Issue 12, August 2010 | Ruth Morgan


Albany Wind FarmA report on the seminar held at the Institute of Advanced Studies, The University of Western Australia on 13 July.

People can’t change the way they use resources without changing their relations with one another. For example there are dozens of ways to economise energy: some would stop the rich wasting it, others would freeze the poor to death. Forests or beaches or country landscapes can be conserved to be enjoyed by many, by few or by nobody. Rich and poor can be made to contribute very fairly or very unfairly to the costs of reducing pollution. Old city streets and neighbourhoods can be conserved for the people who live in them, or they can be conserved by methods which drive those people out, bring richer people in and make speculative fortunes for a few richer still. How to conserve is usually a harder question than whether, or what, to conserve. So however urgent it may be to wake people up to physical and ecological dangers, environmental reformers also need political philosophies.

(H. Stretton, Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 3)

How can countries with different economies, cultures and political systems forge an agreement to mitigate climate change? It is indeed a difficult question, but July’s seminar went some way towards shedding light on the different approaches that (Western) Australia might take in the lead up to the Cancun climate summit in December.

As convenor David Hodgkinson reminded us, this seminar took place almost midway between last year’s Copenhagen summit and this year’s Cancun climate change talks. It was timely then to review the legacy of Copenhagen and what it augured for the future. Many people, including David Ritter in this journal, were disappointed with the outcomes of the Summit, their hopes for a binding agreement on climate change dashed.[1] At the Seminar, Professor Sharon Mascher from UWA’s Faculty of Law reflected on such appraisals of the 15th Conference of Parties and concluded that the success or failure of Copenhagen can only be decided on what happens next. This assessment served to emphasise the significance of Cancun and what lessons might be learnt from the Copenhagen experience. Professor Mascher suggests we temper our expectations to avoid disappointment.

Still ambiguity remains. The process of drafting the Copenhagen Accord has been at the focus of many commentators’ attentions and was the subject of debate at the Bonn climate change talks in June. For some, Copenhagen exposed the inadequacy of United Nations negotiating processes and procedures, while others argued for the retention of these existing approaches. Similarly, the quantification of the ‘dangerous’ threshold of anthropogenic climate change at Copenhagen has not been without contention, particularly from small island states. This ‘agreement’ to hold the increase in global temperatures below 2°C raises questions about differing approaches to mitigation; the different ways countries measure and cap their emissions; and whether countries agree to reduce their emissions unconditionally.

As Professor Mascher and others have noted, the Copenhagen Accord underscored the adversarial approach that some members of the international community have taken towards climate change. Leaders have pursued negotiations as a ‘zero sum’ game; a forum to achieve maximum gains for themselves and where concession is considered a loss. This approach reflects Australia’s position, whereby its actions are conditional on those of others. In January this year, Minister for Climate Change Penny Wong affirmed the Labor Government’s position to do ‘no more and no less than the rest of the world’ in its efforts to reduce the country’s carbon emissions.[2] Although this is an ostensibly rational position for the present, it neglects to safeguard the future of the next generation of Australians. Wong’s statement represents a departure from the progressive approaches to social and environmental policy that the ALP have advocated in the past

Hopes for political progress on reducing Australia’s carbon emissions have taken a battering in the last eighteen months. In the 2007 federal election, climate change was arguably the battleground for the major parties. This time around, it has barely rated a mention. Last year, the Coalition thwarted the Rudd Government’s efforts to introduce a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and the Liberal Party replaced its leader with Tony Abbott, who has notoriously stated that ‘the argument [on climate change] is absolute crap’.[3] Closer to home, WA Minister for Water Dr Graham Jacobs has admitted asking the Department of Water to remove references to ‘climate change’ when discussing the ‘drying climate’ of the state’s southwest.[4] This position overlooks more than a decade of research undertaken by the Indian Ocean Climate Initiative (incidentally, established by the Court Coalition Government in 1998) into the causes of the reduced winter rainfall levels which have affected the region since at least the 1970s.[5]

At least some of this political wavering can be attributed to the views of the wider community. The implementation of strategies to adapt to and mitigate climate change can be unpopular with the electorate. Amongst some sections of the Australian public, the prospect of climate change remains intangible, too distant to appreciate. Consequently, the perceived risk of a climate change future remains low and it is difficult to convey the urgency of the need for action. Few seem to realise that parts of southern Australia have experienced rainfall decline in recent decades, partly as a result of enhanced global warming. Political and community action is delayed as we wait for others to act; for cheaper alternatives to become available; for easier solutions to arise. But for how long can we stall?

For Sally Talbot, the WA Shadow Minister for Climate Change, this diminished state of climate change policy reflects a much broader issue: the growing hollowness of ‘sustainability’. Dr Talbot argued strongly for a revitalisation of sustainability policy at the State and Federal government levels to arrest its slide into meaninglessness. The term ‘sustainability’ has suffered, according to Dr Talbot, from the widely held view that it pertains only to the environment. Sustainability issues such as climate change require instead an integrated approach from a ‘joined-up’ government to ensure they are addressed holistically. Further, the significance of issues such as climate change demands bipartisanship to prevent their politicisation. Without these changes, Dr Talbot warned, the welfare of all Australians and their children are at risk. Australians should not only be aware of their responsibilities to ensure intergenerational equity but also to their moral duty to the citizens of other countries which face the risk of rising sea levels and other catastrophic impacts of climate change. This is especially true for Western Australians, who by virtue of the state’s vast resource wealth have the highest per capita carbon emissions in the nation.[6] Can we enjoy the comforts that the profits of our mining boom afford to us, while others face the consequences? Does the Australian catch-cry of a ‘fair go’ extend beyond our nation’s borders?

Changes at the individual level can go some way to making a difference at home and abroad. Reducing personal energy consumption can both shrink the individual’s carbon footprint and show political support for action on climate change. Climate change is, after all, the result of human activity. Some members of the community have been proactive on this front, whereas others require incentive and education to change behaviour. In order to bring about behavioural change, Winthrop Professor Carmen Lawrence from UWA’s School of Psychology argued that people respond to both financial incentives and to social norms. Using case studies from California and the Netherlands, Professor Lawrence showed that the encouragement of civic responsibility, altruism and cooperation could contribute to a reduction in energy consumption. She called for approaches that recognised the unusual relationship that we have with energy. Unlike water, it is difficult for consumers to quantify and monitor their energy usage because it is an invisible resource. According to Professor Lawrence, energy consumption must be rendered visible to enable individuals to compare and compete for the best outcome: lower energy use.

Yet change at the individual level can be set back when public figures do not appear to take the need to reduce carbon emissions seriously. It is also discouraging when political debate over the ideal method of carbon abatement stalls progress towards a national strategy of climate change mitigation. For Australia, this delay over the CPRS and its implications for the Government’s Renewable Energy Target Scheme have implications for policy at the state level and for companies planning their operations. According to Anne Hill, the Acting Coordinator of Energy at the WA Office of Energy, the state government needs certainty from the Commonwealth before it can implement its own carbon reduction strategies to ensure it complements, rather than duplicates, federal policy. Likewise, Alcoa of Australia’s General Manager of Climate Strategy, Tim McAuliffe, explained that carbon pricing could have a severe impact on the viability of Alcoa’s (Western) Australian operations.

These delays over the CPRS, however, should not be perceived as the ‘death knell’ of carbon reduction in this country. The Seminar revealed the progress made in Western Australia towards lowering the state’s carbon emissions. Although renewable energy remains expensive, work is being undertaken on developing solar, wind and ocean-based technologies throughout the state. Professor Richard Harper from Murdoch University explained land-use strategies that are contributing to Australia’s carbon mitigation, such as reforestation. Such approaches also have the potential to improve water quality, remedy salinity and rebuild biodiversity in the southwest. Industry, so often reviled in climate change discussions, is also endeavouring to reduce its emissions. Alcoa of Australia, for instance, has invested in new technology to reduce its energy use and increase its thermal efficiency. The company is also promoting individual action through its support of Greening Australia’s programs ‘Make an Impact’ and ‘Breathe Easy’.[7]

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks associated with some of the aforementioned strategies. The WA government faces the challenge of overcoming this state’s ‘tyranny of distance’ to provide affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to all consumers. Locally, coal and natural gas remain the cheapest forms of energy available. And, as Tim McAuliffe reminded us, companies will shift their operations elsewhere if energy becomes too expensive. In terms of land-use mitigation strategies, Professor Harper noted that competition could emerge between agriculture and carbon reduction, as well as over water. He also observed that some remain unconvinced that this strategy offers a realistic means to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

With these considerations in mind, coal and natural gas will be here to stay for some time to come. Several speakers demonstrated that according to the McKinsey carbon abatement cost curve, renewable energy remains too expensive and unreliable in Australia. In a provocative paper, UWA Winthrop Professor of Political Science Alex Coram argued that nuclear power is a safe, clean, affordable option that deserves serious public consideration. Yet as Professor Lawrence’s paper indicated, in spite of all the economic and environmental attributes of nuclear energy, the community’s distrust of the industry remains the most significant hurdle for its introduction in this country. The tide, though, might be turning: Anne Hill reported that the possibility of using nuclear energy was raised at all regional consultations for the Barnett Government’s Strategic Energy Initiative 2030. Can it be that Sir Charles Court’s 1979 vision of a WA powered by nuclear energy will be realised after all? Only time will tell.

Time seemed to be the elephant in this Seminar’s room. Perhaps it is a sign of my impatience, my disbelief that the Federal government has delayed its action on climate change until 2013. Of my amazement that the state government’s Strategic Energy Initiative 2030 is the first review of WA’s energy policy since Sir Charles Court’s time in office. Of my incredulity that somehow, successive state governments have funded research into a drying southwest climate but avoided addressing the carbon footprint of its mining industry. Of my disappointment that the major parties have failed convincingly to engage with climate change in the lead up to the 2010 federal election. Of my frustration that this country is lacking strong leadership to ensure a sustainable energy future.

Convincing the electorate that the planet is warming is perhaps beyond the scientific literacy of our community and beyond the communication skills of our nation’s scientists and policymakers. More acceptable and more believable might be the message that our planet’s resources, as we know them, are finite. This Seminar reinforced the need for Australians and their neighbours to develop a new relationship with energy, one that is restrained and equitable. That fact is clear. How we achieve this is a challenge for us all.


Ruth Morgan is writing her PhD at The University of Western Australia, researching the environmental history of perceptions and understandings of rainfall decline in south-west Western Australia, 1945-2007. She also teaches Australian history units and is a member of the Limina Collective.

[1] D. Ritter, ‘Editorial - Beyond the Little Mermaid’, New Critic, March 2010, <>, (Accessed: 16 July 2010).

[2] P. Wong, ‘Australia’s submission to Copenhagen Accord’, Media Releases, 27/1/2010, <>, (Accessed: July 16, 2010).

[3] M. Grattan, ‘Turnbull takes on rebel Libs’, The Age, 3/10/2009, <>, (Accessed: July 16, 2010).

[4] ‘Is Jacobs a climate change sceptic?’ ABC News, 4/6/2010, <>, (Accessed: July 16, 2010).

[5] Indian Ocean Climate Initiative, <>, (Accessed: July 16, 2010).

[6] Government of Western Australia, ‘Atmosphere’, State of the Environment Report, 2007, <>, (Accessed: 16 July, 2010).

[7] Alcoa, Make an Impact, <>, (Accessed: July 16, 2010); Greening Australia, Breathe Easy, <>, (Accessed: July 16, 2010).