In September last year Crikey reported on rumours doing the rounds that George W Bush was readying to about-face on climate change. Now they surface again, with talk apparently coming out of Downing Street that the President may, in his State of the Union address, finally set the US on the path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It might not be time to sell your Humvee stock yet. In last year’s address, Bush surprised everybody by saying that the nation was addicted to oil, then surprised nobody by doing nothing of substance about it.

But even putting aside the disastrous mid-term election for the GOP, bipartisan support for effective action on the climate change issue has been steadily advancing.

This week, two potential 2008 presidential rivals, the Democrats’ Barack Obama and John McCain for the Republicans are co-sponsoring a bill that would see emissions cut by two thirds (relative to 2004) by mid-century.

The straight-talking McCain has never shied away from breaking ranks with his colleagues, and this is the second time he’s joined Lieberman on a climate bill. The last one was defeated in the senate, but this time around — with the Democrats controlling both houses — the outcome is less easily predicted.

But some less likely players are also deboarding SS Denial. Alaskan Republican senator Ted Stevens has got environmentalists all giddy with his call for a significant tightening of fuel efficiency standards.

Stevens has been a climate change denialist in the past, but when much of your state’s infrastructure is built on frozen ground, the climate can easily make a liar of you. The poleward retreat of the permafrost is already having some interesting geophysical consequences there. And irony of exquisite ironies, the Alyeska pipeline that carries oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in the south, would be at serious risk due to slumping.

For Alaska’s politicians this encapsulates the dilemma — high latitude areas are undergoing the most rapid climatic and climate-driven environmental changes, but Alaska’s state revenues largely flow from the oil industry. Each year, every Alaskan citizen over the age of ten receives a fat royalty cheque in the mail before Christmas.

Given the state of the Iraq fiasco, Stevens can probably have the best of both worlds – he can call for action on climate change, and at the same time justify increased exploitation of North Slope oil reserves (including opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 1002 area for exploration) in line with calls to reduce US dependence on foreign oil.

The dominoes are falling – even Bush’s evangelical support base is siding with the Darwinists on the climate change issue. If he flips on the question of emission reductions, what will the Australian response be?

In some ways, the Australian situation is similar to Alaska’s – our exposure to climate change is large, and our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels equally so, though with governmental largesse in the form of periodic tax cuts rather than direct handouts. In others, it’s very different – as a nation, our key energy resource is not only sourced here, it’s also our biggest export commodity. The arguments are economic rather than strategic. Then again, as made clear in the Stern report, business as usual could be a recipe for economic disaster.

Mr Howard’s best of both worlds response to the problem is clean coal technology, which he discussed with Chinese delegates at the ASEAN summit yesterday. But the test of whether a government truly believes its proposed strategy will be climatically effective is its willingness to consider binding emissions reductions. So far, Mr Howard has been unwilling to do this. But given that the US rejection of Kyoto was Australia’s primary reason for doing the same, if Bush changes tune, he’ll have little choice.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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