Australia, the sunburned country, is uniquely vulnerable to the dangers and risks of global warming. Whether it is the severe effects of flooding, unseasonal heat waves, devastating bush fires or decade-long droughts, Australia’s people, economy and natural environment have all keenly felt the impact of extreme weather and climate change.
Australia's national scientific organizations have been raising the alarm for more than a decade, and the previous government accepted that scientific consensus and enacted a cap-and-trade scheme in 2012. But after a divisive election last year -- one that saw native-born Rupert Murdoch exercise his considerable influence in Australian media markets to disastrous effect -- the country is now governed by a deeply unpopular Liberal-National government, crafted in the image of the most climate-denying elements of the Tea Party. And its position on climate change has significant impacts on global efforts to reduce carbon emissions: Australia is not only the chair of the G-20 group of nations, but also holds a place on the U.N. Security Council.
The rest of the world saw this ideology on full, embarrassing display with the recent visit by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Canada and the United States. A week after President Obama’s introduction of substantial policy reforms to reduce carbon pollution, and China’s first-ever pledge to cap carbon emissions, the Australian prime minister stood next to his Canadian counterpart and scoffed at the idea of global warming, saying that climate change is “not the only or even the most important problem that the world faces” and that measures to reduce carbon emissions would “clobber” the economy.
All of this marks a shift for Australia, from constructive middle-power to fringe-dwelling rock-thrower and -blocker. Back at home, Tony Abbott is on course to make Australia the first nation in the world to abolish a legislated carbon price.
But how on earth did this happen?
The calm before the storm
Tony Abbott was elected prime minister last September, after six years of rule by the progressive Labor Party, which had engineered Australia's leap forward as a leader on global climate policy. Following its rise to ruling party in 2007, the first act of the new Labor government was to ratify the Kyoto protocol, after a decade of refusal by the former prime minister and close George Bush ally John Howard. Howard himself was defeated and ignominiously lost his own seat in parliament. Labor's historic victory was later dubbed the world's first “climate election.”
For the decade leading up to that 2007 election, Australia had suffered a prolonged drought affecting almost the entire continent. Water restrictions were introduced in most major population centers, and the nation’s food bowl, the Murray Darling Basin, was close to collapse. A series of severe bush fires also ravaged the country, peaking in 2009 with Australia’s worst ever bush fire disaster, Black Saturday, when 173 people died.
Public support for action on climate change was at an all-time high, and before the 2007 election, Labor leader Kevin Rudd called climate change the “greatest moral, environmental and economic challenge” facing Australia and the globe. He repeated the statement and the sentiment many times as prime minister.
On the back of this wave of support, Rudd introduced carbon pricing laws in 2009 called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The conservative opposition was in disarray, and its private-equity millionaire leader Malcolm Turnbull, a climate-action advocate, largely supported the policies. So did, surprisingly the national coal-miners union.
Someone who did not support the legislation was Tony Abbott. Backed by the hard-right sections of his party -- many of whom openly denied the scientific basis of anthropogenic global warming -- he defeated Turnbull in late 2009 in a vote for the leadership by a single vote. The carbon pricing laws were then defeated in the senate, where the Greens party voted with the climate deniers to block the carbon pricing laws. Two moderate Liberal-National senators crossed the floor to vote with the Labor government, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Council to deliver the strong climate action that many were hoping for, combined with the failure of the carbon pricing laws in the senate, saw Rudd shelve the policy to concentrate instead on the economy and healthcare reform in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. His moral and political standing subsequently collapsed, and he was replaced as prime minister in 2010 by Julia Gillard.
Unholy alliance: Murdoch, Norquist and Abbott
In 2010, Gillard managed to shepherd a cap-and-trade law to passage, in the form of the Clean Energy Future Act. However, the government's popularity was on the wane, and the opposition party took full advantage. Tony Abbott called the science of climate change “crap” and various senior figures in his front-bench team openly questioned the scientific basis of anthropogenic global warming. Abbott spoke at anti-carbon price rallies in front of banners proclaiming Prime Minister Gillard as a “witch” and a “bitch.”
Behind the scenes, several key members of Abbott’s party including the now-Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, visited the United States to meet with conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, and conservative players in last year's government shutdown debacle of 2013, including Matt Kibbe and Grover Norquist.
Gillard's carbon pricing laws eventually came into effect in 2012, amid the biggest fear campaign ever seen in Australia. Rupert Murdoch-owned mastheads, controlling as much as 70 percent of the newspaper market, carried front-page stories attacking the laws.
U.S. climate-denier talking points became commonplace in the Australian media. Gina Rinehart, whose wealth is significantly derived from coal mining, aggressively bought up shares in Australia’s only major non-Murdoch-owned media company, Fairfax. She is now its largest shareholder. Australia’s only national daily newspaper, the Murdoch-owned Australian, promoted “misleading” stories giving credence to climate denialist views, outnumbering those accepting climate science by 10-to-1, according to a report in the Quarterly Essay.
A senior Liberal-National senator who played a major role in Abbott’s rise to the party leadership was sponsored to attend a Heartland Institute conference in 2013; that same senator is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that has opposed climate action in the past. Another senior backer of Abbott and former Howard government minister, Nick Minchin, who has since retired, is an avowed climate skeptic and claims recent warming is due to a “natural cycle”
Despite the fear campaign, after a year of operation of the carbon pricing laws, the evidence was in: Carbon emissions from the now carbon-constrained sectors of the economy decreased by 7 percent, and new renewable energy generation increased by 30 percent.
Nothing was going to save the Labor government, though. They were swept from power by the Abbott-led opposition in September 2013. Abbott named repealing the carbon price laws as his No. 1 legislative priority in the days after the election. And among his first acts as newly elected prime minister, in contrast to Rudd in 2007, was to block the creation of an international Commonwealth climate compensation fund, and to abolish the independent Climate Commission.
Coal's terrible toll
To understand Australia’s conflicted and controversial path toward first legislating a carbon price -- and later its steps toward abolishing it -- it is important to recognize the huge influence that the fossil-fuel industry has.
Coal is Australia’s second largest export industry, and Australia itself has the largest reserves of brown coal in the world; globally it is the largest coal exporter. These reserves are the source of enormous revenue for state and national governments, through royalties and company taxes. Several of Australia’s billionaires, including the world’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, and newly elected member of parliament Clive Palmer, have substantial coal interests.
The domestic energy generation industry is also closely tied to coal, with around 76 percent of stationary electricity coming from coal-fired power stations. It was these utilities, along with big emitting heavy manufacturers, that were covered by the carbon price laws.
In addition to an ideological opposition to the reality of climate change, the Liberal-National party has received substantial financial support from the fossil fuel and mining industry. While the amounts are not comparable to the tens of millions spent on U.S. elections, for a nation of 23 million people the donated sums are large.
In Australia there are no federal caps on donations and corporations are legally allowed to donate to political parties. Regulations consist of declaration thresholds, which were controversially increased by the Howard government in 2006 from $1,500 to $10,000 (and then linked to inflation). Although Labor tried to reduce this threshold, it was blocked by the Liberal-National dominated Senate from 2007-13.
Major donors to the LNP since 2010 include Hancock Coal (owned by Gina Rinehart), Minerology (owned by Clive Palmer), Caltex (Chevron), QCoal, Santos and Woodside. Also contributing to the LNP were energy retailers AGL, Origin Energy and Energy Australia.
At a recent Minerals Industry dinner, Prime Minister Abbott clearly stated that he thought “our job in government is to keep mining strong” and reaffirmed that “we are determined – utterly determined – to abolish the carbon tax.”
According to a report by Charles Sturt University professor Clive Hamilton, almost $13 million was donated by fossil fuel interests to the Liberal-National party before the 2007 election.
More recently, the Independent Commission Against Corruption in the state of New South Wales has discovered that an entity associated with the Liberal-National party called Eight-by-Five was operating to allegedly circumvent donation declaration laws. Key players involved in the scandal included a coal magnate who was allegedly seeking planning approval for a $1 billion coal loader. Eight-by-Five was linked to federal senator and assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos, who was the former chief of staff to Prime Minister John Howard from 1996 to 2006.
The commission has uncovered the extent and depth of influence held by mining companies and developers in the Liberal-National party in the prime minister’s home state of New South Wales.
Similarly, an investigation revealed that in the coal-rich state of Queensland, a QCoal corporate affairs executive was seconded by the mining company to the Liberal-National party to work full-time in the lead-up to the 2012 state election. QCoal’s owner, Chris Wallin, is one of the LNP’s largest donors, and QCoal also made large donations to the LNP. There is no indication of unlawful behavior.
The age of Abbott
After Abbott won the election, he announced a review into Australia’s previously bipartisan renewable energy target. Set at a goal of 20 percent renewables by 2020, the renewable energy target has been criticized by the fossil fuel energy producers for lowering the price of electricity and reducing demand from high-emitting stationary power stations. Liberal-National party donors Origin Energy and Energy Australia have been lobbying for the target to be reduced.
Abbott’s review is headed up by climate skeptic and anti-wind farm businessman Dick Warburton. He was a significant business voice against the carbon price under Labor and has expressed the view that climate science is not settled: “On the cause there’s huge debate about whether carbon dioxide is the main cause.”
Finally, the scheme announced by Tony Abbott to replace the carbon price, called “direct action,” has been criticized by businesses, unions and conservation groups alike for its enormous expense for no perceivable carbon emission reductions. It has been called a “fig-leaf” for climate deniers by several commentators, notably the former Liberal-National party leader Malcolm Turnbull. The policy amounts to massive government regulation and handouts to polluters in contrast to the market mechanism of emissions trading.
While Prime Minister Abbott is doing all he can to stymie action on global warming in Australia, his views also have an international impact.
Australia has a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and holds the chair of the G-20 group of nations. At the UNFCCC, Australia has joined the shrinking group of fossil fuel-addicted nations like Canada and is now seen as “anti-climate” at multilateral negotiations.
Australia’s climate obstinacy comes at a time when President Obama is forging ahead with his own direct action. Abbott is now significantly out of step with Australia’s major ally and trading partner on climate policy; this saw substantial confusion as to whether he would cancel meetings with the heads of the IMF and World Bank, both of whom are climate action advocates. (He later met with both.)
The same ideological and climate-denying foes in Congress who are blocking a path forward for Obama have secured a foothold in Australia. Abbott’s actions no doubt give credibility to the climate skepticism and stalling tactics of denialist Republicans.
But despite the scare campaign and media cheer squad against climate change and the carbon price, Australian public opinion is swinging back in favor of action.
Opinion polls show that not only is Tony Abbott one of the least popular prime ministers in 40 years, but also that Australians are again increasingly concerned with global warming.
This change in public opinion coincides with unprecedented heat waves, unseasonal bush fires and threats to the Great Barrier Reef. This May saw a record-matching hot streak in a normally cool month, leading to Twitter wits quipping that “Winter is not coming” to Australia.
The carbon price repeal has already been blocked in the senate. A new senate will sit in July. Anything could happen.