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Changing climates

‘Clobbered’: does Abbott care about Australia’s international standing on climate action?

Tony Abbott with Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Tony Abbott’s trip overseas has certainly brought rewards. The timing has been very fortunate, as it has relieved pressure on his government over the budget. The political capital that a prime minister accrues for being seen as a ‘global actor’ has most likely stabilised the Coalition’s poll figures, which were heading over a cliff – at least for the time being.

Timing can be everything in politics. It is easier to repair relations with Indonesia while the president is near the end of his term of office, and Abbott might be thinking the same – if not a little prematurely – about the differences he has with US president Obama.

The elephant in the room here – one that is being played out in the mainstream media globally – is, of course, climate. Obama is using the time he has left in office to ramp up action on climate change, and the obstacles he has faced over the past five years have been considerable. The power of the fossil-fuel lobby and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News loom large in US climate politics, and some have rightly criticised Obama for not tackling climate ahead of issues like health care and gun control.

But in being able to bypass Congressional politics and imposing cuts via the US Environmental Protection Agency, Obama has been able to make up a lot of ground on climate. What is also making it easier for any party in the US to lift its game on climate is the work of two individuals: Katherine Hayhoe and Tom Steyer.

Hayhoe is a hardline climate scientist. She also happens to be an evangelical Christian who is in high demand from churches right across the US bible belt. Named in the top 100 most influential people in America by Time magazine, Christian congregations can’t get enough of Hayhoe as she turns up to churches to give Powerpoint sermons on how Americans are failing to look after God’s own earth – and that God is not happy.

The other hero of the moment in US climate politics is Tom Steyer, the multi-billionaire who has now devoted his life to being the most cashed-up climate activist on the planet. Steyer’s tactics and actions are more aggressive than a Wall St trader, and he is already campaigning in states that are running Senate and gubernatorial climate denying-candidates in the US.

What stands out with these two activists is that they totally cut through the political divide on climate change. This is something we are yet to see in Australia. Hayhoe is talking to Republican voters much more than Democrat ones. Steyer can bring down a Democrat governor just as quickly as a Republican if they don’t play ball on climate.

But less known is the fact that Steyer’s biggest bugbear is the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the United States. The approval of this huge pipeline to deliver Canadian crude oil to US refineries on the Gulf Coast for world export has been delayed throughout Obama’s entire term in office. Steyer has a take-no-prisoners stance on this pipeline, which environmental groups across the US and Canada have deplored as the last thing a decarbonising economy would ever need.

But Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who has overseen the long tail of the 18% increase in Canada’s carbon footprint due to tar sands developments in Alberta, has argued for pipeline on mutual economic grounds.

Harper’s stance on climate is consistent with Abbott’s description of him this week as a centre-right conservative. Like Abbott, Harper won’t do anything about climate change if it is going to “clobber the economy”, and climate politics is seen as much as an obstacle to the Keystone pipeline as it could be to coal exports in Australia were it to have sway it has in the US.

The redetermination of society as an economy is something Harper and Abbott share with climate conservative and columnist for The Australian Bjorn Lomborg. Abbott’s statement in New York, prior to his private meeting with PM-maker-and-protector Murdoch, is pure Lomborg.

Climate change is a significant global issue – it is a very significant global issue. Is it the most important issue the world faces right now? I don’t believe so. It is one of a number of significant issues that the world faces and we will do our bit. We will be a good international citizen. What we are not going to do is clobber our economy and cost jobs with things like a job-killing carbon tax.

So, pretend that you accept the science, as you aren’t going to be able to take on the end-game of the enlightenment project, but just trivialise its importance compared to an economic “growth-at-all-costs” imperative.

In this context, the narrative in the Australian media that Abbott is a lonely fossil-fuel crusader who needed to meet with possibly his only political friend in the world is somewhat parochial and distorted. Clearly, Harper needs Abbott more than the other way around.

Abbott has other friends like Murdoch and Col Allan, and the Abbott government does not need US approval to ship enough coal through Abbot Point to get the world 30% of the way to achieving two degrees warming.

And if all of this coal from the Great Basins of Queensland does get exported and then burnt in the name of economic growth, it will be climate change itself that will be clobbering everyone’s economy.

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