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Changing climates

What’s in a name? Electricity Bill versus Typhoon Tony

AAP/Alan Porritt

The day after Philippines president Benigno Aquino appealed to the world to take action on global warming following the up to 379 km winds that devastated his country, the Abbott government was introducing its legislation to repeal the carbon tax.

You couldn’t ask for a greater contrast in outlooks on climate change. A president was appealing to the world to help his country avert catastrophe in the future - which is destined to be exposed to many more Typhoon Haiyans, and in the future will be the new normal in intensity - versus a prime minister who has “hogwashed” the climate signal sent by recent NSW bushfires to press on with the repeal of an emissions trading scheme that provides hope for avoiding dangerous climate change.

Instead of making such a fuss of meeting with Indonesian president SBY several weeks ago to sow up the self-interested electoral politics around asylum seekers, perhaps offering more assistance to the Philippines’ homeless, injured and displaced - that a wealthy nation like Australia is so well-placed to do - might have been a more principled follow-up act. But, as Australia has cut its overseas aid budget, that course is not very likely.

At present, the Abbott government is more intent on prosecuting the carbon tax repeal. However, such a move is an act of symbolic posturing to honour a pledge made that this would be the first act in parliament, whereas Abbott already knows that he does not have the support to pass such legislation until July 1 next year.

That it is being pursued with such vigour now has more to do with reconstructing economic agendas that are favourable to short-term growth at all costs. In the long term, however, climate change will create a permanent end to economic growth.

But, Abbott’s insistence that the last election was a “referendum on carbon tax” does not really stack up. It is true that the carbon tax was always part of the soundbites along with asylum seekers and the budget, but polls that separate out issues have consistently shown climate change to be fundamentally important to the electorate.

The toxic tax scare was always just a scare, especially given that as Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute has shown, repealing the carbon tax will more likely result in only a A$150 benefit to households per year. Contrast this with the mandate claimed for bringing the budget under control, which is to be addressed by raising the national credit card limit by $200 billion.

Meanwhile, in the chamber, the emotive theatre of the carbon tax repeal legislation has revolved around personalising (in)action on climate change. Speaker Bronwyn Bishop allowed Christopher Pyne’s reference to the “Electricity Bill Shorten” to stand. This reference - that Abbott has used outside the chamber on many occasions now - to link the toxic scare factor to Shorten would be clever if it had more substance than an impact of 40 cents per day on households.

However, Greens leader Christine Milne has weighed into the name calling by labelling the prime minister “Typhoon Tony”. Some see this as an undignified way to connect the climate inaction of the Abbott government to the Philippines disaster.

But in the US, there is a campaign and petition to name hurricanes and storms after denialist politicians such as Hurricanes Michele Bachman and John Boehner. With parliament sitting again - and already showing signs of descending into chaotic rancour might - might we see Perfect Storm Pyne, Cyclone Cormann, Tornado Turnbull, Heatwave Hockey or the Frydenberg Floods?

As a form of highly parochial theatre, such appellations may have a place in parliament, but really betray the serious global nature of extreme weather.

Last night, the World Meterological Organization released its Provisional Statement on Status of Climate in 2013. It indicated that 2013 will likely be the among the ten warmest years since global records began in 1850.

The climate extremes already observed this year count the Australian average daily maximum of 40.3C in January as its first item. It observes that:

The annual number of record high temperatures in Australia has doubled since 1960, with 2001−2010 seeing the highest number on record among the past five decades.

In Africa, the hottest March temperature (47.3C) ever recorded in the whole of Africa was recorded in Vioolsdrif, South Africa on March 4. In Pakistan, 51C was reached in Lakarna in May. A record was broken in Austria of 40.5C at the end of an unprecedented 20 day heatwave. July and August saw a marathon heatwave in southern China exceeding 40C, while temperature records were also broken in Japan in August.

Records were also broken all over the world in the categories of drought, bushfire, flood, rainfall, cyclones and extra-tropical storms. The continuing extremes in global weather may be calling out for extreme measures on cutting carbon, but naming politicians after them is unlikely to be helpful.

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