George W. Bush Key to the Climate Change Movement

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WISDOM can come at the most unexpected times. While strapping my knee this week after another running injury the local physiotherapist reflected on Copenhagen and made the simple observation that the only way to make progress on global climate action was to follow his two simple rules for recovering from an injury.

First, isolate the key moving parts. Second, start the recovery with a succession of small steps until you build confidence.

He was right. Translated from biomechanics to international relations, the message is: isolate the big players in a room together, then start with small steps before building on them.

By contrast, the Copenhagen process put more than 190 moving parts, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, in one room, along with 40,000 observers and demanded they commit to radical economic surgery. In a bipolar power structure built around the competing interests of the US and China there probably could not have been a less effective process or outcome.

The grand irony of Copenhagen is that the best hope for a genuine agreement on climate change between the developed and the developing world now lies in George W. Bush's Major Economies Forum, not in the UN process.

The forum, which was convened by Bush on September 27, 2007 and which has been continued by President Barack Obama, brings together the 17 key states in the global climate change arena. Australia won a place at the table under the Howard government and has continued its place under the Rudd government.

Significantly, China, India and the US along with Europe, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia are members of the forum.

It is this body which offers the best way forward for Australia and the world on climate action. However, if the forum is to be the venue for real climate action there are three key lessons which must be learnt from Copenhagen. First, it is time to speak plainly and acknowledge failure. Copenhagen was a step backward, not forward.

While British, German and Swedish leaders acknowledge the UN process was a failure, Australia's Prime Minister is almost alone in his panglossian declaration that Copenhagen was a success.

Although there are domestic reasons for wanting to justify the looming $1100 per family tax, the refusal to acknowledge failure keeps us from the real task of bringing the US and China together.

The second lesson of Copenhagen is that China is back. China's growing economic and diplomatic power has long been recognised. But Copenhagen told us that China is willing to exercise real power to forestall a global agreement and maximise its own growth.

While the West's internal relations may be based on values or idealism, China's relationship with not just the West but also its partners in the developing world is increasingly structured around classic 19th century power politics.

This means China will not be moved by any Australian unilateral disarmament in trade competitiveness; instead only a tough step by step negotiation with the US and its allies can lead to a system which brings emissions reductions in both China and the West.

Copenhagen's third lesson is to be realistic.

By demanding the big bang approach to emissions reduction, climate activists scared off the players with the most to lose from radical economic surgery, the US and China. Instead it would be far better to have a series of modest three and five-year goals which can be achieved and built on, rather than empty grand promises which are merely honoured in the breach.

Of course the UN process will continue, but it is time for Australia to help shift the main game back to the US and China through the Major Economies Forum. In that context Rudd should write to President Obama and present two key proposals.

First, kick-start the forum process through a March meeting jointly hosted by Indonesia and Australia in, say, Lombok or Darwin.

The meeting would aim to establish small but measurable steps on direct action such as rainforest protection, investment in soil carbons and real clean energy projects in India, China and the major developed economies which could be achieved between now and 2013, not at some ethereal point such as 2090.

Second, adopt an incentives-based mechanism as a common pilot platform for international action. The US is already proposing incentives for protecting and enhancing the great rainforests of the world.

This US approach of purchasing abatement rather than taxing economic activity is both market-based and incentive driven. It could offer the world a test mechanism which does not threaten trade competitiveness but offers practical action.

No doubt a joint initiative with Indonesia to bring the US and China together would appeal to our Prime Minister, particularly as he would have bipartisan support for reinvigorating Bush's Major Economies process.

In the meantime, we should not throw away our negotiating capital with China by unilaterally taxing our exports to the middle kingdom while giving their imports a leg-up against Australian domestic production in areas such as paper recycling. Instead, we should just get on with direct action in Australia through greater use of solar, geothermal and gas energy and providing incentives to improve carbon capture in our farm soils.

As Andrew the physiotherapist says, just keep it simple and start with small, but real, steps.

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