In the end, it was Tony Abbott who got shirt-fronted, and not by the kleptocrat thug who runs Russia, but by Barack Obama — a leader with whom, pundits have assured us, Abbott is developing an increasingly close relationship. Evidently not close enough for the American President to give Abbott the heads-up on his pending climate action deal with Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping.

Then again, why would he? Abbott takes pride in his dismantling of a working carbon pricing scheme and his efforts to wreck investment in renewables, using his ever-shrinking Direct Action policy as a cover for climate denialism and a reflexive support for transnational resource companies. Abbott has nothing to offer countries genuinely interested in preventing the huge economic cost of climate change in coming decades, beyond a clear example of what not to do and asinine platitudes about how wonderful coal is.

The impact of the announcement could be understood through the reaction to it. The Minerals Council bravely declared that it was good news for Australian coal because our coal is so clean — just ask the residents of Morwell — and would be cleaner still with carbon capture. That’s the Alice in Wonderland technology that requires years of massive R&D investment before it’s clear whether it will even work outside a lab (and remember, spending taxpayer money on carbon capture research is “innovative R&D”; public investment in proven renewables technologies is “wasteful subsidisation”). But at denialism’s in-house newsletter, The Australian, Greg Sheridan was desperately insisting the climate deal “won’t change a thing” and it’s only “climate hysterics” who think otherwise.

With Abbott desperate to keep climate off the G20 agenda (because it’s not an economic issue … an even more bizarre form of denialism than claiming climate change doesn’t exist), the announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time for him. The Coalition’s entire post-Malcolm Turnbull strategy on climate action has been based on an assumption that there would be no concerted international action on the issue, especially by the biggest economies. That would allow Australia, with its risible bipartisan target of a 5% emissions reduction by 2020, to escape serious scrutiny (indeed, our emissions have now started rising again after a period of decline). As Treasury stated in 2010, the government’s Direct Action policy won’t even achieve that 5% at its then-budgeted allocation — which has since shrunk considerably. But Abbott has said there won’t be any more money allocated to it even if it falls short.

Whatever implausible hopes the government has that Direct Action will be enough turn to pure fantasy given that Australia now has no excuse not to lift its emissions reduction target from 5% to 15% or higher in the wake of international action. That’s why the Obama-Xi agreement is so damaging: it leaves the Coalition with no place to hide on an issue where it has long wanted to have it both ways — to behave like the denialists and resource company advocates they are but pretend to want to address climate change so as not to lose mainstream voters.

Coming after Abbott so visibly failed to follow through with his rhetoric of aggression toward Putin — he “shirked the shirt-front”, as one TV news bulletin put it — the deal means the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit has been a wretched experience for Abbott. Former prime minister John Howard famously had a terrible APEC in Sydney in 2007, for different reasons; maybe it’s political karma for all those years in the early 1990s when the Coalition bagged APEC as one of Labor’s grand follies.

The government will now attempt to switch attention to its own deal with China, the free trade agreement it is desperate to finalise for Xi’s visit to Canberra on Monday, with the fallback option of signing an agreement on the finalised areas while negotiations on the harder issues continue. These bilateral free trade agreements have been proven to add little to the economy and if anything merely delay much-needed liberalisation here so it can be used as a bargaining chip by the economic illiterates of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Still, the governments like to make a big deal of them and after this week, it will take anything it can to appear internationally credible.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey