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Feb 14, 2013

Obama’s new global warming push leaves Abbott in the cold

Barack Obama championed a cap-and-trade scheme on climate change yesterday. With a hostile Congress, he'll struggle to achieve it. Still it leaves the Tea Party-esque Tony Abbott behind on climate policy.

Here’s a statistic that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, the former trainee Catholic seminarian who insists that no other nation is pricing carbon, might find interesting. The number of people living in countries with carbon taxes or emission trading schemes will rise to about one billion by the end of the year. There are almost as many of them in the world as there are Catholics.

Abbott may wish this fact out of existence, but if US President Barack Obama has his way — as announced in his State of the Union (SOTU) address yesterday — and the world’s biggest economy introduces a market-based system to limit carbon emissions, that global carbon headcount would jump by 300 million or so by the end of 2014.

If China goes ahead with its pilot carbon schemes in a bunch of provinces and cities, and prepares for a wider scheme, that would add another 1.4 billion. Abbott may find himself taking Australian voters to a double dissolution election — where he would seek to win what would would effectively be a referendum on climate action — by pretending the world is not acting on climate change. To paraphrase and lightly censor a remark made by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet yesterday, it’s a load of bollocks.

So what did Obama say yesterday?

“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

Obama was expected to focus on climate change policies in SOTU, after making it a central point of his inauguration address, but the fact that he so specifically championed cap-and-trade has taken many by surprise.

Of course, Obama has said this before. His message after his first election and in the lead-up to the UN’s Copenhagen climate conference was: the climate science was in, the world needed to act, the US could not afford China and others to get ahead on clean energy; and if a carbon price wasn’t approved by Congress, Obama would take other measures.

Here he is saying much the same thing. He didn’t invest much in climate change in his first presidency because he expended so much political capital on Obamacare — and the fear is that he might do the same on gun control.

But this time, Obama does not have to worry about seeking re-election, and this is a President very much focused on his legacy. Even in his first term, behind the scenes Obama was making good on at least some of his vows to regulate on climate; the extension of tax credits to renewable energy, an extensive loans program for new technologies, and tighter emissions and efficiency standards means that the US has, sort of, kept touch with China. It installed as much wind energy capacity as China in 2012, and about half as much solar PV.

More importantly, the US has lowered its emissions over the last four years. Some of this is the result of the shale gas boom. As David Roberts from Grist noted overnight, Obama’s policy has been to reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase fossil fuel production. Whatever you think of that, the gas boom has given Obama critical room to move.

A bill on a carbon price is to be introduced into the US Senate as early as today (US time) by independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Democrat Barbara Boxer. Details are scant, but it seems likely to be a form of carbon tax that would  impose a “fee on carbon pollution emissions” and fund “historic investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass”. It would provide rebates to consumers to offset any efforts by oil, coal or gas companies to raise prices.

Sounds a lot like Australia’s scheme. Of course, with the numbers in the Congress and the implacable opposition of the Tea-Party block of Republicans, it has no chance of passage. That means Obama will go back to his policy of executive, or direct action.

But there’s a big difference between the direct action that Obama envisages — tighter emission controls on coal-fired generators, ambitious energy efficiency standards in cars, a doubling of renewable energy targets, a doubling of “energy productivity”, as well as a continuation of the loans program to push through new technology innovation — than the wishy-washy “Direct Action” plan of Abbott. He remains bizarrely fixated on his 18,000-strong “green army” and working bees. Abbott wants to give handouts of taxpayers’ money to achieve the sort of efficiencies from polluters that Obama will make compulsory.

The man chosen by the Republicans to rebut Obama’s speech was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favourite dubbed the “crown prince” of the movement. Just as Abbott earlier this month wondered why the carbon price had not changed the climate after six months, Rubio dipped into the climate denier’s handbook by claiming the government cannot control the weather.

“We can pass a bunch of laws that will destroy our economy, but it isn’t going to change the weather,” said Rubio to his preferred audience on Fox News. And this is what Abbott had to say in his stump speech in January: “Isn’t it bizarre that this government thinks that somehow raising the price of electricity is going to clean up our environment, stop bushfires, stop floods, stop droughts?”

And just as Abbott has vowed to dump the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and incentives for the new technologies, Rubio railed against “wasting more taxpayer money on so-called ‘clean energy’ companies like Solyndra”. The extent to which Abbott is in lock-step with the Tea Party pin-up boy is uncanny.

Bill Becker, the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, says Obama is very likely the “last American president who can keep us from plunging helplessly off the climate cliff. Judging by his Inaugural and State of the Union speeches, he gets that.” But Becker said the weakness of acting by executive decree is that these decisions can be rescinded by his successor, or a future Congress. This, of course, is exactly what Abbott proposes to do in Australia.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

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13 thoughts on “Obama’s new global warming push leaves Abbott in the cold

  1. Mike Flanagan

    He is not only ‘left out in the cold’ he must be attending to his own frostbite along with Bernadi, Kormann, Hunt and all of his ALEC and Tea Party adherents.

  2. Lee Miller

    Best if we start telling the economy which way to go and stop buying so much stuff until the fundamentalists get the message.

  3. mattsui

    “The extent to which Abbott is in lock-step with the Tea Party pin-up boy is uncanny.” Given that Abbott said it first, I’d suggest that the Tea Party’s new hope is in lock step with him…… Either way, they’re both marching toward a cliff!

  4. AR

    Yeh but no but yeh, like the bloke putting on running shoes when he & hios mate are being pursued by a lion, “you can’t outrun a lion!”, “I only have to outrun you”, MM doesn’t have to deal with reality, only obfuscate for the ignorant.
    Tomorrow it’s breakfast in the ruins.

  5. Suzanne Blake

    Hi Giles

    Your joking, its all Obama talk like before. Look atthe EU price, it has collapsed and now even Treasury said that from 2015 the carbon tax revenue will collapse here and leave another black hole for the incoming Government

  6. Achmed

    Abbott plans to repeal the current carbon reduction plan and penalties that the polluters pay. This financial penalty is what funds the tax cuts and compensation to pensioners etc. Abbott plans to maintain those tax cuts and compensation without any “income” from the polluters. Then under his plan, Direct Action, he is going to give the poluters taxpayer from the bugdet. So reduced incoming and increased out going – talk about black holes!!!

  7. Mike Flanagan

    Achmed; Hi!
    I believe you are right in your assessment. He will neutralise much of the public approbrium by shovelling money out to the farmers through the scientifically discredited soil sequestration plan.
    What I find intriguing is his recent trip to London at the same time as the new anti science funds and trusts are being established, as identified in the Enviroment section of the Guardian.
    It seems to me, more than plausible that Bernadi acted as his advance party to enable him to access these new funds and developed anti science material for the coming election
    He has neither explained, nor been questioned by the press as to what he meant with his statement “I am here on very important business for the nation”.

  8. Achmed

    Mike – what a diference. Abbott goes to London and states he on “very important business for the nation”. (as Opposition Leader???) Yet when he went to Indonesia he refused to discuss his “turn the boats back” policy with the Indonesian President something I would have thought is “very important business for the nation”.

  9. Mike Flanagan

    I don’t think SB wanted to talk to Abbott on any substantive matter after listening to the previous ten years of Downer’s haranging in place of productive diplomacy.

  10. Hamis Hill

    It might be useful to look again at that soil sequestration argument.
    During the recent ten thousand year drought (which ended with the birth of the Murray and Murrumbidge rivers five thousand years ago) most of the light, organic components of the continental soil were blown out to sea, leaving the other minerals inaccessible to plant life.
    Irrespective of the present argument about Global warming Australian soils are degraded and the build up of organic materials in that degraded soil will release plant nutrients and probably pay for itself in increased yields.
    It is probably the best place for Coalition BS.
    The ten thousand year drought corresponds to the similar gap in the rock art in the Kimberleys.