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CANBERRA, Australia — For as long as I’ve been in Australia, climate change policies have thwarted governments, leading to division, passivity and embarrassment, most recently when the country became a global laggard at last year’s international climate conference in Copenhagen.
That is now about to change as the lower house of parliament passes a bill this week that will finally put Australia on the path to a significant reduction in carbon emissions – 43 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
The bill is expected to be passed by the Senate next month, after the Labor government received unwilling support from the Australian Greens, who had pushed for a higher goal. And it’s been hailed as the most important piece of climate legislation in a decade, while also being criticized for not going far enough.
Both could be true, of course, and in my conversations this week with experts in both climate science and climate politics, I was struck by their expectation that the legislation would bring momentum and progress.
The first thing they noted: the target itself creates a framework for stability and intensified action; Enacting a 43 percent cut in law gives businesses and local governments the confidence to invest in reducing carbon emissions without worrying that competitors who want to avoid such costs will later be rewarded by another government who do not consider the changes necessary.
A second element of the legislation that I heard a lot about was a mechanism for independent review and improvement of this first step.
As the Climate Council notes in his analysis of the legislation:
It returns authority to an independent group of experts (the Climate Change Authority) to monitor Australia’s progress towards the targets and to shape the transition towards future targets, including what is expected under the Paris Agreement for 2035.
Under the new law, the Climate Change Minister must report to Parliament each year on Australia’s progress towards the country’s goals.
What those two elements do is force Australia to continue the conversation, with scientific experts playing a key role. It’s something good governance experts often ask for on controversial policy issues, and it helps counter what psychologists who study humanity’s response to all kinds of risks call the “single action bias.”
Elke Weber, a psychology professor at Princeton University whom I interviewed for my book (that is published in Australia and out in the United States next year), described the concept as a major impediment to sustainable action on major issues such as climate change. The idea is that, in response to uncertain, frightening situations, people tend to simplify their decision-making and rely on one action, with no further action — usually because the first reduced their sense of concern or vulnerability.
What makes the climate law so interesting to me, as a student of risk, is that in its structure it builds a framework for further action, and a trigger that could force that action to continue and build out over time. . It sets repeated action and adjustment as the default.
Many other laws do this too, in Australia and other countries. The United States is also about to pass groundbreaking climate legislation that will help the country meet its goal of halving emissions by 2030, largely with tax breaks and other incentives that will boost over time. . But Australia, after years of politicized ‘climate wars’, seems to have found a model that recognizes that more needs to be done.
It is not so much a solution as the late start of a major transition that the whole world has been slow to embark on.
“This climate bill will not be enough to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, but it is a huge leap forward and opens a new era of collaboration and constructive policy making,” said Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at the Australia Institute. “There is still a lot of work to be done to reverse Australia’s role as the third largest exporter of fossil fuels, but there is hope and momentum that things are finally starting to change.”
Now here are our stories of the week.