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News haiku: Tony rides roughshod

Prime Minister Tony Abbott gallops into Texas where he is honored with a Stetson hat. Haiku by Kim Arlington, animation by John Shakespeare.

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Americans who travelled abroad during the George W. Bush years have some sympathy for Australians and Canadians right now – it’s not easy being citizens of countries run by international laughing stocks. People laugh at you, then get angry: just remember Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or referring to Australia as Austria.

Americans have a slightly easier time of it at the moment. Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill, and there’s still plenty of reason for the rest of the world to look askance (drone attacks, the NSA collecting your Gmail). But at least he’s a serious human being with a wide-ranging intellect.

"Yee-ha!" Prime Minister Tony Abbott was presented with a Stetson and made an honorary guest of Texas when he spoke at the Asia Society in Houston last Friday.

"Yee-ha!" Prime Minister Tony Abbott was presented with a Stetson and made an honorary guest of Texas when he spoke at the Asia Society in Houston last Friday. Photo: Andrew Meares

Less so Tony Abbott, who is Bushian to the max. Last week he journeyed to Texas, where he gave a talk to some oilmen who awarded him a ten-gallon Stetson hat. Upon donning it he said 'yee ha'. Really.

Abbott’s only real concern is protecting Australia’s world-topping coal industry, whose expansion plans would make it utterly impossible to bring climate change under control. You would think Abbott might have noticed this – his continent is located closer than almost anyone else’s to the Antarctic, where scientists last month offered definitive proof that melting glaciers have committed the planet to an extra three metres of sea level rise. But instead Abbott’s travelling the world to try to stop international efforts to combat global warming. In Texas, he told his audience we must prevent the "ostracizing of any particular fuel", as if he were the global ambassador of coal, determined to prevent his favourite hydrocarbon from having to take a back seat to what his Treasurer recently referred to as "utterly offensive" wind turbines.

VIDEO: Houston welcomes Tony Abbott

Stephen Harper, Abbott’s Canadian counterpart, is just as dangerously single-minded. Harper’s particular joy is not coal but tar-sands oil, perhaps the only fuel source that’s just as foul. A former oil company executive, he’s turned the country’s diplomatic corps into salesmen of the dirtiest petroleum on earth, and in general treated the rest of his great nation as if it were a grubby convenience store tacked on to his Alberta gas station. It’s gotten so bad that hundreds of scientists in white lab coats marched on Ottawa recently to protest his attacks on environmental regulations and scientific monitoring.

Because Canada and Australia have mostly benign and productive histories on the international scene, it will take a while for most world citizens to catch up with their new status. But those who are paying attention know already. Last year, for instance, the staid and venerable journal Foreign Policy began its cover story on Canada noting that it was now a "reckless, rogue petrostate". Those radicals at The Economist called Harper a bully "intolerant of criticism and dissent". Australia and it’s obsessive effort to keep King Coal alive despite its key contribution to climate change is getting similar international attention with the likes of Deutsche Bank and HSBC announcing they would not invest in projects that would bring coal through the Great Barrier Reef as planned.

All of this matters mightily. These men are decades behind the science – Abbott plans to combat climate change by planting trees, which would work better if his country was not by now battling constant drought and record heat – and they’re trying to blow up international negotiations in Paris next year. Canada has already renounced its treaty commitments and Abbott promises no new commitments. That could be enough to derail any agreement. Both Canada’s tar sands and Australia’s coal would then fill the atmosphere with enough carbon that it wouldn’t matter what their successors did. This new Axis of Carbon is a great threat to all of us.

The good news is that their extremism has spawned widespread resistance in both countries. Indigenous Canadians (First Nation) and coastal residents of British Columbia have so far blocked plans for tar-sands pipelines to the Pacific. Last week a mass walk-on at the site of the largest Australian coalmine under construction at Maules Creek helped force a serious delay in the project. Financiers are starting to question their visions for the future: one multinational last month shelved plans for a $10 billion tar-sands expansion plan, and at least half the new coalmines set for Australia are currently blocked. Instead, investors are looking at countries like Germany, where one day earlier this spring the country generated 74 per cent of its power from renewable sources.

Germany is what the future looks like. The leaders of Canada and Australia – highly educated, sophisticated, and wealthy nations, not to mention some of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth – are clinging to the past, on behalf of the fossil fuel industries that dominate their governments. Eventually (and hopefully before the planet’s physics are completely out of control) voters in these countries will realise they’re being driven off a cliff. In the meantime, perhaps they might want to pretend they’re Americans when traveling abroad.      

Author and journalist Bill McKibben is co-founder of climate change movement, 350.org.