Tony Abbott has finished his North American tour, meeting Barack Obama for the first time as prime minister. Predictably enough, the Murdoch press have described the meeting as a glowing success while Fairfax have highlighted the friction between the two leaders. Before the meeting took place, however, the first shots of a new climate change battle were already fired. The scientific debate over climate change has been largely settled. 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is driving warming trends. Despite infamously describing climate change as “absolute crap”, Tony Abbott now calls it a significant problem but “it’s not the only or even the most important problem the world faces”.
The new battle over climate change is as ideologically driven as the first one. Republicans in the United States and the Coalition in Australia have been sceptical of what they perceive to be radical environmentalism and the Green agenda. Conservative culture warrior Miranda Divine drew parallels between the Green movement and communism. Al Gore’s influential and divisive 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, noted that of all developed nations only the United States and Australia refused to ratify the 2001 Kyoto Protocol. This was a calculated ideological statement from George W. Bush and one John Howard was keen to support.
If Howard and Bush were in ideological harmony, Obama and Abbott are near polar opposites in many crucial regards. Obama is looking to take major action on climate change and hopes it will be part of a global trend. He has recently announced an ambitious emissions reduction target of 30 percent by 2030 noting that “science is science”. Abbott could not be more different. He is politically committed to removing the unpopular price on carbon introduced by Julia Gillard. His recent stop in Ottawa was highly strategic as he flagged his ongoing opposition to a carbon price.
Before meeting Obama, Abbott made a strategic stop in Ottawa to meet with fellow conservative, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While Harper won re-election in 2008 campaigning against a price on carbon, Abbott won power in 2013 with a promise to repeal the existing Carbon Tax. Abbott was glowing in his rhetoric, describing Harper as “the exemplar of a contemporary, centre-right prime minister”. Harper was similarly full of praise, congratulating Abbott for his tough stance against “the job-killing carbon tax”.
Obama appeared in the final episode of Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously arguing that climate change was a global problem requiring global solutions. He noted that beyond the immediate impact in the US, “these shifts can displace people — entire countries can be finding themselves unable to feed themselves and the potential incidence of conflict that arises out of that”. In contrast, Abbott and Harper have insisted that climate change is less important than job creation and the economy. Abbott insisted “we shouldn’t clobber the economy” with Harper agreeing, “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth”.
Australia is the current chair of the G20 and will host a summit in Brisbane later in the year. Despite pressure from the US and Europe, Abbott has remained firm that climate change will not be on the official agenda. The global argument is crucial for Abbott as Australia is the only country in the world planning to remove, rather than implement, an emissions trading scheme. He claimed in Canada, “there is no sign – no sign – that trading schemes are increasingly being adopted. If anything trading schemes are being discarded, not adopted”.
While Obama and Abbott will meet as friends in Washington this week they are posturing in a high stakes political showdown. Obama has acknowledged that public opinion is key and wants to create the impression that the world is moving towards collective action and a carbon price. Abbott, whose political reputation is tied to opposing a carbon price, is desperate to undermine this impression. Together with Harper, he is seeking to form an alliance of commonwealth leaders, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand to oppose any tough international measures. Despite having conservative leaders, both nations have rejected the idea.
Of the two leaders, Obama has far less to lose. Having secured a second term, he is now thinking about his presidential legacy. As the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, he knows his reduction plan is historic and has the power to set a global trend.
Abbott, by contrast, is in his infancy as a world leader. Less than a year after his election, he is trailing badly in the polls and is struggling to sell a tough budget that included increased medical fees and reduced spending for health and education. Firm opposition to a carbon price was the stance that narrowly won him the leadership of his party in 2009 and the country in 2013. If he loses the domestic debate on pricing carbon it would be a political disaster.
The Australia-US alliance is important to Washington but absolutely crucial to Canberra. It has had bipartisan support in since World War II and is the sacred cow of Australian foreign policy. Obama and Abbott had a cordial meeting but one that lacked the genuine warmth of Obama and Gillard or Bush and Howard. Both were keen to emphasise the strength of the relationship but, despite the official niceties, the two men have already thrown the first punches in a divisive ideological battle with global ramifications. The battle over climate change being real may be over but a new front has clearly emerged. Is it important enough to warrant significant, global action?
Dr Benjamin T. Jones is a historian at the University of Western Sydney