Tony Abbott’s trip overseas has certainly brought rewards. The timing
has been very fortunate, as it has relieved pressure on his government
over the budget. The political capital that a prime minister accrues for
being seen as a ‘global actor’ has most likely stabilised the
Coalition’s poll figures, which were heading over a cliff – at least for
the time being.
Timing can be everything in politics. It is easier to repair
relations with Indonesia while the president is near the end of his term
of office, and Abbott might be thinking the same – if not a little
prematurely – about the differences he has with US president Obama.
The elephant in the room here – one that is being played out in the
mainstream media globally – is, of course, climate. Obama is using the
time he has left in office to ramp up action on climate change, and the
obstacles he has faced over the past five years have been considerable.
The power of the fossil-fuel lobby and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News loom
large in US climate politics, and some have rightly criticised Obama for
not tackling climate ahead of issues like health care and gun control.
But in being able to bypass Congressional politics and imposing cuts
via the US Environmental Protection Agency, Obama has been able to make
up a lot of ground on climate. What is also making it easier for any
party in the US to lift its game on climate is the work of two
individuals: Katherine Hayhoe and Tom Steyer.
Hayhoe is a hardline climate scientist.
She also happens to be an evangelical Christian who is in high demand
from churches right across the US bible belt. Named in the top 100 most
influential people in America by Time magazine, Christian congregations
can’t get enough of Hayhoe as she turns up to churches to give
Powerpoint sermons on how Americans are failing to look after God’s own
earth – and that God is not happy.
The other hero of the moment in US climate politics is Tom Steyer,
the multi-billionaire who has now devoted his life to being the most
cashed-up climate activist on the planet. Steyer’s tactics and actions
are more aggressive than a Wall St trader, and he is already campaigning in states that are running Senate and gubernatorial climate denying-candidates in the US.
What stands out with these two activists is that they totally cut
through the political divide on climate change. This is something we are
yet to see in Australia. Hayhoe is talking to Republican voters much
more than Democrat ones. Steyer can bring down a Democrat governor just
as quickly as a Republican if they don’t play ball on climate.
But less known is the fact that Steyer’s biggest bugbear is the Keystone XL oil pipeline
from Canada to the United States. The approval of this huge pipeline to
deliver Canadian crude oil to US refineries on the Gulf Coast for world
export has been delayed throughout Obama’s entire term in office.
Steyer has a take-no-prisoners stance on this pipeline, which
environmental groups across the US and Canada have deplored as the last
thing a decarbonising economy would ever need.
But Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who has overseen the long
tail of the 18% increase in Canada’s carbon footprint due to tar sands
developments in Alberta, has argued for pipeline on mutual economic
Harper’s stance on climate is consistent with Abbott’s description of
him this week as a centre-right conservative. Like Abbott, Harper won’t
do anything about climate change if it is going to “clobber the
economy”, and climate politics is seen as much as an obstacle to the
Keystone pipeline as it could be to coal exports in Australia were it to
have sway it has in the US.
The redetermination of society as an economy is something Harper and
Abbott share with climate conservative and columnist for The Australian Bjorn Lomborg. Abbott’s statement in New York, prior to his private meeting with PM-maker-and-protector Murdoch, is pure Lomborg.
Climate change is a significant global issue – it is aSo, pretend that you accept the science, as you aren’t going to be
very significant global issue. Is it the most important issue the world
faces right now? I don’t believe so. It is one of a number of
significant issues that the world faces and we will do our bit. We will
be a good international citizen. What we are not going to do is clobber
our economy and cost jobs with things like a job-killing carbon tax.
able to take on the end-game of the enlightenment project, but just
trivialise its importance compared to an economic “growth-at-all-costs”
In this context, the narrative in the Australian media that Abbott is
a lonely fossil-fuel crusader who needed to meet with possibly his only
political friend in the world is somewhat parochial and distorted.
Clearly, Harper needs Abbott more than the other way around.
Abbott has other friends like Murdoch and Col Allan, and the Abbott
government does not need US approval to ship enough coal through Abbot
Point to get the world 30% of the way to achieving two degrees warming.
And if all of this coal from the Great Basins of Queensland does get
exported and then burnt in the name of economic growth, it will be
climate change itself that will be clobbering everyone’s economy.