As opposition leader Rudd embraced the ratification of Kyoto as his climate change talisman and successfully forced John Howard, under public pressure and from within his cabinet, to cede ground on an ETS.
Encouraged by climate scare campaigns on a global scale, which cast the Coalition as climate change deniers and environmental dinosaurs, Rudd relentlessly politicised the issue and exploited the overwhelming goodwill of the public.
While political strategists attested to the power of using climate change to divide the Coalition and portray Rudd as forward-looking and modern, the Labor leader latched on to the ratification of Kyoto as the defining difference between him and Howard, who refused to ratify the protocol because he considered it to be against Australia’s economic interests.
Rudd, while accusing Howard of delaying action on climate change, brought forward the implementation of his proposed ETS scheme to 2010 in contrast to Howard’s 2012 start date because “inaction cost more than action”.
Only days after becoming Prime Minister, Rudd flew to Bali and ratified the Kyoto Protocol at a climate change conference amid much fanfare. People felt good something was being done.
But the action was purely symbolic, an empty gesture designed to get Australia a place at the table of international climate change negotiation. But it led nowhere. Indeed, according to Oxford University research just published in the journal Political Geography, the embracing of the protocol “suggests that the symbolic power of Kyoto has created a veil over the climate issue in Australia at the expense of practical legislation and implementation of projects to physically reduce Australian emissions”.
Oxford researchers Nicholas Howarth and Andrew Foxall argue that the “veil of Kyoto” actually hid much higher emissions than the Rudd government was admitting to and has led to an international failure. “The Kyoto Protocol has framed the politics of greenhouse gas mitigation in Australia. While we find it has exhorted a powerful international symbolic norm around climate change, its success at encouraging environmentally effective policy has been limited,” the two write.
“The lesson from the 2007 election and subsequent events in Australia is a caution against elevating the symbolism of Kyoto-style targets and timetables above the need for implementation of mitigation policies at the nation-state level.”
Rudd moved in the opposite direction, using inflated language about challenges to our children and grandchildren, the greatest moral and economic challenge of our time while inflating the role of international bodies, meetings and agreements.
To delay passing the CPRS into law until after the Copenhagen UN climate change conference last December was, in Rudd’s words, “absolute political cowardice”, “absolute failure of leadership” and an “absolute failure of logic” that should not prevent Australia from leading the world on climate change.
Unfortunately, between ratifying the Kyoto Protocol at the Bali climate change conference and preparing to be “a friend of the chair” at the Copenhagen conference Rudd had failed to convince a willing Australian public about the need and justification for an ETS, a scheme that would push up the price of electricity and transport and that would threaten jobs.
The closer the government got to actually implementing a scheme that cut greenhouse gas emissions, the less convinced the public became about the costs and effectiveness of the CPRS. As Howarth and Foxall write: “As the inconsistencies between symbolism and policy become reconciled, Rudd faces the risk of alienating Labor from groups [that] favour strong action on climate change and those more worried about short-term prosperity being damaged by mitigation policies.”
The Rudd scheme neither achieved greenhouse gas cuts nor convinced consumers and workers the risk they faced of increased household costs or job losses was worthwhile. Instead of systematically explaining the scheme and justifying the need for cost increases, Rudd turned climate change into a moral issue and got tied down in intricate, legislative detail and was distracted by foreign baubles. His penultimate failure was pushing then leader of the opposition Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition over the political brink before he had a deal last year and his ultimate failure has been to just drop the CPRS without a fight or conviction.