Barack Obama certainly hit a sensitive domestic nerve when, speaking at the University of Queensland last weekend, he highlighted the threat climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Abbott and Newman governments were outraged, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is leading the attempt to discredit Obama’s argument and contain the damage.
In a series of interviews from New York on Thursday and Friday, Bishop said that before the speech she’d extensively briefed the United States Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, on what Australia was doing to protect the reef. Bishop was “surprised” the material wasn’t reflected in the speech. In light of that, her office then sent a briefing to the White House about Australia’s “commitment and capacity” to preserve the reef.
Obama’s omissions shouldn’t have surprised her. What she was citing – Australia’s work with UNESCO, a ban on dumping capital dredge waste, putting money into the health of the reef – were conservation measures. Obama was talking about the broad danger to the reef from climate change.
When he said he wanted the reef there for his future grandchildren to visit in 50 years’ time, Obama was referring to something quite different from what the Australian government is canvassing.
Obama told his enthusiastic audience: “Here in Australia [a climate that increases in temperature] means longer droughts, more wildfires. The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened.”
The government, by shifting to other issues affecting the reef, is suggesting Obama didn’t know what was being done despite Bishop’s best efforts to get the word to the White House. This is a disingenuous defence.
The government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 2014 Outlook Report put climate front and centre: “Climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef. It is already affecting the reef and is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the decades to come.”
One reason the government is particularly sensitive about the World Heritage-listed reef is because of the threat of it being declared endangered. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has expressed concern and will consider next year whether to put it on the endangered list.
On another front, the Great Barrier Reef can be seen as the soft underbelly of the climate issue in Australia, making the government potentially quite vulnerable. It is an iconic part of the country’s natural heritage, like Uluru or Kakadu. When the reef is talked about in this context, as Obama did, it focuses the debate about climate change around something tangible and much valued by Australians.
If the American president says the reef is at risk, people might start to take a lot of notice. Hence the desire to suggest Obama had got it wrong or, in some sections of the media, that he had been insulting to his host government to make such a speech in the first place.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Friday that a State Department official last weekend received a terse phone from a senior staffer from the Abbott office who had rung to “express their displeasure at not being afforded the courtesy of a forewarning that the US President was planning to come to Australia to dump on the PM”.
Maybe Australia’s officials should have done more to suss out what Obama would say on climate. After the big US-China deal on emissions only days before, it could be expected he would play it up while in Brisbane.
Not that Obama was likely to be too worried about Abbott’s sensitivities. His pressing concern is to punch through internationally on the climate issue.
And anyway, Obama might remember that it was one of Abbott’s entourage who privately called him the “lamest of lame duck presidents” before their White House meeting earlier this year. Obama is seeking to prove that even a lame duck can do some important things.
The fact is the Abbott government finds the ground shifting on the climate and it is struggling.
While there is obviously a big gap between the US and Australia on the issue, the government repeatedly runs the fiction that their policies are similar.
Bishop told Sky on Friday: “The United States is not imposing a carbon tax. The United States is taking direct action to clean up coal-fired power stations. They are moving to other forms of energy … So I think there are very similar paths that the United States and Australia [are] taking on climate change.”
Meanwhile, Australia is still conspicuously not contributing to the Green Climate Fund.
Even Canada, led by Tony Abbott’s soulmate on climate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has just announced that it will give $300 million to the fund. That mightn’t be as politically damaging as the Obama speech, but it’s embarrassing for Australia.