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Australia: toeing the Bush climate line

By Martin Callinan - posted Thursday, 22 December 2005

Is climate change a brutal and urgent reality? Is it the most serious threat weighing on the future of humanity? Not according to Environment Minister Ian Campbell, who at the Climate Change conference in Montreal on Wednesday ignored these earlier words from French President Jacques Chirac and instead emphasised the importance of economic growth to create sufficient wealth to charitably manage the problem.

Embodied in every nation’s statement, except the US and Australia’s, was that reducing emissions according to co-operative timeframes would ultimately cost less than the result of trying to reduce emissions without timeframes. Australia and the US declined to even address, let alone argue with this near universal understanding. Both however made media statements and negotiated, where they could, to rule out international discussion of mandatory reductions after the Kyoto commitment expires in 2012.

President Chirac called for the world to stabilise and then halve global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, and for developed nations to reduce emissions by 75 per cent over the same period. Though slightly less ambitious than Governor Schwarzenegger's Californian pledge of 80 per cent by 2050, the World Meteorological Organisation last week suggested such cuts would be necessary to stabilise CO2 concentrations to a level that climatologists agree would be sufficient to avert the worst impacts of climate change.


The cost of reducing emissions according to timelines varies from country to country, as does each country’s ability to pay. How, when and who benefits most from these reductions largely depends on the consequences of agreements made at these conferences, which is why negotiations are as much inter-country deal making as collective decision making.

A well received point was made by the EU, in light of ever more detailed assessments of climate change impacts, which provided much needed perspective for developed countries concerned about potential mitigation costs. Whether you’re interested in poverty alleviation, wealth creation or market protection, your climate mitigation costs will be vastly less than your nation’s current expenditure on commercial advertising and miniscule next to your expenditure on luxury goods. And in any case, compare such costs to extreme weather events (Hurricane Katrina cost 125 US$ billion in economic losses) or the social, security and economic responsibilities associated with environmental refugees.

The bargain we struck with the Bush administration (to prop their position on climate change as an act of good faith) underpins Australia’s negotiating position. But is such faith prudent? On Monday, 24 prominent US Senators, including Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton, wrote to President Bush to remind him that “the United States Senate is on the path towards requiring mandatory commitments and reductions of greenhouse gases … and that the administration should remain mindful of that key fact in its negotiations with all parties and comport any discussions about future obligations accordingly”.

In reference to US and Australian intransigence, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin told the conference, “There is such a thing as global conscience. Now is the time to listen to it … There is absolutely no excuse for any more delay in action." The US delegation nevertheless preferred to extol the virtues of future technological cures and so did Minister Campbell’s delegation. President Chirac offered them these words of caution, "These technological leaps will not be a miracle solution and the hope in future progress cannot exonerate us from our present responsibilities …"

Missing from our government’s policy is any sense of the urgency shared by the rest of the world to reduce emissions. This is peculiar because the benefits of delay appear to be limited in both time, the remaining term of the Bush administration, and impact, continued inaction increases the transition cost to a carbon light economy and increases the minimum impact of climate change.

The least costly and most respectable option for Australia is to cooperate with the international timetabled efforts to reduce emissions. Currently we are not doing so and our emissions continue to rise, and will continue to do so until we actually increase our energy efficiency, actually utilise renewable energy, institute emissions trading and directly contribute to light development in the developing world.


Our grandchildren will not applaud us for either denying the urgency of climate change or toeing someone else’s line. We need to play a more responsible role than that of lipstick for the outgoing Bush administration. We need to consider generations to come. We need to change our policy.

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First published in The Canberra Times on December 14, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Martin Callinan works for the US Democrats and is a former advisor to Federal Shadow Cabinet Minister Kelvin Thomson. He attended the 2005 Montreal Conference on Climate Change.

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