Australia and Canada: Climate bad boys

Governments around the world may not be moving fast enough in tackling the issue of climate change, whether in terms of mitigation, ambition or infrastructural build-out. But it’s clear that most of them are at least moving in the right direction.

But there are two mid-ranking powers —both in the G20, one in the G8—that are not just global warming laggards, but have made sharp u-turns from earlier international pledges, overturned previous governments’ climate legislation and boast leaders that are themselves climate sceptics and have even muzzled climate scientists.

They are what could be called the Bad Boys of climate change: Australia and Canada.

Respectively, they are the eleventh and fourteenth largest greenhouse gas emitters per capita in the world, and together represent 2.58% of total global emissions.What their story highlights is how resource-extraction dependent economies are struggling to rally behind the global climate diplomacy process.

Obama trumps Abbott at the G20 in Brisbane

The Australian exception was highlighted last November by sharp differences on climate between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Barack Obama at the G20 in Brisbane. The Australian press later reported Abbott openly clashed with the American head of state once the global leaders were behind closed doors, and told the rest of the summit that he was “standing up for coal”.

EU spokespeople at the time described climate negotiations with Canberra as “very difficult” and akin to “trench warfare”—normally the sort of language European representatives use to describe talks with powers from the Global South over intractable issues like climate finance and emissions mitigation burden-sharing.

Since coming to power in 2013, Abbott’s Coalition government (in Australia, the Coalition, with a capitalised ‘c’, describes the decades-long, almost party-like coalition between the main right-wing parties) has stripped back renewable energy subsidies, cancelled a series of large-scale solar projects, dropped the post of science minister and appointed an admitted climate sceptic to review renewable energy targets. During the G20, in a diplomatic middle finger to other heads, his government announced fresh infrastructure spending on the country’s largest coal mine.

But the most controversial move was in July last year, when the Senate repealed the carbon tax, the flagship climate policy of the previous Labor government, and replaced it with a policy largely based around young people tree-planting in the hopes that this will sequester carbon. The tax was launched in 2012 at an initial rate of US$23 per tonne to support an emissions reduction target of five percent below 2000 levels by 2020 (an already modest mitigation goal compared to for example the EU’s 30 percent on 2000 levels by 2030), with a plan to move to a European-style emissions trading scheme in 2014-15.

In its place is the government’s ‘Direct Action Plan’, a policy that will see firms, community organisations and local councils bid for AUS$2.55 billion in grants for projects they believe will reduce emissions. The scheme is not mandatory for polluters. Parallel to this, Abbott wants to mobilise some 15,000 young people between the ages of 17 and 24 who will be paid a small stipend while they volunteer in a variety of environmental projects such as planting trees, cleaning up riverbanks, and removing weeds, only some of which are climate-related. The government is to spend AUS$300 million on the scheme over four years.

However one feels about the viability of emissions trading or carbon taxes to solve the climate crisis, and there are many environmental groups and researchers who favour direct regulation, the voluntary approach endorsed by the Abbott administration is almost certainly unlikely to achieve the five percent target.

“We are taking a monumentally reckless backward leap even as other countries are stepping up to climate action,” the head of Australia’s Climate Institute, John Connor, said to the New York Times last year.

Meanwhile, there are worries that the government will go further to reverse previous governments’ climate policies. Last year, the free-market and climate-sceptic Institute of Public Affairs think-tank produced a plan for the government’s budget cuts that included recommendations to scrap the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, abolish the country’s Renewable Energy Agency, eliminate climate change research being performed in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, fire thousands of staff from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and get rid of all climate change functions at the Bureau of Meteorology. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the main public scientific body in Australia and a source of some of the globe’s leading climate research, would also see thousands of staff eliminated. The report is not itself a government document, but given the Coalition is very close to the IPA, it gives a flavour of the Abbott administration’s inclinations.

Former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, a cabinet member in the previous conservative government of John Howard, has said that “a majority” of Coalition MPs do not accept that humans are driving climate change, and the prime minister himself is famous for saying “climate change is crap”.

Across the Pacific, an almost identically hard-right, climate-sceptic government in a country similarly heavily dependent on resource extraction has taken Canada in a parallel direction.

Since the Conservative Party came to power in 2006 under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Ottawa has rolled back much environmental legislation and hollowed out or reversed policies intended to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. Both Canada’s environment department and its department of fisheries and oceans have been subject to sharp budget cuts limiting the ability of staff to enforce regulations, and, in the latter case, undermined water protection projects. Agreements delivering hundreds of millions of dollars to provincial governments for enforcement of clean air policies have been annulled.

Before coming to government, Harper slammed the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist conspiracy”, so it came as little surprise when in 2007, Ottawa officially abandoned its Kyoto objectives and four years later formally withdrew from the treaty. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are on schedule to be higher than those in 1990, missing its reduction target by about 20 percent.

Perhaps most notoriously, the Harper government has radically restricted the ability of government scientists, particularly researchers involved in environment and climate-related fields, to speak to the media, the public and other scientists, leading to accusations from academics that the government is muzzling scientists.

In 2008, scientists with Environment Canada were ordered to refer all queries from the public and the press to public relations officers. They must seek permission from these communications departments before speaking to anyone, approval which often takes days, weeks, or is simply denied.

A 2010 complaint lodged with the country’s information commissioner from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic said: “[T]he federal government is preventing the media and the Canadian public from speaking to government scientists for news stories – especially when the scientists’ research or point of view runs counter to current Government policies on matters such as environmental protection, oil sands development, and climate change.

Two years, ago, researchers with Canadian Ice Services wanted to hold a technical briefing for the press and public on shrinking Arctic sea ice, but the press conference never happened. Only through access to information requests was it revealed that the scientists involved had to go through nine levels of approval. At the sixth level of approval, the event was suddenly cancelled. Meanwhile, reporters were forced to speak to US scientists about the findings of their Canadian colleagues.

Budgets have repeatedly slashed funding on the environment and basic research, favouring instead applied-research collaboration. The Conservatives have also abolished the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy and the position of National Science Advisor.

In 2012, in a stinging editorial, Nature railed against what it described as the Harper government’s “manifest disregard for science.”
Researchers, not normally the most partisan of people, have mounted thousands-strong “Death of Evidence” protests against the government’s actions and begun to organise themselves through an on-going national “Evidence for Democracy” campaign and pressure group, although many are petrified about speaking out publicly against these policies.
Biologist Katie Gibbs of the campaign group tells Road to Paris: “In 2012, Canadian researchers at the International Polar Year conference in Montreal were only allowed to attend with media minders that, walked around and followed them everywhere they went to make sure they didn’t say anything inappropriate.”

“It’s hard. You can sense the frustration of scientists when you read the emails back and forth,” Gibbs continues. “This shouldn’t have to be a partisan issue. It’s not about right or left. We would be just as frustrated whichever party was doing this. It’s not even about science. It’s about democracy.”

But it’s hard for researchers to speak out in both countries. Gibbs says that government scientists depend on their academic colleagues to speak out on their behalf.

Back in Australia, the government chief scientist Ian Chubb, a neuroscientist and board member of the country’s Climate Change Authority, has been one of the more outspoken researchers on the subject. He is adamant that others speak up as well. “Scientists must continue to try to ‘educate’ the public about the science of the climate and its changes. This will put them at odds with some members of the community – and with some politicians. But if they stick to the facts, explain the evidence in an accessible way, and be patient, then the message will get out. They should avoid distractions, even when provoked.”

Does it matter that these two are climate laggards?

Canberra and Ottawa have gone from, perhaps not quite the front of the climate pack, but at least somewhere in the middle, to being amongst the worst laggards. In November, the UN Environment Programme’s annual Emissions Gap report identified Australia and Canada, alongside the US and Mexico as the only countries that are on schedule to miss their own 2020 emissions reduction targets.

Then in December, in an annually produced international league table—the Climate Change Performance Index produced by the Climate Action Network—Australia was named the worst performing developed country in the world, and the second worst performing of any country, developed or not. The sole state to beat the southern island continent was Saudi Arabia. Canada faired little better, clocking in at fourth worst performer overall, sandwiched between Iran and Kazakhstan.

In June last year, while Abbott was in Ottawa for talks with his Canadian counterpart, the Australian press reported that the Australian leader was seeking to create an alliance of what he believed to be like-minded countries, all governed by conservatives, who would take similar positions in international discussions to try to turn the tide again climate change policy—specifically to try to thwart any international attempt at carbon pricing and efforts to use the G20 forum as another venue for discussions on climate action.  Abbott wanted to create a coalition of centre-right governments in the Commonwealth led by himself, Harper and the leaders of the UK, India and New Zealand.

However, UK Tories have pilloried Abbott’s Coalition government position on climate change as “eccentric” and “flat earther. Both the UK, as part of the EU, and New Zealand already have emissions trading schemes in place, and India is pushing forward with large investments in solar power and nuclear energy, having recently signed a climate deal with the US.

These efforts also fell flat at the G20. The other heads successfully pushed the final G20 communiqué at the last minute to include stronger language on climate change than Abbott had wanted. And while in November 2013, the two prime ministers had jointly dissented from backing the UN’s Green Climate Fund at meeting of Commonwealth heads, in Canberra under international pressure, Harper broke with his partner and announced that Canada would indeed make a contribution, as yet undefined. Abbott then buckled at the UN climate talks in Lima in December, announcing his country would also chip in AU$200 million (US$166 million), even if the entire amount is just rebranded funds already committed via its overseas development aid budget.

Why did the climate bad boys fail at the G20? One reason could be that since the debacle of the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen, world leaders have sought other international fora to informally discuss climate issues that can subsequently be presented as already agreed to the UN process. Governments have been in negotiations over climate change for well over two decades now. They are very much keen to be rid of this diplomatic albatross and Ottawa and Canberra are not helping in this regard.

Does this mean their stance is more an annoying headache than a significant problem for climate diplomacy?

Not at all. Domestically, they are still climate laggards and their emissions, while a small proportion of global emissions compared to the likes of the US and China, are nonetheless not negligible.

But more importantly, the two leaders are merely the most visible faces of a wider problem that international climate action has yet to properly tackle. And that is how we act with respect to communities, regions and even whole countries that are primarily dependent on resource extraction, and who fear that they will be abandoned as we make the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Abbott won both the leadership of his own party and the national election on the back of opposition to the carbon tax. It is worth noting that Australia is the world’s second largest coal exporter. Meanwhile, Harper’s political base lies in the oil fields of Alberta, the fourth largest province in the country. Both countries are heavily reliant on resource-extraction as the source of their prosperity. Mining in general represents 35 percent of Australia’s and 32 percent of Canada’s. The two states survived the recent global economic downturn relatively unscathed thanks to their brisk commodities export trade with China. Only Norway, amongst the developed nations, has a higher proportion of its exports, 46 percent, coming from mining, overwhelmingly in the fossil energy sector.

The fact is that Abbott and Harper were democratically elected. If other leaders, climate activists and researchers want them to change their tune, they will have to convince their electorate, not just their leaders. And these electorates have to be reassured that the transition to a green economy will be fair, that it will leave no one behind. They have to be able to trust that anyone who loses a job as a result of the transition will have another equally good or better waiting for them around the corner. They have to be able to feel comfortable that nobody will have to do with less, that no one’s economy will be weaker as a result of the changes, that the coming years and decades will be prosperous, not hair-shirted.

And this goes for anywhere in the world where communities depend on resource extraction for survival, far beyond Ottawa and Canberra. The Case of the Climate Change Bad Boys is important because even if the parties to the UNFCCC sign on to an ambitious deal, all that has to happen for the agreement to be rendered worthless is a perfectly ordinary change of government away from the current consensus amongst any of the major players.

  1. Gerry Dunn

    Some Canadians feel that we live in an elected dictatorship. The governing party won with 40% of voter support (60% of the population voted), and less than 30% of public support. But with the undemocratic Westminster process, the true wishes of the public are never represented. We need something totally different.

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