In all the brouhaha and self-righteous indignation about how US President Barack Obama “dared” talk about climate change at the G20 last month, it is forgotten that nearly 20 years ago, when the international climate change debate was similarly poised, another American president came to Australian shores with an even more strident message.
That was in November 1996. And, unlike Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton actually did go to the Great Barrier Reef. They stayed at Port Douglas in north Queensland — one of the principal take-off points for reef tours. And while Obama was attacked by a thin-skinned conservative government for suggesting he would like his kids, and their kids, to see the reef intact, Bill went way further, saying it was facing destruction.
Here’s a key excerpt from Bill’s speech 18 years ago.
“Finally, we must work to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. These gases released by cars and power plants and burning forests affect our health and our climate. They are literally warming our planet. If they continue unabated, the consequences will be nothing short of devastating for the children here in this audience and their children.
“New weather patterns, lost species, the spread of infectious diseases, damaged economies, rising sea levels: if present trends continue, there is a real risk that sometime in the next century, parts of this very park we are here in today could disappear, submerged by a rising ocean. That is why today, from this remarkable place, I call upon the community of nations to agree to legally binding commitments to fight climate change.”
Those comments were made in the lead-up to the climate change conference in Kyoto, where the treaty that bears its name was signed, and which the current talks — due to resume today in Lima — hope to replace by the time the meeting in Paris takes place next December.
Clinton’s comments were followed by a series of “bollockings” against the Australian climate change position from the likes of Germany’s Helmut Kohl, Japan and, of course, most other European countries.
Then, as now, Australia was an outlier. In the 1990s, Australia joined with Saudi Arabia in throwing up road blocks to the Kyoto Protocol.
Australia’s recalcitrance was “rewarded” then because the world was keen to get any sort of treaty, and thus it gave Australia the so called “Australia clause” — which allowed it to increase emissions rather than cut them. So when the Abbott government crows about Australia being one of the few countries that actually met its Kyoto targets, it means nothing. And even less on the international stage.
Now, as talks resume in Lima with the best chance of an agreement in a generation — or since that Clinton speech — Australia is once again an outlier.
Although ex-PM Kevin Rudd brought Australia back to the heart of negotiations, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has put it back on the margins, shocking delegates in Warsaw last year, and destroying Australia’s much-admired domestic climate policies — a carbon price that was to morph into an emissions trading scheme, and a reasonably ambitious renewable energy target.
And it can expect further “bollockings” in the months to come, particularly as the moves to seal a deal in Paris intensify. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a polite one in Sydney last month, and this will continue — in public and behind the scenes — in the 12 months to Paris.
The problem for Abbott is that this position — even if it is domestically tenable, which is doubtful beyond the right-wing commentariat — is not tenable on the international stage.
As some old hands in the climate, diplomatic and international trade arenas explained, Australia is and will lose influence. “What we’ve seen in the G20 is a taste of what is to come,” said one former negotiator. “If you think that was tough, it is only just started.”
This is especially true within its own region. The Chinese were reportedly quite stunned that Australia did not want the environment — and environmental goods — included in the free trade agreement just negotiated. No other country has insisted on that.
The Pacific Island nations are most exposed, and Australia is the big power in the region. Australia’s position on climate change is likely to frustrate all the other things it has on its agenda, within the Pacific and in the broader area.
The ultimate test for Australia, however, is not whether it wins a diplomatic victory or otherwise. It is how its economy holds up as the world’s major economies change the colour of their economies.
In the negotiations themselves, Australia plays a visible role as spokes-country for the Umbrella group, and a member of the Cartagena group (a legacy of the Labor years, when Australia was more constructive). But insiders say Australia will be marginalised. “People will be very polite, but Australia will be left out of the major decision-making. That’s the biggest risk that this runs — because as an outlier, you end up being discounted as a player, and they roll over the top of you.”
And, the insiders note, the key is in the detail of policy. “You stop being able to get your way in fine print that you want, because you just lose influence.”
In Lima, where critical two-week talks begin today, Australia is taking possibly its smallest ever team to an annual climate change convention, known as COP — Conference of the Parties. This is COP20, and Australia will have just 12 people, led by newly appointed climate ambassador Peter Woolcott. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will attend, unlike in Warsaw where no minister was sent, and Trade Minister Andrew Robb has also been asked to drop in.
Australia is showing signs of a change in tack, with Abbott saying last month that he hoped leading countries will sign to ambitious targets. But it appears to most of the world as mere rhetoric.
It is betrayed by the fact that Australia has no post-2020 target and has made no effort to come up with one — apart from the Climate Change Authority, which the government is ignoring and wants to disband. That is the importance of what China and the US agreed to, and what the European Union undertook — because they look to 2025, 2030 and beyond.
If Australia hopes to leverage another “Australia clause”, it is likely to be disappointed. And Australia — given the repeal of the carbon price and the nobbling of the renewable targets — is betting the house on fossil fuels, principally coal.
There is no plan B.
*This article was originally published at Renew Economy