The closure of the Climate Institute comes just as we're building consensus on action Opinion article

Mar 09, 2017 - 3:55pm

This article first appeared in The Guardian Australian on 9 March 2017.

On 30 June, after almost 12 years – seven more than originally planned – The Climate institute will close its doors.

As its CEO for the last decade, it has given me pause to reflect on this rollercoaster ride through the bumpy minefield that is Australian climate and energy politics - Where have we been as a nation? What has The Climate institute contributed? And, where are we headed?

Because, while the politics sometimes smells and walks like it did back when The Institute began, the context within which it now operates is vastly different. The toxic politics and short termism which seeks to make climate change a proxy issue for ideological and political wars, rather than one of risk management, is simply unsustainable.

We were very fortunate that TCI was established with a visionary philanthropic bequest to carry out research and non-partisan advocacy on the vital issue of climate policy. It enabled us to work with a broad spectrum of business, political and social and environmental stakeholders - as both a trusted broker and a “critical friend”, providing solid evidence and workable solutions.

I - we - believe climate change is too important to be bogged down in trenches of culture or partisan wars.

Or indeed trenches that make the perfect the enemy of the good.

For me, the irony is that the closure of TCI – in its current form at least – comes just as we have helped build an unprecedented consensus on the need for good, credible climate policy.

More and more key stakeholders are emerging up and out of the trenches, recognising that it’s actually a matter of risk management and assessing the benefits of action.

If that seems like a bold statement, Exhibit A is the front page of today’s Australian. It’s a sublimely ironic piece of exquisite timing.The paper highlights that the uncertainty generated by the squabbling of this last lost decade has had a cost impact of more than double the price of Julia Gillard’s “carbon tax”.

This, of course, is without the household support from the carbon revenue that more than offset the cost of living impacts of the carbon price. Unfortunately that support couldn’t cover the costs of new poles and wires which mostly accounted for the electricity price rises of the time; and it couldn’t stave off the opportunistic political scare campaigns that were its eventual undoing.

We are now paying the price of an increasingly brittle electricity system which is threatening our economic prosperity, job security and those three words – cost of living.

The Australian’s story draws on statements by industry groups and companies with skin in the game – big carbon emitters and big energy users – have all called for better stable, credible long-term climate policy measures, like including market-based mechanisms and long-term targets. Every credible stakeholder realises this is needed to provide the certainty necessary for investment in our long-term energy and industry needs.

Building partnerships among business, investor and community groups that can help move this debate out of the trenches has been core business for TCI in recent years. The Australian Climate Roundtable, which brings together business, social, union and environmental groups; and a joint statement by CEOs of some of the country’s biggest companies calling for bipartisan energy and climate policy are recent important examples we’ve helped facilitate.

Many, but not all, have realised that this means a net zero emissions economy – before 2050 – and that the sooner we start planning for that, the more secure and affordable the electricity system can be.

This is being accelerated by two other mega trends.

Firstly the Paris Agreement is a mechanism of ongoing accountability. It is built on the basis that nations are re-assessing their national interest and recognising this is to be found in clean energy and climate action. Most nations, and investors, now realise that unless investments help build a net zero emissions economy by 2050, they will be at risk. Company Directors face this too. President Trump won’t change it.

Secondly, the technology alternatives are now increasingly affordable. Perhaps, most ironically, they are increasingly the only solutions that can be built at the speed and scale necessary to solve the crisis caused by the squabbling of the last decade.

The change is evident at the very heart of our financial system, where there is an awakening that the long term is not made up by a series of short terms - we can and must plan ahead to avoid what the Central Bank of England Governor Mark Carney calls the “tragedy of the horizons”.

The recent speech from the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, highlighting that climate risk is a real issue here and now for all our financial institutions, was a watershed. So was the memorandum of opinion of top silk Noel Hutley which, citing our research into financial systemic risks, stated losses related to climate risks are foreseeable and that directors will be liable if they ignore them.

The APRA speech was one of my top ten days of the last decade!

Over that decade we have also tracked Australians attitudes to climate change and its solutions through our Climate of the Nation series. Support for renewable energy has been strong and strengthening throughout - because people see this as one of the few economic pathways ahead. While support for climate action did suffer during the scare campaign, our research, and that of Lowy and others, shows a steady recovery from the start of the carbon price and the realisation that the sky did not fall in.

There has also been much-appreciated support from donors and businesses that enabled The Climate Institute to continue with our mission. We’ve had some great backers who’ve stuck with us through thick and thin. Unfortunately this sort of advocacy can be seen as somewhat unsexy work. Its impact can be hard to assess. I can understand those that like to fund the fighters rather than back the bridge builders. The result is that we haven’t been able to achieve the scale of support necessary to continue.

My hope is that philanthropists will realise that centrist advocacy, which we have pursued, has a rightful place in a mixed portfolio of support for the transition Australia can and must make - which science and international commitments have all indicated is the necessary goal - to a zero emissions economy by 2050 - a fair, clean, safe, but prosperous one.

John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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