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Changing climates

Can JFK save Australia from its climate crisis?

AAP/Alan Porritt

What is little known about coal baron and federal MP Clive Palmer is his interest in world affairs – and his adulation of the great American president John F Kennedy, and interest in US politics in general.

Such is Palmer’s reverence for Kennedy that he has donated almost $5 million to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and has been unanimously elected to the President’s Council, presided over by Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter.

Palmer has great expectations to be influential in a global sense that appears not just reducible to his business interests. For example, in 2012, Palmer was appointed joint secretary-general of the World Leadership Alliance, where he announced aspirations to be a “major adviser to the G20”. He would most certainly have been advised that in the upcoming G20, to be held in Australia, the one issue that the Abbott government has been pressured over is climate change.

Enter stage left, former US presidential candidate and climate campaigner Al Gore who, in meeting with Palmer and sharing the press conference with him, has observed the Palmer United Party’s commitment to retain the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Renewable Energy Target.

All of these were in Abbott’s sights for abolition, but are, for reasons explained below, more important than the tainted wreckage of an over-exposed “carbon tax”, which began with too high a price – as Palmer pointed out in the press conference. Starting afresh with an emissions trading scheme (ETS) that references the rest of the world is a positive development that actually isolates the Coalition. It brings back a terminology that was lost with Labor’s ETS – that Abbott, with the help of News Corp, managed to metamorphose into a “tax”.

At the same time, Abbott’s isolation follows from the stigma of being the only leader to be pushing through the dismantling of a carbon reduction scheme at the same time that carbon mitigation policy worldwide is acquiring an urgency which acknowledges that humans are changing the climate at 10,000 times the natural rate.

Perhaps with the influence of Gore, Palmer is also not going to support the “waste of money” and ineffective Direct Action foil, which will put more pressure on Australia to come up with an effective ETS.

But it is Palmer’s statements acknowledging the urgency of climate change and expressing concern for future generations that reflects recent surveys on the importance of the issue to Australians that is the most profound aspect of the press conference speech. He said:

Australia acting alone cannot change the world, and change the world we must, not just for ourselves but for our children, and not just for them, but for all the children on the world, not just for our time, but for all time. Time waits for no man, and the challenges we face are not easy, but face them we must, and we must face them together.

Climate change is a global problem and it must have a global solution. Air moves around the world. Many countries fail to act because they are unsure how the issue will be dealt with by other nations. Australia has an opportunity to set a standard which can act as a catalyst for the whole world, to set a fair framework which the world can follow.

In understanding climate change we must remain ever vigilant and be aware of how Australia as part of the international community is doing and more importantly what the global community can do together to make the lives of all thos who inhabit this planet more secure. Together, we can achieve the extraordinary.

Palmers’s emphasis on international co-operation focuses on the two nations that he has the closest connections with, the US and China – which are not only the largest emitters, but are moving toward ETS faster than any other nations around the world.

As for Gore’s presence, he knows the importance of lobbying Palmer as a coal billionaire who has manoeuvred himself into a gatekeeping position on climate in Australia. In one sense, Gore and Palmer have effectively neutralised Abbott on carbon, as there is no issue about which Abbott has been so ideologically and zealously driven as the pre-election version of the carbon tax on which he would bring on a double dissolution for.

But while the Gore intervention may have given Australia a reprieve from the worst possible international embarrassment, it is the international context of climate policy that may bring the ruination of both Palmer and the government’s economic growth agenda.

Not only is Australia the only nation on earth dismantling an ETS (albeit temporarily according to Palmer), but no other nation is expecting coal to deliver so much economic prosperity as Australia does. Placing so much store in coal has even led Abbott to herald Australia as a future “energy superpower”.

However, a chorus of voices came out last week warning of the immense economic risks of continued carbon emissions both to nation-states and the global economy. Former US Treasury Secretary and Republican Henry Paulson has warned of a coming climate crash, bigger than the global financial crisis of 2008.

Just like the GFC, Paulson says the US and the world is wildly overspending on carbon. Government settings are all wrong in the sense that encouraging the overuse of carbon is no different than borrowing too much to finance homes. You have to break the cycle of addiction before these dependencies create a monster that takes on a life of its own, beyond which humans lose control.

But Paulson also points out that while the GFC narrowly avoided a total economic collapse, climate change is “a more intractable problem” because carbon dioxide, unlike debt exposure, “remains there for centuries”. Paulson’s own practical remedy is to form the “Risky Business Project” with billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to steer business and investor decision-making around the globe away from fossil-fuel.

Here in Australia, former Liberal leader and businessman John Hewson has also forecast a “sub-clime” crisis. He argues that:

What we saw in the Global Financial Crisis pales in comparison to the potential sub-clime crisis lurking in boardrooms and banks. It’s a crisis born out of a lack of transparency, a denial of the cold hard facts of scientific and economic models.

Hewson cites the examples of international financiers as HSBC and Deutsche Bank in withdrawing from the Abbot Point coal export port situated on the Great Barrier Reef.

Such a quasi-crash has the power to send even the most cashed-up coal miners to the wall. Time for them to get into another line of work. Actually, Palmer already has. He has become a politician.

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