For more than 30 years, Australian politics has been grappling with climate change and the nation’s most senior public servants have been there through it all.
Usually they keep their thoughts private, rarely making a foray into public debate, even in retirement.
Now, after the devastating “black summer” fire season, the former heads of the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of the Treasury, along with former chief scientists, have decided they can no longer stay silent.
They believe there has been a colossal failure by politicians of all stripes to comprehensively tackle climate change.
These senior policy makers and scientific minds describe climate policy as perhaps the greatest public policy disappointment of their generation, and a story of power and personal ambition triumphing over the national interest.
Martin Parkinson, who served as secretary of the Department of Climate Change between 2007 and 2011, described politicians as “incapable of grappling with this”.
“I don’t know how many reports have been put in front of them,” he said.
Former chief scientist Professor Penny Sackett, who served between 2008 and 2011, labelled the failures of climate policy akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion.
“Year after year goes by without any strong action and no apparent commitment and determination on the part of governments … it’s beyond disheartening; it’s depressing,” she said.
Ken Henry, the former Treasury secretary for a decade from 2001, believes politics has overrun the scientific reality of climate change.
It has left him deeply disillusioned.
“I think [it is] more to do with personal ambition and some of the individuals involved taking the opportunity of an ideological chasm to advance their own personal interests,” he said.
“We have failed, no doubt about that. We’ve all failed, I think. I look back on it now and I still feel gutted.
How close Australia came to an emissions trading scheme
Dr Henry was part of a group of senior public servants who from the late 1980s believed forging a coherent climate policy was perhaps the biggest economic challenge of their era.
He said from the early 2000s they were talking about the ways to put a price on carbon via an emissions trading scheme (ETS).
An ETS is not a straight carbon tax. It puts a cap on emissions and requires those who exceed the cap to pay to do so, usually with permits that are tradable in an open market.
Dr Henry first presented a plan for an ETS to then-prime minister John Howard in 2004. It took another two years, but eventually, in 2006, Mr Howard agreed the country needed to find a way to put a price on carbon.
It was a pivotal moment. Both Mr Howard and Kevin Rudd went to the 2007 election promising to introduce an ETS.
Peter Shergold was the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet at the time.
He told Four Corners it was one of those “magic moments” in politics that “allows you to achieve things”, but one that was ultimately a bitter disappointment.
“It was, in a sense, my greatest achievement. It was, of course, my most abject failure in that, nothing then happened,” he said.
The first and last time Australia had political consensus on climate policy
The new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had made tackling what he described as the great moral challenge of the generation a priority, but political and economic priorities took a dramatic turn.
When the global financial crisis (GFC) struck in 2008, Blair Comley had just taken up his job as Deputy Secretary at the new Department of Climate Change, and was making good progress with some big businesses on their potential contributions.
“Once the GFC hit, some of those businesses, particularly the ones who were internationally exposed, they were saying, ‘Oh, actually, I’m really concerned about my business and I can’t really bear any imposition that might come with a scheme at this point,” he said.
The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) recommended cuts in emissions of between 5 and 15 per cent — too much for some in industry and not enough for the Greens, who voted against it.
Secretary of the Climate Change Department at the time, Dr Parkinson is still angry at the Greens for torpedoing the plan.
“They are not prepared to compromise in any way. They’ve got this purist view of the world and they are totally and utterly naive about what’s required to get us from where we are today to what is needed.”
That climate policy had become such a fierce political and ideological battleground also baffled and dismayed Professor Sackett, who was Australia’s chief scientist at the time.
She readily admits she was naive about the politics and found that some ministers in the Labor government were less willing to engage than others when she raised her concerns about climate change and the need for political action.
“The response felt disdainful. It was almost the sense of, ‘Who are you to come and talk to us about these things?” she said.
As Opposition leader in 2009, Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to convince his party room to support the ETS saw him replaced by Tony Abbott.
The revolving door of leaders takes over
In 2010, the minority Labor government led by Julia Gillard worked with the Greens and the independents to introduce a new version of a carbon pricing mechanism.
Within months of winning the 2013 election, Abbott made good on his promise to repeal the Gillard scheme.
Dr Parkinson described that as a “grim day for Australia”.
As the carbon tax repeal bills passed through the House of Representatives, jubilant government frontbenchers high-fived each other.
Dr Henry said the celebrations in the parliament that day were particularly hard to stomach.
No closer to consensus
The core of the Morrison government’s climate policy is the Climate Solutions Fund, which is an extension of the Emissions Reduction Fund.
It is largely a continuation of Tony Abbott’s Direct Action plan.
The scheme allows high-emitting businesses to bid for government assistance to reduce their emissions.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the answer to reducing emissions is new technology.
“Ultimately reductions in emissions will happen when technologies that work, that are at parody with their higher-emitting alternatives, where rational people choose them because they’re good choices, that’s how we’ll bring down emissions globally,” he said.
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But the big policy thinkers like Dr Parkinson said technology alone isn’t enough — the best solution, they say, is still a market mechanism for a carbon price.
“The carbon price isn’t about taxing people. The carbon price is actually about creating the right sort of incentives to develop the technology and then use it,” he said.
Former chief scientist from 2011-2016, Ian Chubb, said the Australian Government needs to do more and should commit to zero net emissions by 2050, as many other developed countries have done.
“Technology is indeed part of the solution … but in order to do that properly, we need to know where we’re heading — so we need a target, and that target has got to be significant.
“The idea that you should do nothing … because it might shave a fraction of somebody’s electricity bill somewhere is, in my view, dangerous and is totally not supportable.”
Professor Chubb laments the lack of progress made on carbon pricing.
“We’re having the same argument that we had in 2008. The level of intellectual input into that argument has been close to zero. The world has changed. The obvious need to do something has changed,” he said.
The rollercoaster of Australian politics has left the country with no structure for pricing carbon in the future.
Australia will be under pressure to pledge to reach zero net emissions by 2050, but the Morrison government has said it will not mandate a specific target and that technology will get us there without the need for taxes.
And if the history of climate policy is anything to go by, reaching climate consensus at the next global climate conference in Glasgow is far from certain.
Professor Chubb said Australian politicians must have the strength to lead.
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