It’s the campaigning season in America – and I have to admit that I’m not at all fired up about Obama vs. Romney – which means that a great deal of interesting news gets buried on the back pages (virtual or not). One important item largely unreported was the implementation of a carbon tax by the Australian Government on the nation’s major polluters of carbon dioxide, about 500 companies altogether. The $23-dollar-per-tonne tax went into effect on July 1st, making Australia the first industrialized nation in the world to take such a big step.
Actually, as far as carbon taxes go it’s a modest step, as I discovered while visiting last fall. I followed the developments closely, fascinated by the debate in Parliament (shown live on TV!), and intrigued by the idea generally. The goal of the tax is to raise the cost of carbon production so that less greenhouse gas emissions will be emitted. The bill also offsets higher energy costs to citizens in a variety of ways. But in order to make the tax palatable to fellow members of her ruling Labour Party, as well as to energy-using voters, Prime Minister Julia Gillard agreed to water down the bill with compromises, exemptions, and give-aways, each diluting the actual impact on greenhouse gas reduction. Agriculture, for example, was entirely exempted, as were large parts of the Transportation sector.
And the overall goal of the tax, to reduce carbon emissions by 159 million tonnes per year, is very modest indeed. Globally, 31 gigatons of greenhouse gases were pumped into the sky in 2011, an all-time record (a U.S. ton weighs slightly less than a metric tonne), of which Australia’s annual contribution is only 1.5%. So, the tax isn’t likely to make much of a difference. That said, Australia has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions rates in the world, at approximately 28 tonnes per person per year, bested only by Bahrain, Bolivia, Kuwait, and Qatar. Coal is the culprit – Australia uses it in prodigious quantities to generate electricity, and exports huge amounts of it to China. Perhaps the carbon tax has a guilt quotient!
Still, the Labour Party was very brave to pass a carbon tax, and has taken a great deal of political heat for its trouble. In fact, Prime Minister Gillard and her party are currently trailing the opposition by 12 points heading into the next General Election, set for 2013. Smelling blood, the leader of the Liberals (i.e. conservatives), Tony Abbott, has vowed to repeal the carbon tax when (if) he wins and becomes the next Prime Minister. So, the fate of the carbon tax, as modest as it is, is very much up-in-the-air.
Whatever happens Down Under, can you imagine the United States being so brave? The cap-and-trade bill that Congress considered in 2009 to limit greenhouse gases did not include a tax on carbon. Even so, it barely squeaked through the House (controlled by Democrats at the time), only to die in the Senate. Today, anything resembling a carbon tax wouldn’t make it out of committee in either chamber.
Bravery, Aussie-style, isn’t on Congress’ agenda.
But bravery isn’t on President’s Obama’s agenda either, much less Mitt Romney’s. Climate change – the reason for a carbon tax – has evaporated from American political discourse, if “discourse” is what you’d call it these days (we don’t have a television at home, so I am mercifully oblivious to all the negative political attacks ongoing). Obama has shown no leadership on this issue, despite his campaign rhetoric in 2008, and will, I’m certain, be judged harshly by history for his fecklessness. Romney has famously flip-flopped on climate change and now parrots the Far Right’s denialism. He, too, will be judged harshly if he wins the election in November.
That’s because, as NASA’s Dr. James Hansen wrote in an op-ed recently, climate change isn’t a prediction, “it’s happening.”
Take the extreme weather across the nation this summer, for example. Here’s a quote from an Associated Press story on July 3rd:
“If you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, scientists suggest taking a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks. Horrendous wildfires. Oppressive heat waves. Devastating droughts. Flooding from giant deluges. And a powerful freak wind storm called a derecho.
These are the kinds of extremes climate scientists have predicted will come with climate change, although it’s far too early to say that is the cause. Nor will they say global warming is the reason 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in the month of June. Scientifically linking individual weather events to climate change takes intensive study, complicated mathematics, computer models and lots of time. Sometimes it isn’t caused by global warming. Weather is always variable; freak things happen.
But since at least 1988, climate scientists have warned that climate change would bring, in general, increased heat waves, more droughts, more sudden downpours, more widespread wildfires and worsening storms. In the United States, those extremes are happening here and now.”
The warning by scientists that this summer’s ‘freaky’ weather is a sign of things to come on a more permanent basis ought to wake up our leaders, but as I said, it’s the campaigning season, where sound bites, instead of bravery, rule. And not just on carbon. Pretty much everything our leaders are doing these days is what the New York Times has called “the opposite of bold.” That’s why I’ve largely tuned out the Election.
I’m keeping an eye on Australia instead. And the weather.
Here’s the U.S. Drought Monitor map for July 10th, 2012: