Today, tens of thousands of people around Australia rallied for action on climate change.
— Alexander White (@alexanderwhite) November 17, 2013
— Tim Christodoulou (@tim_chr) November 17, 2013
— David Spratt (@djspratt) November 17, 2013
— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) November 17, 2013
— Julie Collins (@JulieCollinsMP) November 17, 2013
— GetUp! (@GetUp) November 17, 2013
The rallies were organised by a coalition of environmental and social advocacy groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, the United Firefighters Union, and Get Up, in protest to the Abbott government’s moves to scrap the carbon price, abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, cut funding for the CSIRO, ignoring the Climate Change Authority on carbon pollution emissions, and much more besides.
This week, federal parliament sat. We finally were able to see the shape of the Abbott-led Liberal-National government. The extent of their climate denialism is becoming more evident.
It seems that Abbott is intent on turning Australia into a charco-state — a nation that pursues economic riches from coal, gas and other fossil fuels no matter the social or environmental cost. A charco-state is the coal equivalent of a petro-state, a country where the economy is dominated by oil interests and where the government is both highly dependent on oil tax revenues and deeply infiltrated by oil-industry interests.
Australia is at risk of becoming a charco-state. Here are five warning signs.
1. Ignoring the Climate Change Authority’s recommendation on carbon pollution reductions
The Climate Change Authority is an independent body created to advise the government on carbon pollution reduction targets and other mitigation initiatives. At the end of October, the Authority released its draft report into reduction targets. As Lenore Taylor reported at the time, the Authority’s report found at the existing 5% reduction target was “not a credible option”, and recommended increasing the targets to 15% or 25%.
In its draft report, the authority says the Coalition’s own agreed conditions for a tougher target have now been met. It says a 5% target leaves Australia “lagging behind” other countries, and sticking to the low target would leave Australia facing a near-impossible emissions reduction task after 2020.
A 5% target would “require implausibly rapid acceleration of effort beyond 2020”, the authority says. And, at least under the current emissions trading scheme, moving to a 15 or 25% target could be done at a “relatively small cost”.
Abbott’s response was to dismiss the report, and firmly stick to the inadequate 5% target. Fairfax reported that Abbott said: “We have made one commitment and one commitment only, which is to reduce our emissions by 5 per cent.”
However, the Liberal-National government’s only climate policy is the laughable “direct action” policy, which would see an increase in emissions and massive payments made to big polluters. The “direct action” climate policy could only have been created by people who don’t believe in climate change, and who do not want action taken to address it.
Abbott’s secondary comments on the CCA’s report was to refer to global binding targets — the only condition where he would consider a higher carbon pollution reduction target. However, Abbott is also committed to stymieing global action.
2. Australia “missing in action” at COP Warsaw climate negotiations
Abbott and his government have turned their back on supporting global action on climate change. This is best demonstrated by the decision not to send a minister to the United Nations climate negotiations in Warsaw. This decision was deemed “puzzling” by former executive secretary of the UNFCCC Yvo de Boer. The Guardian’s Adam Vaughan reported de Boer saying: “I cannot remember a previous occasion when a major player in this process has not been represented at ministerial level at the high level segment of the talks.”
The UK’s former top climate diplomat at the foreign office, John Ashton, told the Guardian that the decision by Australia was puzzling. “We are now in the phase of building momentum [towards a climate deal in Paris]. We are now in a critical two years, we won’t get another bite of the cherry.” Against that backdrop, he said that “for a major player not to send an elected representative is a pretty puzzling decision”.
He added: “If people draw the conclusion that that this is a country that would rather stick to a business a usual approach rather than building a low-carbon growth model compatible with [temperature rises of] 2C, no one should be surprised.”
Australia was also awarded the title of “Fossil of the Day” on the first day of the negotiations, by dint of Abbott’s decision to not put forward any new finance commitments.
Of course, if you understand that Abbott and his government do not accept the climate science, and that they want to keep Australia addicted to coal, then their decision becomes more understandable. Abbott does want to lock in a “business as usual approach”, where the coal and mining lobby runs his government by proxy. Which explains why Abbott is also dismantling support for Australia’s renewable energy sector.
3. Starving Australia’s renewable energy industries
Hidden in the bills to abolish the carbon price are provisions that are aimed at starving investment in renewable energy. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) will have its funding cut by by $435 million over the next three years, putting at risk projects that use technologies like large-scale solar, marine, geothermal and energy storage.
Kane Thornton, the deputy CEO of the Clean Energy Council, an industry body with more than 600 members that includes AGL and Pacific Hydro (hardly left-wing activist organisations), said in a statement:
“ARENA has enjoyed bi-partisan support since its establishment, recognising the importance of developing new technologies in delivering a cleaner, smarter and lower-cost energy system – and the major benefits in jobs and investment that follow,” Mr Thornton said.
“The government gave repeated commitments on its support for ARENA prior to the election and it is disappointing that the agency is now facing a significant budget reduction…
This unstable policy environment has had a clear impact on major technology innovators, developers and financiers, who will understandably be questioning their future in Australia.”
The gutting of this funding serves to highlight whose interests this government really serves. Before the election, reported Tristan Edis, Greg Hunt “repeatedly reassured stakeholders and this publication that the Coalition ‘fully supports ARENA’.”
4. Handing over environmental powers to the states
Last month, Tony Abbott announced that he had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Liberal-National government in Queensland, that would “streamline” environmental approvals. What this means is that the Queensland government can approve projects that would normally require federal approval under environmental laws. You can read the MOU here (pdf), which states:
Consistent with the objects of the MoU, Queensland will become responsible for assessing projects for the purpose of the EPBC Act to reduce duplication between jurisdictions, and – within 12 months – approving projects, when an approval bilateral agreement has been signed.
Of course, the Newman government in Queensland has a terrible record on the environment. A report in 2012 by The Global Mail highlighted the deeply embedded climate skepticism, and the ideological commitment to coal mining and export. Since his election in March 2012, he has overseen the rapid dismantling of Queensland’s environmental laws.
Newman has offered a glimpse of how he, given greater control, would steward Queensland’s areas of natural beauty. For example, he has publicly lobbied for development in the fragile Great Barrier Reef area, for which there are about 45 development proposals in the pipeline. And dredging work in the Gladstone area, which has already led to changes in environmental standards, is supported by the state government.
Abbott has willingly handed over federal environmental assessment powers to a government who has openly stated that “we are in the coal business”. The other recently elected government that is in the coal business is the Abbott government.
A range of environment groups have condemned this decision. Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Don Henry said “There does not appear to be a veto power for the commonwealth in what has been proposed. We believe it is illegal for the commonwealth to wash its hands of its responsibilities.” The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor reported Henry again:
“Previous Queensland governments have tried to allow oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef and major developments on Great Barrier Reef Islands. The Commonwealth Government has had to step in to protect the values of the reef on a number of occasions. The World Heritage provisions of Australia’s federal environmental laws provide these protections, ensure the national interest is pursued in decision-making, and make sure the national government is able to meet its obligations under the World Heritage Convention,” Henry wrote on the day the Queensland and federal governments signed the MOU.
“The Queensland Government will make decisions from a Queensland perspective. It is responsible to the population of Queensland, not Australia as a whole. We believe there is a very high danger that the Queensland government will undertake environmental approvals on the Commonwealth’s behalf that will threaten the universal values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Queensland government is not a party to the World Heritage Convention and as such its decision-making will not adequately reflect the responsibilities of the Australian government as a signatory to the World Heritage Convention.”
5. Demonising climate action as “socialism”
Tony Abbott made international headlines when he brought up Cold War era rhetoric to attack the carbon price and climate action, describing it as “socialism”. The language was used in Cabinet document, according to a report by The Australian, decrying contributions to global aid funds to assist developing nations adapt to or mitigate the impact of climate change.
This is not the first time he has done this. In 2011, he described the carbon price as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”, and he repeated this nonsense at the Tasmanian Liberal Party’s conference at the end of October, saying “Let’s be under no illusions the carbon tax was socialism masquerading as environmentalism.”
Statements like these are worrying, not just because they demonise legitimate action to reduce climate change or to adapt to it, but also because they reveal the extremist, fringe thinking of Tony Abbott and his cabinet. It uncovers the growing influence of the Tea Party, who denounce almost all government spending or activity as “socialism”.
Senior Liberal-National government ministers and influential backbenchers are cosy-ing up to senior Tea Party Republicans. Fairfax reported on the 14th of October that the finance minister, Mathias Cormann met with Tea Party leaders and organisations, including groups that fund anti-climate misinformation campaigns, when he was shadow finance minister:
Senator Cormann’s last meeting in Washington during a 2011 trip was with Grover Norquist, the prominent president of the Americans for Tax Reform, which asks political candidates to put in writing that they will oppose ”any and all tax increases”. Mr Norquist is also a board member of the National Rifle Association.
Senator Cormann also met six members of the Heritage Foundation, a tax-exempt think tank. The foundation’s political offshoot, Heritage Action for America, has guided efforts to withdraw funding on US President Barack Obama’s flagship healthcare policy, the Affordable Care Act.
Senator Cormann then met Matt Kibbe and Wayne Brough, of the Tea Party group Freedom Works.
One of the topics of conversation, according to Cormann’s parliamentary report on the tax-payer funded trip was to talk to these Republican and right-wing groups about “the likely approach in the US to emissions trading”.
Right-wing figures like Grover Norquist relish in shock-tactics, such as equating Nazism to socialism, and accusing President Obama of being a “European-style socialist”. Meanwhile, Jim deMint, the Heritage Foundation’s president, equated the Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as Obamacare) with “socialism”:
Heritage Foundation president and former Senator Jim DeMint suggested to a town hall audience in Wilmington, Delaware Thursday that health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid are “un-American” and built on the principles of “socialism and collectivism.”
“I cannot think of anything that’s more un-American than national government-run health care,” DeMint said. “Those who believe in those principles of socialism and collectivism we’ve seen over the centuries, they see as their holy grail taking control of the health care system.”
Though DeMint was referring specifically to the Affordable Care Act, a law the Heritage Foundation is urging Congress to defund in next month’s continuing resolution, his comments could also apply to existing programs that have more direct government involvement than the ACA.
Mathias Cormann isn’t the only Liberal senator visiting Tea Party extremists. Key Abbott supporter and outspoken climate skeptic Senator Cory Bernardi also went on a trip to the US, to meet with the Heartland Institute. Bernardi was a key player in the destabilisation campaign against Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 during the senate deliberations over the ill-fated carbon pollution reduction scheme.
This kind of language has only one purpose: to delegitimise and demonise supporters of the carbon price.
Since being elected only a few months ago, Abbott has started the systematic dismantling of scientific bodies and structures that would research or raise public awareness about the risks of run-away climate change.
He has spurned the recent United Nations multilateral climate negotiations by refusing to send a minister to represent Australia.
He has abolished or is seeking to abolish bodies that fund renewable energy projects and independent research into climate change.
He has handed over significant powers designed to protect the environment to a state government committed to fast-tracking the rapid expansion of coal and gas projects.
He has invoked extremist, Cold War rhetoric to demonise conservationists and environmentalists.
A petro-state is one where “the economy is dominated by oil and the government highly dependent on its revenues — so much that it distorts the rest of the economy as well as the political system. Petro-states typically have weak institutions, a high-concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and deep economic and political inequality.” A charco-state is the coal equivalent.
Are these signs that Australia is at risk of becoming a charco-state? Tell me what you think in the comments.