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CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – For as long as I’ve been in Australia, climate change policy has frustrated governments, leading to division, inaction and embarrassment, most recently when the country fell behind globally at last year’s international climate conference in Copenhagen.
And that is now set to change with the House of Representatives passing a bill this week that would finally put Australia on the path to cutting carbon emissions by a significant amount – 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.
The bill is expected to pass in the Senate next month, after the Labor government received reluctant support from Australia’s Green Party, which has pushed for a higher goal. It has been hailed as the most important piece of climate legislation in a decade, while also being criticized for not going far enough.
Both could of course be true, 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 enhanced action. Establishing a 43 percent cut in law gives businesses and local governments the confidence to invest in reducing carbon emissions without worrying that competitors keen to avoid such expenditures will later be rewarded by another government that does not think the changes are necessary.
The second component of legislation that I’ve heard a lot about is the independent evaluation mechanism and improvement of this first step.
As the Climate Council notes in its analysis of the legislation:
It returns authority to an independent group of experts (Climate Change Panel) to monitor Australia’s progress towards the goals, and to help shape movement towards future targets, including what is expected under the 2035 Paris Agreement.
Under the new law, the climate change minister will be required to report to Parliament each year on Australia’s progress towards the country’s goals.
What these two components do is force Australia to continue the dialogue, with scientific experts taking a leadership role. It’s the kind of thing that good governance experts often advocate with contentious policy issues, and it helps counter what psychologists who study humanity’s response to risks of all kinds describe “individual action bias.”
Elke Weber, the Princeton professor of psychology interviewed for my book (which is published in Australia and will be out next year in the US), described the concept as a major impediment to continued work on big problems like climate. they change. The idea is that, in response to fearful and uncertain situations, humans tend to simplify their decision-making and rely on a single action, without any additional action—usually because the first action reduced their feelings of anxiety or vulnerability.
What makes the climate bill so interesting to me, as a student of risk, is that it builds in its structure a framework for further action, and a catalyst that can compel that action to continue and build over time. Sets the repeated action and modification as default.
Many other legislations do this as well, in Australia and other countries. The US is also on the cusp of landmark 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 must be done.
It is not so much a solution as the belated start of a great transformation 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 represents a huge leap forward and opens a new era of collaboration and constructive policy making,” said Richie Merzian, Director of the Climate and Energy Program 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 for this week.