Prime Minister Tony Abbott during a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 in Brisbane.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott during a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 in Brisbane. Photo: Andrew Meares

Five years after declaring that the argument behind climate
science was "absolute crap" – and  four months after proudly   repealing
 Labor's carbon tax – Tony Abbott this week stated  that strong and
binding emissions reductions targets must be set at next year's climate
conference in Paris. And he warned that the world could not afford
another disappointment like the Copenhagen summit in 2009. That
 statement, which  followed a meeting with French President Francois
Hollande, raised conjecture  that Mr Abbott was –  if not  the throes of
a  Damascene conversion  – then subtly shifting his position from
  leaner in chief of the developed world to willing, even  enthusiastic
lifter. "Targets have to be met," Mr Abbott warned, "and when it comes
to Kyoto, Australia more than met its reduction targets, and that can't
be said of other countries."

 When Mr Abbott gave his blunt assessment of climate change,
he qualified it by saying  "however, the politics of this are tough for
us". They have been especially tough of late. In a speech in Brisbane
last week, US President Barack Obama  declared that  no other country
had more at stake when it came to thinking about and acting on climate
change than Australia. "The incredible natural glory of  the Great
Barrier Reef is threatened," he said, adding that he wanted it protected
so that he could  visit the reef again, and later generations could
come and see it. Shortly after the G20 summit ended, Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper  appeared to  abandon  his  opposition to making
a contribution  to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund – a position
shared with Mr Abbott. To add  insult to injury,  a group of senior
British Conservative  politicians (including  Minister for Energy Greg
Barker)  suggested late this week that  Mr Abbott's position on climate
change  was "baffling" and a betrayal not just of the  fundamental
tenets  of political conservatism but of the beliefs of former prime
minister Margaret Thatcher –  who Mr Abbott identifies as a political
guiding light and who in 1988 became one of the first global leaders to
identify climate change as a threat.

Mr Abbott's growing international isolation on this  crucial
environmental matter  has not   deterred his cheer squad at home,
however.  Media commentators  rebuked  Mr Obama   for his "impertinence"
 in not informing Mr Abbott beforehand about the contents of his
speech.  And, efforts may well be made to impugn the reputations of the
Conservative MPs who took Mr Abbot to task, though there is nothing to
suggest that they are anything other than competent politicians with a
good grasp of the science of climate change and an appreciation of the
need for an appropriate environmental policy response.


Earlier this week  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop contradicted
the president's claims about threat to the Great Barrier Reef,
suggesting that Australia was employing world's best practice to ensure
the reef was preserved for future generations. Paradoxically, the Abbott
government has been an enthusiastic advocate  for the enlargement of
the Abbot Point  coal terminal north of Mackay, in spite of fears the
dumping of dredge spoil will further degrade the reef. Indeed, the
Australian Academy of Science has cast doubt over the efficacy of
overarching  environmental safeguards, suggesting that the  reef's 2050
long-term sustainability plan will be inadequate to achieve the goal of
restoring or even maintaining   the diminished value of the reef.


Mr Abbott would now realise that there are fewer places for
him (and Australia) to hide on climate change. If the support of his
brother  prime minister in Canada evaporates, then he will be standing
side by side with  Libya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela  and Egypt,
the last remaining climate-change holdouts. Such an unappealing prospect
might well explain the shift in his remarks  after meeting Mr Hollande.

Having made outright  opposition to effective climate change
measures a central pillar of his political success, Mr Abbott  faces  an
awkward task in transitioning to a more responsible and constructive
attitude. But transition he must. There will be an economic cost,  but
it won't be as great as he and his supporters think, particularly as
Australia's    emissions target  under the original Kyoto Protocol are
hardly onerous. And what jobs are lost are more than likely to be offset
by those created as a result of investment in new technologies.