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Environmental issues should have a global policy focus

By Shane Rattenbury - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

What should John Howard’s third term agenda focus on? You would expect Greenpeace to say "the environment", and we do, but with a particular emphasis on international environmentalism. International agreements and relationships with our neighbours have not proven the strong points of previous Howard governments. These international efforts, especially with regard to the environment, warrant urgent attention in the government’s third term.

There are, of course, numerous pressing domestic environmental issues that must be faced for the sake of both current and future generations. But if recent polls are to be believed there is a feeling in the community that domestic environmental issues are not as pressing as in the past. If this feeling is genuine the country is desperately in need of leadership. We must avoid the false sense of security that recent environmental wins may have engendered, because at a global level there is no sense of security at all.

Climate change is a clear-cut example. Described by the World Economic Forum as the greatest threat facing humanity, the likely extent and impacts of global warming require a concerted global response. Yet under the Howard Government, Australia has consistently dragged its heels in international negotiations to cut greenhouse gas emissions. From the initial agreement in Kyoto in 1997, where Australia won itself a generous target and consequently incurred the wrath of many other nations, through to the most recent meeting in Marrakech, the current government has acted on behalf of the domestic fossil fuel industry, with little regard for the global imperative.


There are plenty of reasons for Australia to tackle climate change seriously. We have been identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as one of the regions set to suffer significant adverse impacts, including increased drought, loss of snow cover and loss of coral reefs. At the same time, Australians are one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet.

Climate change has not been the only area of international environmental action where Australia has dragged the chain. Even the US, perhaps the most recalcitrant of climate polluters, shamed our government into action earlier this year when President Bush announced that they would sign the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. POP’s are dangerous chemicals linked to developmental defects, cancer and other grave problems in humans and animals. They move freely through the atmosphere, knowing no borders.

Although Australia has to date banned nine of the 12 identified chemicals, the government refused to commit to sign the Convention until left with nowhere else to go by the US announcement.

On our own doorstep, Australia’s vision for Antarctica is increasingly being diluted. The vision splendid was protection of all Antarctic flora and fauna, and the unique and almost pristine environment. It has now been blurred into a sad metaphor of opportunism and exploitation.

Australia had a proud history as an active proponent for the conservation of Antarctica. The Australian Antarctic Division notes on its website that "in 1989 Australia and France led the world in a drive for comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment."

It seems that proud history is being abandoned. Instead of long term conservation, Australia applauds short-term profit. This is particularly evident in the expansion of Australian nominations for new and exploratory fisheries in Antarctic waters. While there is an unprecedented explosion of illegal, unreported and unregulated pirate fishing, Australia refuses to consider a temporary moratorium.


And in the ocean to the east, Australia has been more intent on playing regional bully than working constructively to deliver environmental outcomes. Manipulating our Pacific neighbours, Australia has consistently watered down language about climate change in the Communiqué of the Pacific Islands Forum, the annual leaders meeting in our region. For the low-lying small island states, Australia’s refusal to adopt appropriate language on this issue, let alone take strong action, is a major sore point. The failure of the Prime Minister to attend the Forum in both 1999 and 2001 has simply added insult to injury.

Applying both political stick and carrot, Australia has taken advantage of the fact that it is a powerful player in the region- a big fish in a small pond – but it has been unwilling to accept the responsibilities that go with it. This imbalance and indeed embarrassment must be addressed as part of the Howard government’s third term agenda.

One area in which Australia could begin to turn around its recent track record is to assist Pacific governments in their battle with Japan over fishing rights on the high seas. The new Convention for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean was settled in Honolulu in September last year. It is designed to avoid overfishing of a key resource for island nations, but the Japanese have started a concerted rear-guard campaign to scuttle the treaty. Australia should take the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the Pacific nations, and oppose the Japanese push.

But judging by current intent perhaps such a positive confrontation is unlikely. The Japanese and Australian governments are already collaborating with France and Britain on a new nuclear threat to the region - shipments of deadly plutonium and high-level nuclear waste. Over the next 10 years, up to 80 planned plutonium fuel shipments are likely to pass through the Tasman Sea and Pacific, en route between Europe and Japan.

Rather than opposing these shipments as they should, the Australian government, compromised by its own plans to build a new reactor and ship waste to Europe or Argentina, has given them the green light. Australia should at the very least ensure that comprehensive liability and compensation regimes and prior informed consent exist for Pacific countries that could be effected by an accident.

Australia’s international reputation has undoubtedly been sullied on a variety of fronts in recent times. But it is not too late to turn it around - at least on the environmental front. John Howard must use his third term to redress his own governments’ shortcomings. We have a tradition of a middle power that boxes above its weight. We must now use that tradition to deliver some important environmental outcomes and prove that we are something more than an opportunistic local bully – that we are a nation led not by self-interest but by compassion and integrity.

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About the Author

Shane Rattenbury is a Political Liaison Officer for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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