Abbott resists winds of climate change
Is Tony Abbott on the right side of politics for our times?
As he makes his way across Canada and the US, it’s hard to avoid comparing the prime minister with other world leaders and consider the shifts in global politics.
There is a growing “club” of conservative leaders: Abbott, New Zealand’s John Key, Canada’s Stephen Harper and India’s Narendra Modi.
Harper came in for high, bordering on gushing, praise from Abbott when he visited Ottawa.
The Canadian prime minister was something of a beacon to centre-right parties around the world, he said.
Personally, Abbott regards Harper as an “exemplar” of a contemporary, centre-right prime minister.
The Conservative Party of Canada liked the description so much it grabbed it for a political fundraising campaign.
In Harper, Abbott has found a political soul mate. They share a belief in getting public spending under control and ensuring nothing stands in the way of the resources sector and cheap coal-fired power, so crucial to both nations.
Signs of the pair’s closeness included an elaborate welcoming ceremony in Ottawa and a joint press conference in which the Canadian leader declared strong support for the repeal of Australia’s “job-killing carbon tax”.
But as he made the rounds of the United Nations and the White House, there are signs Abbott’s views may put him on the wrong side of history.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants to reinvigorate the climate change debate, scheduling a summit while leaders are in New York for the General Assembly in September.
US President Barack Obama has announced he wants the states to put forward programs to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 by whatever means, including emissions trading schemes.
It’s easy to write off both Ban and Obama as being in “legacy” mode as they complete their terms.
But they represent a growing concern that the wheels are falling off the climate action bandwagon, as countries such as Australia put a focus on economic growth well ahead of the environment.
While he has been in Canada and the US, Abbott has talked down the prospects of any greater ambition in cutting emissions as the UN seeks a new global agreement on climate change next year.
He insists that Australia is pulling its weight in terms of tackling carbon emissions, even though the $2.5 billion being spent on direct action pales when compared with the revenue and renewable energy incentive created by carbon pricing.
There is evidence carbon pricing – which will be scrapped by the new Senate within weeks – is a global trend that is only going to increase.
China is rolling out pilot emissions trading schemes in seven provinces covering almost twice the emissions of Australia’s scheme, with a view to setting up a national scheme in 2016.
Other Asian countries are watching China closely.
The European carbon market is well entrenched.
Public support for greater steps to address climate change appears to be solidifying, having waned in recent years.
A recent Lowy Institute poll showed 45 per cent of Australians believed climate action should be taken, even if it involved significant cost – up 12 points on the low set in 2012 – while 63 per cent said Australia should take a leadership role on the issue.
However, having put so much political capital into axing the carbon tax – which he says is “clobbering the economy” – there is no chance Abbott will pull back from his direct action stance.
Any chance of carbon pricing staying in place will depend on the attitude of the new Senate crossbenchers who take their seats from July 1.
Senators from the Palmer United Party, the Liberal Democrats and Family First favour Abbott’s position.
The risk for Abbott, though, as Obama has said, is the “public may get out ahead of some of their politicians”.
Abbott might then face the choice of electoral retribution or reworking his direct action plan to a form of carbon market involving the trading of permits and incentives to adopt cleaner and greener technology.
Both John Howard and Bob Hawke “discovered” the environment as an issue during their time in government, which delivered political as well as green benefits.
It remains to be seen whether Malcolm Turnbull’s comment about Abbott being a “weathervane” on the issue forces the prime minister to switch tack.