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As the change of leadership steers the Australian government even further from action on climate change, the Coalition’s efforts to appease the powerful domestic fossil fuel industry could jeopardise trade deals with the European Union. By Mike Seccombe.

Climate inaction could affect trade deals

It is not always pleasing to see ourselves as others see us. A case in point is a piece run this week by The New York Times, by its famously acidic opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, headed “The Trump vibe spreads down under”.

Reporting from Sydney, Dowd saw in Australian politics “plenty of echoes with America’s mad, ugly Thunderdome” under the presidency of Donald Trump. She itemised some of the similarities: pervasive and sexist bullying at the top of government, “wrenching battles” over the treatment of refugees, “galloping paranoia” on the political right and, of course, endless conflict over climate change.

In relation to that last issue, Dowd was particularly struck by the similarity in a couple of pronouncements by our new prime minister, Scott Morrison, and President Trump about coal.

“Morrison last year brought a lump of coal to the House of Representatives and stroked it while he complained about “coal-o-phobia” on the left,” she told her readers. This reminded her of Trump’s declaration at a rally in West Virginia a few weeks ago: “We love beautiful, clean West Virginia coal,” the United States president said. “And, you know, that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills, they fall down real quick. You can blow up pipelines, they go like this. You can do a lot of things to those solar panels, but you know what you can’t hurt? Coal. You can do whatever you want to coal. Very important.”

Dowd went on to note that it was the attempt by Malcolm Turnbull “to offer a modest policy on reducing emissions” that led to his removal from the prime ministership, and also quoted Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott, who called climate change “absolute crap” and likened efforts to fight it to the futility of “primitive people [who] once killed goats to appease the volcano gods”.

“Is he oblivious to the fact that half the coral in the Great Barrier Reef is dead, looking ghostly gray and white?” Dowd rhetorically asked the millions of Times readers.

Around the world myriad other reports echoed her incredulity. CNN, for example, produced a long piece in the run-up to the Liberal Party leadership coup headed: “Australia is devastated by drought, yet it won’t budge on climate change.”

The story, illustrated with images of a dying reef, drought-stricken farms, fires and coal stockpiles, found it “difficult to comprehend why Australia – a wealthy, developed nation that has long experienced crippling weather events – has failed time and time again to get a coherent climate change plan together”.

The “vast majority” of Australians, writes author Angela Dewan, have accepted the reality of human-induced climate change. Yet instead of doing something about it, “the ruling Liberal Party’s conservative faction, that has long resisted climate action, has framed the debate around electricity prices”.

Despite the fact “scientists have linked the current record-slashing drought to global warming,” Dewan notes, “the subject is still highly controversial in Australian politics, and climate change skepticism is still given political space.”

CNN’s story – published two days before the spill that removed Turnbull – predicted a leadership change “would mean even less hope for those who want action on climate change”.

But while Dewan failed to anticipate the eventual winner of the Liberal leadership contest – Peter Dutton was the only challenger at the time the piece came out – she was otherwise spot on in her prediction.

Within days Scott Morrison abandoned all pretence of a climate policy. Splitting the environment and energy portfolio in two, he gave the energy part of it to a man with a long history of opposition to renewables, Angus Taylor, who promptly declared he had no interest in climate policy.

“As the new minister for energy, my first and only priority is to reduce power prices,” Taylor said.

The environment ministry was given to a former mining industry lawyer from Kalgoorlie, Melissa Price, whose parliamentary record on environmental matters is most notable for her enthusiasm about using the poison known as 1080, or sodium fluoroacetate, to kill feral pests. That, and her steadfast refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change.

In a speech to parliament in 2016, Price suggested it was a moot point whether “so-called climate change is due to human behaviour, planetary motion, ocean currents or solar variability et cetera …”

In a media release issued on the day Morrison appointed her to the environment portfolio, Price omitted any mention of the words “climate change”. However in one of her few subsequent media interviews, she told Perth Now last weekend: “I am not a climate change denier.”

She went on, though, to wish that people would stop the “constant talk” about Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. She was singing from the same song sheet as Morrison and Taylor – the tune being that they believed in climate change and remained committed to reducing Australia’s emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, as per the Paris climate agreement. But they offer no plan for achieving that goal.

That is to say, they were climate change do-nothingists, rather than denialists.

They continue to insist Australia can meet its emissions targets anyway. On Radio 2GB this week, Morrison said we would do it “at a canter”.

All available evidence suggests the contrary. The government’s own environment department figures show that Australia’s greenhouse emissions, which had been declining under the last Labor government, have increased every year since the new Liberal–National government repealed the carbon price in June 2014. Its own experts say we are nowhere near being on track to meeting our international commitments.

At least Donald Trump had the honesty to admit he had no intention of honouring the Paris accord, and so would withdraw the US from it.

But the Australian government continues to pay lip service to the necessity for climate action, while taking no action.

Why? Most obviously because, as Malcolm Turnbull said at his press conference after losing the leadership, climate change policy is “very hard” for the Liberal–National Coalition because of “bitterly entrenched” ideological views.

“I think the truth is that the Coalition finds it very hard to get agreement on anything to do with emissions. The national energy guarantee is a vitally important piece of reform,” said Turnbull. “It’s a bit like same-sex marriage used to be, almost an insoluble problem.”

But the question goes deeper than that, for if you look around the world, you’ll quickly see that other conservative governments are not troubled by the same ideological issues. The Tory government in Britain, for example, has committed to emissions limits within seven years, which will see coal power plants forced to close unless they install carbon capture and storage technology. An emissions tax was brought in back in 2013 for power plants, which saw the country’s first day without coal-generated power since the industrial revolution. Broadly, conservatives in Britain have embraced renewable energy.

Australia, along with the US, is very much an outlier on the subject of climate change, a reality driven home by a study published in July in the respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Climate Change, which surveyed attitudes in 25 countries.

The study examined the correlation between climate change scepticism and other indicators of conservative belief across 25 countries. The US was the standout but Australia ran second – both were way ahead of other countries.

What the survey of more than 5000 people showed is “there is nothing inherent in conservatism that makes you reject the science of climate change,” says Matthew Hornsey, professor of social psychology at the University of Queensland and one of the authors of the Nature article.

“It is not part of the package of what you are supposed to believe to be conservative in most countries. It is not part of the suite of things expected of a conservative.”

Hornsey’s work in trying to understand the psychology of climate scepticism finds that education or “science literacy” play little role.

“What is quite predictive of whether you are climate sceptical is your world view: do you believe in the free market, do you have a hierarchical world view, an individualistic world view?

“These things have nothing to do with climate, but they are quite predictive of scepticism. It’s your underlying political agenda that makes you appraise the science in a particular way.”

And among the denialists and do-nothingists in this country, the underlying political agenda relates to vested interests. The powerful vested interests of the fossil fuel industry.

This week we saw a couple of examples of what happens when those vested interests collide with geopolitical reality.

One collision occurred 4500 kilometres out in the Pacific Ocean, when Australia’s new foreign minister Marise Payne met with the leaders of 17 other countries at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru.

Australia’s main concern at the meeting was the growing influence of China in the region but the other leaders – many of whose nations face an existential threat from rising sea levels due to climate change – were more worried about the Australian government’s failure to legislate emissions reduction targets.

The final communiqué from the forum made those concerns crystal clear.

“Recognising that climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people, leaders reaffirmed the importance of immediate urgent action to combat climate change and committed to sustained, high-level representation and collaboration in the lead up to, and at, 24th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (COP24) – to ensure effective progress on Pacific priorities with regards to the Paris Agreement,” it read.

Australia signed on, of course. However, the reality of this commitment will be tested at the upcoming COP24 talks, which will be held in Poland in December. If Australia reneges, its small Pacific co-signatories will likely have little recourse, given their dependency on Australian aid.

The other collision, though, was more consequential. It related to Australian efforts to negotiate a $15 billion trade agreement with the European Union.

Committed to the Paris climate accord, the EU expects its trade partners to be similarly avowed.

As Fairfax reported, Australia’s backsliding on its Paris commitments “did not go unnoticed at a meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade in Brussels …”

Helena König, the EU lead negotiator in the talks, reportedly faced “angry questions” about the Australian position on taking action to combat climate change. The story quoted her response that within these trade talks “it’s the [European] Commission’s position ... that we are talking about respect and full implementation of the Paris agreement.”

Scott Morrison dismissed suggestions that the trade deal was being put at risk by Australian inaction over climate change as “a complete furphy”.

But there are reasons to believe it’s not. The EU already has completed a massive trade deal with Japan, the details of which include specific provision that commitments to the Paris climate agreement be honoured.

The Europeans – France, in particular – are very serious about this. Back in February, the French foreign affairs minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, speaking in parliament about stalled trade negotiations with the US, was blunt: “One of our main demands is that any country who signs a trade agreement with EU should implement the Paris agreement on the ground. No Paris agreement, no trade agreement. The US knows what to expect.”

It was not enough, he said, that countries paid lip service to the Paris targets; future trade agreements would require legislation to be put in place supporting the pledges made to the deal.

He further suggested, in a recent interview with the publication Climate Home News, that the European Court of Justice could allow the commission to suspend parts of trade agreements for breaches of the sustainability chapter.

The EU’s trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström later backed this statement as well, citing the Paris clauses in the Japan deal and similar provisos in trade pacts with Mexico and the Mercosur trade bloc, which includes as associate members Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Suriname.

However, Richie Merzian, the director for climate and energy for the progressive think tank The Australia Institute, and a former climate and trade negotiator for the Department of Foreign Affairs, concedes the EU is not taking such a tough position, yet.

“The strongest proponent of a hard line in the EU is France,” he says, “which has a particular interest, as the host, for maintaining a strong position in support of the Paris agreement.

“The EU is a big, complex negotiating bloc, and it will have to work through its position. Right now, it is not clear how things will play out.”

But, he says, the issue of climate change is becoming ever more prominent in international relations.

“It will increasingly pop up at the G20, APEC, any multilateral forum you can think of,” he says.

The government, he says, has to view its energy policy not just through the “narrow lens” of domestic politics

“Part of the reason Minister [Julie] Bishop was able to bring Prime Minister Abbott around to agreeing to Paris and to putting in a commitment to the green climate fund in 2014, was because of the impact it would have on Australia’s position on our broader reputation and relationships.”

Yet the Morrison government appears intent on running a scare campaign around climate policy and energy costs for purely domestic political ends. Speaking to ABC Radio on Thursday morning, Energy Minister Taylor even repeated the old furphy about the South Australia blackout two years ago, as a warning against over-reliance on renewables, although it has been conclusively established that its cause was a storm that blew down the power lines.

He did not mention that South Australian electricity prices have fallen faster than those in any other state in the national electricity market over the past decade – albeit from a higher base – or that over the past couple of unusually windy months, wholesale power prices have been lowest in that state.

Nor did he mention that across the grid power prices have recently begun to fall, and are projected by the experts, including the government’s own experts, to fall further as more renewables come online.

No surprise there, though, given that a large part of the reason Australia now has a Morrison government rather than a Turnbull government, is the refusal of the Liberal Party to accept the necessity of action on climate change.

As Maureen Dowd said, it’s the Trump vibe, down under.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "Love for a coal climate". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.