Climate change: the policy that broke Australia's polity
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Climate change: the policy that broke Australia's polity

Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces a tough headwind as the world's next global warming conference approaches in Paris.

Dateline: Denmark, December 2009. Snow covered the sprawling complex where Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong addressed a weary Australian press pack. It was after midnight and neither minister had slept in 24 hours. Wong swayed as Rudd rambled on.

The Copenhagen climate summit was winding up. Hopes of a tough binding agreement were dashed. For Australia's chief climate warrior and internationalist-extraordinaire, it felt like betrayal: of the future, of Australia, and perhaps even of Rudd personally.

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch.</i>

Illustration: Simon Letch.

Not only that, the acclaimed China specialist had misread the Middle Kingdom, whose Premier Wen Jiabao had decamped leaving a third-level secretary to mix it with world leaders.

When Rudd returned home, his political nerve was so shattered he not only benched a secret plan for an early double-dissolution election over his emissions trading scheme, but he would soon wilt on climate policy itself. Suddenly, the greatest moral challenge of our time could wait. It did more to erode faith in Rudd than all his faults and critics combined.

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A factory in eastern China: Climate change is top of the agenda.

A factory in eastern China: Climate change is top of the agenda.Credit:Reuters

Now, as the world positions for Paris in December, the biggest climate summit since Denmark, the danger for Australia is aiming too low in squaring up to a problem that is only becoming more urgent.

Australia will announce its post 2020 targets within weeks. Most comparable economies have already done so. China's pledge is expected any day amid speculation that it might be more ambitious than previously thought. Once it has announced its targets, countries accounting for more than half of global emissions will have declared their plans for reductions to 2030 against an agreed aim of limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees Centigrade.

Australia's commitment is expected to be middling, although as with Kyoto in the late 1990s, may well be accompanied by special pleading due to our coal-based economy.

Australia's response to climate change has been the policy that broke the polity. It is implicated in the demise of a succession of party leaders including John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd (twice), and most spectacularly, Julia Gillard of "no-carbon-tax" fame.

Even Tony Abbott, who in a narrowly electoral sense, has leveraged it to greatest effect, has done so as "a bit of a weather vane" on the subject.

Elsewhere, though, the issue has not been nearly as divisive. In February, despite the febrile urgency of a looming election in Britain, competitors agreed in advance of that poll to lift climate change off the battlefield.

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg committed to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy in a landmark deal welcomed by Felipe Calderon, of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. He even nominated climate policy as the great unifier. Imagine that in Australia. It would serve "as a positive example to other countries struggling to act on climate change", he said.

The UK's climate maturity reflects not merely the ever-accumulating scientific evidence, but the undeniable economic imperatives to adapt or be lumbered with huge old-economy costs. Increasingly, this is being seen through the prism of risk.

That air pollution is a blight on China, stealing lives, and hammering the economy, is no theory – it is observable fact.

"All (parties) recognise that it is in the UK's self-interest to act now to reduce climate risk by investing in a better, lower-carbon, less polluting growth model," Calderon noted.

His commission's report, Better Growth, Better Climate estimated the number of "premature" deaths each year from air pollution globally at 3.7 million. China's share of this is as high as 1.23 million in 2010, costing it between 9.7 and 13.2 per cent of GDP, according to studies.

That air pollution is a blight on China, stealing lives, and hammering the economy, is no theory – it is observable fact. Which is why China's reluctance in Copenhagen to forego the very energy which had turbo-charged the growth of rich countries, is already giving way to a new reality – that it cannot afford to keep poisoning its own people, nor to lock itself into a high carbon/slower growth track. It is a further sign that, outside "fortress" Australia, the atmospherics of this debate are becoming clear.

The US has pledged to cut its emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on year 2005 levels by 2025. Conservative-led Canada, with a similar fossil-fuel dependent economy to Australia, has tucked in behind pledging a 30 per cut - albeit by the later 2030 date. Australia might well do the same. The EU is way more ambitious again aiming at 40 per cent by 2030 and that's on 1990 levels.

It is food for thought for the "anglophile" Abbott. If his political touchstones – the British Conservative Party, Canada's Stephen Harper, and free-enterprise America itself – are not enough, the Catholic Church has now weighed in on the moral end via a Papal Encyclical from Pope Francis.

"Humanity is called to take note of the need for changes in lifestyle and changes in methods of production and consumption to combat this warming," he writes.

"The attitudes that stand in the way of a solution, even among believers, range from negation of the problem, to indifference, to convenient resignation or blind faith in technical solutions."

That doesn't leave a lot of options for Australia's famously Catholic, famously anti-windfarm Prime Minister.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.

Mark Kenny is the national affairs editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House