Will Turnbull act on climate?

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Malcolm Turnbull is now Prime Minister but are his climate credentials all they’re cracked up to be? Will his climate policies differ from Abbott's?James Wight reports.

Tony Abbott spent his two years as PM doing everything he could to dismantle every climate change policy.

Most recently, he was caught joking about rising sea levels with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Abbott was an obvious enemy of the climate — with him in charge, it was clear nothing was being done.

Malcolm Turnbull, however, may be the most popular politician in Australia. Most importantly, he is perceived as a rare, green Liberal. So when I tell people I am distrustful of him, they are astounded. Surely Turnbull would be far preferable to Abbott?

In the past, Turnbull has painted himself as a champion of the climate, and for years, many in the climate movement have dreamt of him becoming Prime Minister. Yet, yesterday, he said he will hold the party line on climate policy. He described Abbott’s climate policy as, 

“very well designed  a very, very good piece of work.”  

In his press conference announcing his leadership challenge, he made not one mention of climate. Not one. Rather, he talked of “economic leadership” and free trade agreements — the buzzwords of those who oppose climate action.

Let’s look systematically at Turnbull’s changing position on climate over the years. Is he really any different from Abbott? And if Turnbull plans to change climate policy, what changes might he make?

Turnbull as Howard’s environment minister

As the Howard government’s environment minister in 2007, Turnbull was known mainly for his laughable excuses for his government’s inaction on climate change:

  • "Australia will meet its Kyoto target." A meaningless statement.
  • "Clean coal is actually not all years away." We’re still waiting for it.
  • "When [China] buy Australian coal … they're actually buying cleaner coal." This is absurd because all coal warms the planet.
  • "This idea that we should shut down the coal industry is a madness." It is necessary to solve climate change.
  • "We’ve committed $2 billion to climate change mitigation." This is over a 25-year period and is dwarfed by annual fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Labor was "slapping the coal industry in the face", by not including “clean coal” in the Renewable Energy Target (RET). That obviously would have been inappropriate.
  • "Australia leads the world on climate change." We do, though not in the way he meant.

The Howard government took to the election an emissions trading scheme (ETS) designed by a taskforce stacked with polluter lobbyists.

Turnbull did lobby behind the scenes (unsuccessfully) for Howard to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but not for environmental reasons. He reportedly argued,

"We are going to meet our [Kyoto] targets anyway so it wouldn't impose any burden on us that we haven't committed to anyway."

But it would increase their vote by three per cent. If Turnbull had won the argument, the Liberals might have succeeded in greenwashing themselves enough to win the election.

Turnbull as Liberal Party leader

His 15-month stint as opposition leader presumably provides the best indication of what Turnbull really stands for, because he did not need to follow another leader’s party line. This is when we would most expect to have seen the “real” Malcolm. Let’s see what Turnbull did with that opportunity.

Turnbull gave the energy and resources portfolio to (climate) denialist Ian Macfarlane, the emissions trading portfolio to denialist Andrew Robb, and the environment portfolio to Greg Hunt (now Abbott’s Environment Minister). As his office’s chief of staff, he appointed Peta Credlin (now Abbott’s chief of staff) and, subsequently, denialist Chris Kenny. Turnbull described his position on climate as "the same that we had in government".

Turnbull’s first climate policy was offered as an alternative to Rudd Labor’s (ETS), which Turnbull was at that time trying to delay. He followed in Howard’s footsteps by avoiding any mandatory restriction on emissions and advocating a handful of voluntary programs targeting soil carbon (sound familiar?), energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage — which he again described as "the area of greatest importance".

As Labor pushed ahead with its ETS legislation, Turnbull suddenly changed his tune, commissioning Danny Price of Frontier Economics to model an alternative type of ETS. The Frontier report proposed a baseline-and-credit scheme for the electricity generation sector — with no emissions cap.

An ETS is meaningless without an emissions cap as the trading element does nothing to cut emissions, it merely reduces the cost for polluting companies. Accordingly, Turnbull was able to spin the Frontier scheme as a cheaper option than Labor’s ETS because it incorporated more international offsets than Labor’s ETS. International offsets allow Australian companies to go on polluting and only appear cheap because international emissions trading schemes aren’t working.

Meanwhile, Turnbull successfully lobbied to get waste coal mine gas included in Labor’s expanded RET. This created a perverse incentive for coal mining.

After a month of negotiations, Rudd and Turnbull announced a compromise. The baseline-and-credit idea had vanished, but otherwise the Liberals got most of what they wanted.

It was Turnbull’s one big chance to collaborate with the Labor government to design an effective climate policy and, instead, he weakened a piece of legislation that was already worse than nothing. Recalling him and Rudd shaking hands on that dirty deal makes me wonder why so many thinking people seem infatuated with the two of them.

Turnbull’s environmental reputation was suddenly elevated when his party revolted against even the pathetic policy he’d agreed with Rudd, and he lost the leadership to open denialist, Abbott. Turnbull’s green rhetoric in response convinced many of his sincere commitment to climate action. Not so impressive were his exact words:

"We must retain our credibility of taking action on climate change. We cannot be seen as a party of climate sceptics, of do nothings on climate change. That is absolutely fatal."

Turnbull as outspoken backbencher

A week after being demoted, Turnbull wrote an opinion piece saying Abbott denies the science of global warming and any climate policy he devised would be 'bullshit'. 

Perhaps Turnbull guessed this by drawing on his own experience of designing bullshit climate policies for the Liberals. Ironically, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) which Abbott announced was designed by the same person who modeled Turnbull’s baseline-and-credit policy: Danny Price of Frontier Economics. It was similar to the previous scheme, except with government funding contracts instead of tradable emissions permits.

Turnbull then crossed the floor to vote for the ETS. He made a speech in which he said many of the right words, but failed to recognise the legislation’s fatal flaws. Turnbull also claimed the legislation had “the flexibility to enable us to move to higher cuts when they are warranted”.

In reality, its worst flaw was was years of future emissions caps locked in meaningless targets.

However, if Turnbull is so concerned about dodgy baselines, then why did he propose a baseline-and-credit scheme just a few months earlier? And why didn’t he criticise Labor’s ETS for allowing international offsets from baseline-and-credit schemes? If he opposes handouts to polluters, why did he demand billions of dollars’ worth of ETS compensation? And if he is concerned about the budgetary impact, why was his first climate policy funded from the budget?

Up until the August 2010 election, Turnbull continued to make public appearances talking about climate change. To his credit, he even spoke at the launch of Beyond Zero Emissions’s Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan, where he admitted he was becoming pessimistic about carbon capture and storage but insisted that technologies should be chosen by the market in a context of a carbon price. The problem with this is that if the carbon price is too low or badly designed, investment will flow toward the wrong technologies.

Turnbull as Abbott’s shadow communications minister

Despite having initially been a strong critic of Abbott, Turnbull became much quieter after the election. When Gillard Labor and the Greens announced they were negotiating a fixed carbon tax in February 2011 and the BBC asked Turnbull to comment, he said he still supported an ETS but anticipated that any scheme agreed between Labor and the Greens would be “a very extreme economically damaging model”.

Despite having crossed the floor to support the ETS he negotiated with Rudd, in October 2011, Turnbull voted with his party to oppose the Labor-Greens carbon price. Notice this is consistent with his previous criticism that it would cost too much.

When asked if his party was right to say it would scrap the carbon price, Turnbull pointedly responded:

"Well, scrap the carbon repeal the carbon tax."

He went on to say, "I have never supported a fixed price on carbon, ever," because the floating price of an ETS limits the cost of cutting emissions. Some interpreted Turnbull’s weasel words to mean the Liberals would scrap the carbon tax but not the ETS, into which it was designed to soon morph.

Turnbull as Abbott’s communications minister

Since 2013, as an Abbott government minister, Turnbull made no significant public criticism of Abbott’s terrible policies.

















(Image via GetUp)

If Turnbull is such a progressive environmentalist, why hasn’t he left the Liberal Party? Many have argued he should form his own party. When this suggestion was put to him directly in 2012, he said:

“I’ve had thousands and thousands of people propose that, you know, I should set up a new political party and I’ve always said to them the same thing that I’m saying to you, that I am committed to the Liberal Party.”

Turnbull said in 2011:

"It’s always open with any member of the shadow cabinet if they can’t live with the collective decision to resign."

That means Turnbull can live with all the collective decisions made by the Abbott government. Indeed he says so:

"I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the budget."

In February, Turnbull was asked if he would seek to reinstate the carbon price, and said: 

"The idea that we would or should suddenly reinstate something we’ve just abolished is ridiculous."

Turnbull’s most recent comment on climate that I could find was from May, when he cautiously defended the science on The Bolt Report.

Turnbull being reminded of his 2010 comment: "Abbott’s Direct Action was a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale". (Q&A.)


Based on past experience, Malcolm Turnbull is a politician who says most of the right words on climate but takes the wrong actions. To his credit, Turnbull has a good understanding of the basic climate science and is effective in responding to arguments denying the science. Yet, this only looks impressive in comparison to the obviously denialist Abbott; merely acknowledging reality is necessary but not sufficient for climate credibility.

Even supposing he’s serious, the Liberal Party is almost certainly beyond saving. Its connections to the fossil fuel lobby and far-right think tanks are well-documented; indeed their stranglehold has arguably become even stronger. Election donations data in 2013 reveal the Liberals received a 350% increase in funding from mining companies including contributions from Adani, Santos, and Hancock. 

Supposing Turnbull is a well-meaning reformist, what might he do? Judging by his words and actions to date, it seems likely that if he makes any change at all, he’ll tweak the ERF toward a baseline-and-credit ETS. The height of his ambition is a cap-and-trade ETS like Labor’s with massive compensation to polluters.
In climate talks he might give an appearance of greater cooperation, but is unwilling to show true leadership by acting ahead of other countries. He’s shown no understanding of the need for urgent action, so is unlikely to increase the 2020 or 2030 target. Also, remember that target only covers domestic emissions, and Turnbull has previously opposed any restriction of fossil fuel exports  by far Australia’s largest contribution to global warming.
But I fear Turnbull isn’t serious even about incremental change. According to the Australian Financial Review, Turnbull is so inclined to placate his colleagues and wait for other countries to act, he may change nothing at all. The report says his priority would be fixing the budget. In other words, Turnbull’s agenda is not fundamentally different from that of the Abbott government.
In a way, Turnbull could actually be worse than Abbott, giving Australians a false sense of security on climate. At least under Abbott, most people realised Australia was going in the wrong direction.
I would be the first to celebrate if the popular perception of Malcolm Turnbull as a green politician turns out to be correct. But if my fears are accurate, Turnbull’s charisma and skill at greenwashing may make him the most dangerous man in Australia.

This is an abridged version of the article by James Wight published on precariousclimate.com. Follow James on Twitter @350ppmJames.

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