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Australia’s Real Climate on Climate Change

Erwin Jackson and Andrew Light show that Australia is taking steps to address global warming despite recent claims to the contrary.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pauses during a speech on October 17, 2008. Rudd's new government has been moving forward with an imperfect but positive climate policy agenda that includes a cap-and-trade program. (AP/Mark Baker)
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pauses during a speech on October 17, 2008. Rudd's new government has been moving forward with an imperfect but positive climate policy agenda that includes a cap-and-trade program. (AP/Mark Baker)

The U.S. House of Representatives has joined the Obama administration in its resolve to finally move forward and address the problem of global warming by recently passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACESA. With this legislation the United States will begin the process of achieving energy independence and transforming to a clean-energy economy. Just as important, however, passage of ACESA signals that the United States has rejoined the community of nations on addressing the critical issue of global climate change.

As this legislation moves to the U.S. Senate, we can expect to see a series of arguments emerge aimed at international cooperation on this issue. Worries about China are always at the top. We can’t do something about climate change, the opposition opines, because China will do nothing. But we’ve recently seen a new twist on this mantra going in the opposite direction. Our closest allies—namely, Australia—who are ahead of us on addressing global warming are in fact reversing their course and having second thoughts. Or at least that’s the impression conveyed last week in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal by Kimberly Strassel. This argument is as false as the claim that China is doing nothing.

Strassel claims that Australia’s legislation on climate change, now making its way through their Senate, “is set to founder as the Australian parliament breaks for winter,” and she compiles a hodgepodge of half truths to make the case that this turn is at the front of a rising tide against the veracity of climate science. Her advice to American lawmakers is to reengage with the science because “you won’t be alone.”

Stassel, who also wrote last weekend on the supposed censorship of EPA economist Alan Carlin’s discredited report debunking climate science, is fixated on reviving climate skepticism. She has many admirers, such as U.S. Senator John Barasso (R-WY), who used her column in today’s hearings on climate legislation in the Senate as the basis of a demand to investigate the matter. James Inhofe (R-OK) then had her column inserted in the official record for the hearings. But at best there is a wisp of smoke here being called a wildfire.

She claims that a “growing number of Australian politicians, scientists, and citizens” are doubting “the science of human-caused global warming.” Such reports are largely based, however, on the views of one Australian senator, Steve Fielding, and one Australian geologist, Ian Pilmer. Pilmer does receive generous coverage in some sections of Australia’s media, but such contrarians do not represent the views of the majority, who remain concerned about climate change and are frustrated at political wrangling that is delaying further action.

So what is really going on in Australia? For the nearly 20-year history of the climate debate, Australia’s domestic and international policy has been monopolized by unfounded fears that concerted domestic action to reduce emissions would have devastating impacts on the country’s export coal and energy-intensive industries. Sound familiar?

Recently this has slowly but surely begun to change.

The last federal Australian election in late 2007 attracted international attention as one of the world’s first climate change elections. Exit polls showed climate change was a top-tier issue, seen as second only to industrial economic policy as a key difference among critical swing voters who embraced Kevin Rudd’s Labor government in response to his championing of the issues.

What’s more, climate change’s effects weren’t framed only as hypothetical models of problems that may occur in the future but more as immediate observable impacts at home. Australians overwhelming endorsed climate action, driven by ongoing drought across much of the country and a future-looking electorate intent on addressing this problem. In response the new prime minister ratified the Kyoto Protocol in his first official act after taking office. When Rudd journeyed to the annual U.N. meeting on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, shortly thereafter he was greeted by the assembled delegate with thunderous applause. By moving so quickly to carry out his campaign promise Rudd had not only responded to the Australian people’s will but announced in one swift move that his country was back among the ranks of those determined to do be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Recent polls show climate concern remains strong among over 70 percent of Australians despite rainfall in northern Australia and the global financial crisis. And numerous polls show large Australian majorities back the passage of the cap-and-trade bill and Australian action ahead of other countries, including the United States and China.

Within Australian policy circles a new definition of national interest has also recently emerged. The current government has accepted a review commissioned by all of Australia’s state and territorial governments in 2007 by Professor Ross Garnaut, “to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia and to recommend policy frameworks to improve the prospects of sustainable prosperity.” In particular the government has embraced Garnaut’s principle conclusion that it would be in Australia’s interests to stabilize global greenhouse gas concentrations and equivalents at 450 ppm or lower. This acceptance was driven by a recognition that Australia is the advanced economy most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Australian national security agencies have also been considering the implications of major climate change events and impacts on Australia’s close neighbors. The government’s recent Defense White Paper identified climate change as a new security threat and suggested that the best defense against such developments will “need to be undertaken through coordinated international climate change mitigation and economic assistance strategies.” The paper goes on to suggest that should these policies fail “the government would possibly have to use the [Australia Defense Force] as an instrument to deal with any threats inimical to our interests.”

The new government, driven by these considerations and its election mandate, has been moving forward with an imperfect but positive policy agenda that includes a cap-and-trade program, called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, or CPRS; a more constructive multilateral climate diplomacy strategy; an expanded Renewable Energy Target to ensure 20 percent electricity comes from clean-energy sources by 2020; a national energy efficiency strategy and the investment of around AUD14 billion (U.S. $11.5 billion) over eight years in programs aimed at energy efficiency; and research, development, and deployment in large-scale solar and carbon capture and storage with a major international CCS research facility in development in Canberra. This legislation is not without its problems, but it includes a national target to reduce emissions by up to 25 percent from 2000 levels by 2020—conditional on comparable global efforts. As with ACESA, the CPRS passed the Australian House of Representatives in June.

There are critical differences, however, between the shape of the Australian and U.S. legislative debate from here on as both country’s bills hit their respective senates. Importantly, the emission targets in CPRS, if not the legislation, are supported by the conservative opposition party. And because the Labor government does not control the Australian senate, it will need robust bipartisan support from the conservative Liberal party or members of the Greens party plus two additional independent senators to get the cap and trade legislation through.

One of these additional votes would come from Senator Fielding, featured in Strassel’s WSJ editorial, who is the lone representative of the Family First Party in either Australian legislative house. Fielding does not vote with the larger party blocks, so calling his newfound worries about climate change science a turning of the tide in the Australian senate is a stretch, to put it mildly—unless he is a tide of one vote. His climate skepticism is not shared by the main body politic of the Australian Parliament.

So what are the actual prospects for the Australian legislation once we strip away such exaggerated descriptions? Admittedly its fate is still uncertain though prospects are very good. While the Rudd government has not ruled out negotiating the bill through with the Greens and independents it is more likely to do so with the conservative Liberal party.

As the Liberals support the government’s emission targets the main focus of the debate in the senate will be how to treat trade-exposed industries, electricity generators, and the agricultural sector within the cap-and-trade scheme. Or, to put it another way, exactly the same issues that will dominate the debate in the U.S. Senate. Contra Strassel the question of climate science’s veracity will not influence the outcome of the Senate deliberations.

But at the end of the day it is highly likely that Australian mainstream business groups will exert significant pressure on the Liberals to pass the legislation. Media reports suggest that the CEOs of Australia’s largest companies are telling the Liberals to eventually pass the bill. This will be driven by real concerns that investment in Australia will be damaged if uncertainty over climate policy continues. This same argument in the United States has successfully driven many CEOs to push for passage of ACESA.

So the political shoals of the Australian senate will still require some negotiation. But it is more likely than not that come December and the U.N. climate change talks in Copenhagen, Australia will have legislated a cap-and-trade system and be ready to play its full and fair part in global action to avoid dangerous climate change. When the United States follows suit, we will join our ally in taking up both the most important problem of our time and moving forward down the most viable economic path before us.

Erwin Jackson is Director of Policy and Research at the Climate Institute, Australia’s leading independent policy think tank on climate change. Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where he coordinates CAP’s work on international climate change policy. Both the Climate Institute and CAP are founding members of the Global Climate Network.

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Andrew Light

Senior Fellow