A smart, visionary government, with a lot of hard work, could come up with a major industrial restructure package that could go a large way towards addressing climate change. For major emitters, a carrot-and-stick approach could include:
a) large financial incentives to move towards carbon-neutral technology;
b) large taxes - yes, taxes - on a sliding scale based on carbon emissions, which would pay for the above.
In general, those initiatives could be supplemented by:
c) major incentives for meaningful research and investment in clean technologies, particularly relating to energy generation and efficiency, coupled with equivalent large disincentives to research and investment in high-carbon-emission activities;
d) a clearly-flagged, steady increase in carbon emission taxes.
It's hard to get it right, and disruption (read: change) is always politically painful. But it is an ideal time. the government is consistently very high in the polls, and can afford to spend some of that political capital - ie it can afford to lose some favour. And economic downturns are accompanied by significant capital and industrial restructure, as companies are forced to adapt, change, or go under. If managed well, the government could direct that restructure process.
But Kevin Rudd is not a great visionary - only a minor one - and he is more managing the affairs of government than propelling Australia forward. He doesn't want to squander his political capital, and he doesn't want to given the blame - fairly or not - for any of that inevitable pain of industrial restructure. Today's announcement on carbon targets maps out a paltry 5% carbon reduction by 2020, with an option of progressing to 15%. And it positively panders to the vested interests that have held Australia back. Although there are elements of my suggestions above, the overall package is designed to follow a path of least resistance rather than lead. Pathetic. It's a tragedy that the announcement has no relationship to the government's frequent declarations of the absolute urgency of the issue.
It has to be said that this issue has never brought out the best in Australian governments, and that could have something to do with our great reliance on the dirtiest of energy generation - coal, in particular, alongside other high-carbon sources such as oil and gas. As Environment Minister in the Keating government, the left-wing John Faulkner was effectively reined in by the large coal producers and consumers. For successive Howard governments, of course, it wasn't even an issue.
But history does not excuse a lack of vision and political will. Those with vision break from the past.
I retain some optimism, however, in looking to Obama for that vision and will. His tasks are Herculean, but he has displayed some of the leadership the world needs right now.