Review

The Australian Climate Change Paradox, Unpacked

Australia is uniquely vulnerable in a warming world. So why have successive governments refused to act?

By , a freelance writer, researcher, and consultant to organizations pursuing the Paris Agreement goals.
Young environmental activists hold protest signs up in front of comedians dressed as Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra, Australia, on May 5, 2019.
Young environmental activists hold protest signs up in front of comedians dressed as Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra, Australia, on May 5, 2019. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described Australia as “leading the way” on climate in September, Australian media was startled. Even in a fiercely partisan landscape, there’s no longer much argument in Australia that the country is anything other than a climate laggard. Only weeks before the United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, it was one of the few OECD nations that had not improved its emissions reduction target, or set out a net-zero aspiration, or increased funding for developing countries to deal with climate change.

The country’s resolute lack of action is paradoxical from some angles. While it is the world’s second-biggest exporter of thermal coal and has much to lose in a world that moves in line with scientific recommendations, it loses more, of course, if that doesn’t happen. Australia’s largely coastal population, agriculture and tourism industries, and delicate ecological systems are all highly vulnerable to changes in an already harsh climate.

Most Australians care deeply about the environment. Polling has shown so for many years; even questions such as whether Australia should be a leader in climate solutions score highly.

When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described Australia as “leading the way” on climate in September, Australian media was startled. Even in a fiercely partisan landscape, there’s no longer much argument in Australia that the country is anything other than a climate laggard. Only weeks before the United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, it was one of the few OECD nations that had not improved its emissions reduction target, or set out a net-zero aspiration, or increased funding for developing countries to deal with climate change.

The country’s resolute lack of action is paradoxical from some angles. While it is the world’s second-biggest exporter of thermal coal and has much to lose in a world that moves in line with scientific recommendations, it loses more, of course, if that doesn’t happen. Australia’s largely coastal population, agriculture and tourism industries, and delicate ecological systems are all highly vulnerable to changes in an already harsh climate.

The Carbon Club: How a Network of Influential Climate Sceptics, Politicians and Business Leaders Fought to Control Australia’s Climate Policy, Marian Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, 456 pp., AU.99, September 2020

The Carbon Club: How a Network of Influential Climate Sceptics, Politicians and Business Leaders Fought to Control Australia’s Climate Policy, Marian Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, 456 pp., AU$32.99, September 2020.

Most Australians care deeply about the environment. Polling has shown so for many years; even questions such as whether Australia should be a leader in climate solutions score highly.

Yet climate change has been the most persistently contentious issue in Australian domestic politics for the past 15 years, as Marian Wilkinson documents in her book The Carbon Club. (The title is Wilkinson’s name for a cabal of people who reject mainstream climate science, businesspeople, and politicians who relentlessly lobbied against any emissions cuts.) It’s not an exaggeration to say that emissions policies were key to all of the six changes of prime minister in that period—sometimes brutally so, as both the two major parties have ousted their own leaders while in government.

The book shows how the country at times played an outsize role in international climate negotiations, and it demonstrates that this role was predominantly negative. In the lead-up to the Kyoto Protocol adoption in late 1997, the Australian government of the day, led by John Howard, was old-school conservative. It was before the days of orchestrated opposition to climate science, although an intensely anti-environmentalist mining and industrial businessman, Hugh Morgan, was already beginning to agitate against climate action via think tanks—including one co-founded by the billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch.

The Australian government took some relatively innovative proposals to price carbon and target an increase in renewable power to the Kyoto talks. In the wrangling over emissions targets, however, Australia pulled off a devastating coup: It would be one of only three OECD countries permitted to increase emissions through 2012. (Iceland and Norway were the others.) In the final negotiating hours, Australia managed to extract a further concession: Land clearing would be included in the target accounting system. When European delegates realized the implications of this last-minute change the next day, they were horrified, according to a senior Australian bureaucrat in the negotiating team. Not incidentally, the legacy of this measure continues, with controversy, in the Paris Agreement. Later, Howard joined George W. Bush’s administration in the United States in declining to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol—a gesture of solidarity that Wilkinson attributes in part to Howard being profoundly affected by having been in the United States during the 9/11 attacks.

Little wonder that when a more progressive prime minister, Kevin Rudd, attended the Bali climate meeting in 2007 and pledged vociferous support for climate action, he was “stunned at his reception. Delegates were clapping and cheering,” Wilkinson writes. “You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Rudd himself recalls. Rudd was prime minister for only 30 months afterward; it was a brief period of Australian leadership on the international stage.

One of the biggest global climate commitments was when U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in November 2014 that the United States would cut emissions by between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while China for the first time declared a date by which its emissions would peak. Days later, Obama and other world leaders flew to Australia for that year’s G-20 meeting. The country was then led by Tony Abbott, who avowedly rejected climate science. Abbott resisted the Obama plan to use the G-20 to put pressure on other leading emitters. In response, Obama ad-libbed a line in a speech at the about wanting the Great Barrier Reef to exist when his daughters were older.

Linking the reef to emissions infuriated the Abbott government. The reef is the Achilles’ heel of Australia’s opponents of climate action. It’s a source of national pride for its photogenic natural wonder and global fame—and the large regional tourism industry it supports. Wilkinson’s book contains three chapters on the reef’s worsening plight. As warmer water surges create mass bleaching events, killing off sensitive coral, marine biologists and climate scientists have seen their own dire warnings come to pass within years of issuing them. While much of Australia’s “Carbon Club” had focused on domestic emissions—the accounting unit of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—the reef illustrated a bigger threat. It is total world emissions that matter for the water temperature, so a big future for Australia’s lucrative coal export industry is incompatible with the natural wonder’s survival.

Although scientists are often wary of wading into politics, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist and an author of major reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who’d first highlighted the connection between climate change and coral bleaching chose to take a vocal stance on the issue, working with Greenpeace and speaking about the need to cut emissions. In return, he and his peers were lambasted in the media for years. On one occasion in 2015, just after Abbott had been replaced by the more climate-friendly Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, Hoegh-Guldberg and two other world-leading climate scientists were invited to a briefing with conservative members of Parliament; they arrived to discover that an equal number of climate science opponents were also invited, and the scientists were subjected to lengthy accusations of conspiracy theories. Hoegh-Guldberg found himself laughing at the absurdity. “We just got savaged,” he told Wilkinson, “And at one point I was sitting there and I just got the giggles. I thought, This is just ridiculous.” Wilkinson writes: “As the meeting heated up, the IPCC authors were stunned by the ferocity of the attacks on them from the climate sceptics.” Mark Howden, another of the scientists, told Wilkinson, “we were all surprised at being treated like that and the unprofessional betrayal of trust that was involved in essentially staging an ambush.” Hoegh-Guldberg explained to the assembled lawmakers and climate action opponents that his colleagues were some of the most respected scientists in their fields: “We came here to help you to understand this issue because it’s so important for Australia. And all you can say is that it’s a conspiracy.”

The degradations heaped on Australian climate scientists under Abbott in 2014 were barely surpassed by those of the Trump administration in the United States. The prime minister’s office supported an inquiry into the Bureau of Meteorology for exaggerating climate change estimates, voicing support to a frenzied campaign from Murdoch newspapers. It settled instead for an internal inquiry. In the same period, dozens of climate science roles were cut from the country’s scientific research agency.

Murdoch media columnists and news coverage are referred to throughout Wilkinson’s book; that’s understandable, because they far outnumber other Australian media outlets. Yet the Murdoch media’s critical role in amplifying and enabling the Carbon Club is never examined in its own right. The company’s imprint on the journalistic landscape is hard to overstate: It controls 70 percent of Australia’s newspaper circulation and owns a TV news network. Two former prime ministers, Rudd and Turnbull, have repeatedly accused the media empire of being instrumental in Australia’s climate policy failure—and in their own downfall. Despite this, Murdoch and his companies are never fully explored by Wilkinson.

In her history, the main characters are politicians, alongside a smattering of bureaucrats, scientists, and think tankers. This choice isn’t explained, although the introduction describes a fascination with the connections between the anti-climate-action lobbying efforts in Australia and those in the United States, which she encountered during a stint in Washington in the 2000s, and which perhaps explains the oversight. Morgan, the businessman and political ideologue, features prominently, and the ties he and his associates forged with U.S. networks of people who reject climate science such as Myron Ebell’s Cooler Heads campaign are fascinating. Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, who control privately owned mining empires, also have large roles. The influence of the bigger listed companies—BHP, Rio Tinto, and Glencore/Xstrata—is less well documented. This might be because significant work has been done in this area by Guy Pearse, a former conservative political staffer, on the “greenhouse mafia” that operated through industry groups such as the Minerals Council, a powerful mining lobby with a revolving door to federal politics. A more comprehensive exploration of how Australia’s climate ambitions were thwarted would have made Carbon Club an even more compelling read, although the political stories it recounts are astounding—and devastating—enough.

Kate Mackenzie is a freelance writer, researcher, and consultant to organizations that are pursuing the Paris Agreement goals. She is a regular contributor to Bloomberg Green and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Development, an Australian think tank.

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