Sydney
The climate is a hot topic in Australia.
Shutterstock

The land down under has its political priorities the right way up.

While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney avoided discussing climate change during the 2012 U.S. presidential race, a federal election campaign in Australia is being dominated by debate over climate policy. From The Australian newspaper:

The 2013 election now may come down to policy differences rather than popularity, or the lack of it. And it seems two of the three issues that have dominated Australian politics for 15 years will once again define this election: climate change and asylum-seekers. …

[O]n climate change the difference is fundamental. It’s the carrot v the stick; paying to encourage emission abatement v charging companies that emit.

The climate debate has blown up in Australia in recent days following news that the governing party plans to change its approach to carbon pricing. The weekend announcement is still dominating headlines and air time. This gets wonky, but it’s the wonky nature of the political debate that makes the nation’s preoccupation with it so fascinating:

Having been attacked for the high price of carbon allowances, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd plans to dump the government’s fixed-price approach to charging power plants, airlines, and the like for the privilege of releasing greenhouse gases. If Rudd’s Labor Party retains power in this year’s election (date still uncertain), Rudd will replace that approach next year with a floating price for carbon emissions based on the market rate in Europe — which currently is very low.

Such a policy change might not sound like the kind of thing that would provoke political vitriol or front-page stories, but provoke them it has. And here’s what’s even weirder: Before Rudd took over last month from Julia Gillard as Labor’s leader and prime minister, the government had already planned to make that same carbon-pricing switch — just in 2015 rather than in 2014. So we’re talking about a one-year change in climate policy that is dominating political discourse.

Rudd’s proposal would slash the carbon price by about three quarters, saving polluters “several billion dollars” in one year — a move that Labor hopes will be seen as helping to ease rising electricity prices, albeit at the expense of the climate. The announcement is also helping Rudd spin Labor’s carbon “tax” into a carbon “market.”

Tony Abbott, Rudd’s main challenger and leader of the Liberal Party (which is actually the conservative party, probably because Australia is upside down), once described climate science as “crap.” And he thinks Rudd’s latest idea is, well, also crap. “Just ask yourself what an emissions trading scheme is all about,” Abbott said to reporters on Monday. “It’s a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one.”

Still, Abbott wants everybody to know that he is willing to do a little something about climate, despite clearly not wanting to. He is proposing to replace carbon pricing with a “direct action plan” to reduce the country’s emissions by 5 percent by 2020 — but the plan is lighter on detail than a cloud of carbon dioxide. The main thing anybody knows about it is that the government would fund $AUD3 billion ($2.75 billion) worth of projects designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the coming years.

It sure is nice to know that Australians are so preoccupied with the ins and outs of climate policy. Must be the heat.