Ross Garnaut: the next chapter in Australian climate change policy

The architect of the former Labor government’s carbon pricing scheme looks to the future, where increasingly it is not Australia who leads. Climate change won’t go away, so what can and should Australia do next?

I once called climate change policy diabolical, but with a saving grace.

It is diabolical because of the overlapping of four complex issues. While there is high scientific confidence that human action causes warming and that, beyond some limit, warming damages many aspects of human life, perhaps catastrophically, there is uncertainty about the precise consequences. The costs of effective action come now and the benefits much later. Avoidance of dangerous outcomes requires parallel action in all of the larger countries. And effective action is politically difficult because it confronts the interests of large corporations which are accustomed to investing heavily to bend policy to their own ends. When I first started working on the issue 8 years ago I said that it might be too difficult for our political system at this early stage of our development.

The saving grace is that climate change captures the interest of large numbers of people in many and diverse countries to an extent that has no near comparator amongst contemporary policy issues. I saw this in the huge participation of citizens in public meetings to discuss draft reports and update papers during my two climate change reviews. We saw it in the electoral reaction to Prime Minister Rudd’s decision not to battle on with draft legislation for an emissions trading scheme after its defeat in the Australian Senate in December 2009. We see it now in the pressure on the current Australian government to do its fair share in a global effort to mitigate climate change. We see it in popular pressures in countries as diverse as the United States and China.

Many things have changed since climate change policy cut a destructive path through Australian political life between 2007 and 2013.

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