an interesting proposal, not least because public opinion on climate policies in Australia are well known: People support action on climate change, but they don't want it to cost very much at all (see this Lowy Institute poll). In this respect, Australians are no different than pretty much every one else around the world. Any properly constituted citizens assembly is likely to come to the same conclusions.

Gillard appears to recognize this, saying that she "will act when the Australian economy is ready":
[W]e must acknowledge that Australians have real concerns about making changes that are this big and they need more information.

They are concerned about the impact on jobs and the impact on the prices of goods and services that they rely on, especially electricity.
But she seems to get off track when discussing the implications of her proposed policy approach - a market-based approach to carbon trading as was proposed under the former Prime Minister:
Adopting a market based mechanism to price carbon will transform the way we live and the way we work. Such a major change cannot be made and unmade on the oscillations of the political pendulum.

Instead this transformational change must have as its foundation the genuine political support of the community, a consensus that will drive bipartisanship.
When will politicians learn that climate policies are a political loser if they require that people "transform the way we live and the way we work"? The vast majority of people simply do not want their lives transformed. Promising that government will transform your life is one way to ensure a rough political road for any policy -- climate change, health care, economic, whatever. Many smart politicians have recognized this, from Obama's promise during the health care debate that if you like your current health care arrangements you can keep them to the oft-repeated claims that US climate legislation would cost only a "postage stamp per day." The implied message is exactly the opposite of transformational change. As can be seen in the ABC news story above, Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, is already exploiting this point.

Gillard may have kicked the can down the road far enough to get through the upcoming election with the perception that she has a credible approach to climate change (which Rudd did not). However, at the same time she has also guaranteed that this issue is going to be highly problematic for her in the future.

Climate policies cannot succeed as agents of transformational change. It is better to go with the direction of public opinion than against it, which for Australia (and the world) means a need to go back to the policy drawing board and rethink climate policies from the bottom up. It is possible to design climate policies in such a manner. What leader will be first to recognize this?