How John Howard could help turn Tony Abbott around on climate

John Howard made sure he was facing the same way as other world leaders on climate policy, unlike the current Prime Minister. AAP Image/David Crosling

Throughout his prime-ministership, which ran from 1996 to 2007, John Howard’s perspective on climate change was informed by geopolitics more than science. The Kyoto Protocol, the key international climate agreement, was agreed in December 1997 when his government was in its infancy. But he never ratified it.

For Howard, until Australia’s major allies and trading partners agreed to the binding emissions reductions set out in the protocol, there was no advantage to a country with a small population – not to mention a major domestic and export coal industry – in signing up.

On climate change, as on most international matters, Howard maintained that Australia’s interests were best served by staying in lockstep with the United States.

Ten years ago, when I was working at Downing Street for then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian environmentalists, politicians and public officials would ask me how the Australian position was perceived internationally. My answer was that it wasn’t. No one thought Australia had anything relevant to add to the international negotiations while it remained so wedded to US President George W. Bush’s inaction and lack of interest.

Even as Howard began to see the political wisdom of implementing further domestic policy measures, his position never really changed. In its final years, his government took several actions, including the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs and the generous funding of programs to halt deforestation in southeast Asia. And the Shergold Review into emissions trading allowed Howard to make a price on carbon a key part of his election platform. In the one televised debate of the 2007 campaign, the sole new policy announcement was a new climate fund from a re-elected Howard government.

Yet even faced with the worst drought since European settlement, the worldwide influence of the Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change and Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the one element of Australia’s position that Howard would not countenance moving on was ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.

This essentially diplomatic signal was too much for a Prime Minister who was otherwise able to go with the tide of domestic political sentiment. The result was that no matter what he did, Howard’s standing ended up being undermined by his years of tokenism and indifference.

The international agenda

And so to the incoherent, self-defeating policy agenda on climate change now being led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. So much for keeping climate change off the G20 agenda; China and the United States put it firmly back on, and foreign minister Julie Bishop’s ridiculous “correcting” of US President Barack Obama’s comments about the Great Barrier Reef kept it there.

For all there is to dislike about the policy mess that passes for the current government’s approach to reducing the risks of climate change, there is precious little for even the most diehard climate sceptic to like about it.

If you don’t believe the world’s most esteemed scientific institutions about the risks of climate change, and choose instead to agree with Abbott’s chief business adviser Maurice Newman that the whole thing is flawed propaganda, then why spend A$2.5 billion of taxpayers’ money on an emissions reduction fund?

It is debatable whether such a central government grant scheme will do anything other than be a cipher for half-funded speculative projects, unable to account for what level of emissions reduction will be achieved over what timescale. Leaders of the Soviet Union were enthusiastic about the potency of democratic centralism, yet the results proved less than impressive. And what has happened to the Commonwealth Treasury mantra going back more than 30 years that it isn’t the government’s responsibility to “pick winners”?

Even in pure accounting terms, how can even the very smartest government bureaucrats know how this overblown grants programme will achieve the country’s modest emissions reduction targets, let alone what will be needed after 2020? One thing is for certain: it will require more public money, not less.

Poor Greg Hunt. Minister with responsibility for climate change is an impossible job in any government; you have the symbolic duty with none of the foreign, economic, transport and energy policy power. Climate change is a problem of wicked, unprecedented complexity, far wider than an environment portfolio can ever handle. Examine what the government is looking to do with our money, and the manner in which the programme will be administered: “Direct Action” is just another way of saying “government knows best”.

Turning the tide

Yet Hunt grasps what Abbott and Joe Hockey apparently don’t: you can’t divorce your economic strategy from your plan to address climate change. The Stern Review famously described climate change as the greatest market failure the world has seen. Having helped to initiate the review, I still believe it represents the most rigorous analysis of what is required to reduce emissions at scale.

Governments, like anyone else, can either accept or reject even the most rigorous analysis. Harder is ignoring the positions adopted by influential organizations such the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the International Energy Agency. Or the position of China (our largest trading partner) and the United States (our closest ally), both of which are now openly committed to achieving a legally binding climate agreement in Paris in December next year.

While Howard swam with the geopolitical tide, Abbott is now paddling against it. When the government reveals its planned emissions cuts beyond 2020, and how much it plans to contribute to the international Green Climate Fund, we’ll know whether, or how, he plans to turn around.

Julie Bishop might not want to hear the US President talk about the risks to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change. Joe Hockey might maintain a tin ear and tell us climate change is all Greg Hunt’s responsibility. But next time the Prime Minister seeks advice from John Howard, he might just ask him about how best to now respond to the clear geopolitical momentum on climate change, and seek Howard’s view on how hard it is to catch up on an issue that is not, no matter how much they might want it to, going away.

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