World · August 6, 2022

Why Australia’s climate law matters

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CANBERRA, Australia – Since being in Australia, climate change policy has hindered governments, leading to division, inaction and embarrassment, most recently when the country became a global laggard at last year’s international climate conference in Copenhagen.

The situation is now poised to change with the lower house of Parliament passing a bill this week that will finally put Australia on the path of reducing carbon emissions by a significant amount, 43% below 2005 levels by the end of. 2030.

The bill is expected to pass in the Senate next month, after the Labor government secured the reluctant support of the Australian Greens, who had pushed for a higher target. And it is hailed as the most significant climate piece of legislation in a decade, while also being criticized for not having gone far enough.

Both may be true, of course, and in my conversations this week with experts in both climate science and climate policy, I was struck by their expectation that the legislation would produce momentum and progress.

The first thing they noticed: the goal itself produces a framework for stability and intensified action; enacting a 43 percent reduction by law gives businesses and local governments the confidence to invest in reducing carbon emissions without worrying that competitors wishing to avoid such spending will be rewarded later by another government that does not believe the changes are necessary.

A second element of the legislation that I have heard a lot about was a mechanism for independent evaluation and improvement of this first step.

As the Climate Council notes in its analysis of the legislation:

  • Returns the authority to an independent group of experts (the Climate Change Authority) to monitor Australia’s progress towards targets and to help shape the move towards future targets, including what is foreseen in the Paris Agreement for 2035.

  • Under the new law, the climate change minister will have to report to Parliament annually on Australia’s progress towards the country’s goals.

What these two elements do is force Australia to continue the conversation, with scientific experts playing a leading role. It’s the kind of thing good governance experts often ask for with controversial policy issues, and it helps counter what psychologists studying humanity’s response to risks of all kinds describe as “single action bias.”

Elke Weber, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who I interviewed for my book (which was published in Australia and will be released next year in the United States), described the concept as a major obstacle to sustained action on large problems like climate change. The idea is that, in response to uncertain and frightening situations, humans tend to simplify their decision making and rely on an action, without further action, usually because the former has reduced their feeling of concern or vulnerability. .

What makes the climate bill so interesting to me, as a risk scientist, is that it integrates into its structure a framework for further action and a trigger that could force that action to continue and build over time. Set repeat action and adjustment as default.

Many other pieces of legislation do, too, in Australia and other countries. The United States is also on the verge of passing historic climate legislation that will help the country meet its goal of halving emissions by 2030, largely with tax breaks and other incentives that will build momentum over time. But Australia, after years of politicized “climate wars”, appears to have found a model that recognizes that more needs to be done.

It is not as much a solution as the relative initiation of a great transition that the whole world has been slow to undertake.

“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 cooperation and constructive policymaking,” said Richie Merzian, program director for climate and energy 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.