Editorial
Refusing Obama’s other call

The speech to the United Nations by US President Barack Obama this week was notable for its clarity on the issue of climate change and political responsibility. The basis of its candour is worth reproducing at some length, for those in this country who could benefit from similar frankness.

“Let me be honest,” Obama said. “None of this is without controversy. In each of our countries, there will be interests that will be resistant to action. And in each country, there is a suspicion that if we act and other countries don’t, that we will be at an economic disadvantage. But we have to lead…

“Yes, this is hard. But there should be no question that the United States of America is stepping up to the plate. We recognise our role in creating this problem. We embrace our responsibility to combat it. We will do our part. And we will help developing nations do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass.”

Obama spoke as the man responsible for the world’s largest economy and who leads a country that counts as its second-largest emitter. He was not without skin in the game.

For its part, Australia essentially boycotted the summit. Tony Abbott was purposefully absent from the session. Julie Bishop was there, but only to make the case for her party’s farcical, unlegislated and disproved Direct Action plan.

Obama was clear in his agenda, however: climate change is the greatest problem facing the world, greater than terrorism or inequality or disease or any other threat. The science has been categorically decided. But the problem was being properly realised just as it was becoming too late to do something. Urgency was paramount. So was unity.

When Obama talks about interests resistant to action, he is talking to a hostile congress. He is talking to an element in the political class.

In Australia, however, we have an entire government bent on inaction. We have a government that won an election on the simple promise to destroy a tax broadly recognised as the best way to manage carbon emissions. This is a government so vociferous in its anti-science rhetoric that in opposition it saw public acceptance of anthropogenic climate change go backwards only as the literature proving its reality mounted.

Action on climate change in Australia, urgent as it is, will not come from Abbott’s government. This he has made clear a thousand times since first deciding inaction would be the fissure on which he would split the party room and win the opposition leadership. It is a stubborn and unseeing position, blind to sense, that will only be corrected by an informed and unyielding public.

Obama’s UN speech, again: “Our citizens keep marching ... We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call ... We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Refusing Obama’s other call". Subscribe here.