LIMA, November 30: 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 US 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, Clinton went way further, saying it was facing destruction.
Here’s a key excerpt from Clinton’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.
“We must stand together against the threat of global warming. A greenhouse may be a good place to raise plants; it is no place to nurture our children. And we can avoid dangerous global warming if we begin today and if we begin together.”
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, Peru – 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 and from Japan – and, of course, most other European countries. Then, as now, Australia was an outlier. It sat virtually alone in the 1990s, with Saudi Arabia, in throwing up road-blocks to the Kyoto Protocol.
Its 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.
Having gained the “Australia clause”, and then antagonised the world by refusing to sign the treaty, Kevin Rudd brought Australia back into the heart of negotiations. The election of Abbott put it back to the margins, provoking an about-face in its negotiation position in Warsaw last year that stunned observers, and ultimately the destruction of its 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 Australia can expect further “bollockings” in the months to come, particularly as the moves to seal a deal in Paris intensify. The current 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 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 losing influence and will continue to do so. “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 has only just started.”
This is especially true within Australia’s own region. The Chinese were reportedly quite stunned that Australia did not want 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.
As Narendra Modi made it clear during his visit, India doesn’t want energy technology that melts glaciers (unless Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is crazy enough to pay them for it), and its energy minister has contemplated ceasing coal imports within three years. China is likely to do the same, and Australia’s LNG exports are pegged in price to oil, which is crashing.
As for the negotiations themselves, Australia plays a visible role as spokes-country for the Umbrella group, and a member of the moderate Cartagena group (a legacy of the Labor years, when Australia was more constructive).
Insiders say Australia – despite appearances – 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.” 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 (Monday) Australia is taking possibly its smallest ever team to an annual climate change convention, known as a 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 would sign up 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 EU undertook – because they look to 2025, 2030 and beyond.
And, on the other main points that need to be resolved at Lima, Australia is not co-operating, particularly on the content and timing of the individual targets, and the ability of the UN to review them. It shows no interest, and no policy mechanism, to lift its ambition pre-2020. And on climate finance, another key issue, Abbott refuses to contribute. Instead, without a hint of irony, he has been promoting the Clean Energy Finance Corp, but he wants to abolish that too.
And if Australia hopes to leverage another “Australia clause”, it is likely to be disappointed. Even if it did, Abbott might cut the appearance of a Neville Chamberlain brandishing such an agreement.
The importance for Australia is not a diplomatic exemption card, the critical importance is for the economy. And Australia – given the repeal of the carbon price, and the nobbling of the renewable targets, is betting the house of fossil fuels, principally coal.
There is no plan B.