Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Will Australia Join the Climate Movement?

No one should mistake the abrupt change in Australia's  leadership for a 'green revolution.' While it is true that deposed Liberal leader Tony Abbott was possibly the world's most powerful climate change denier, a PM whose economic policy focused on the promotion of coal production ("coal is good for humanity," he infamously remarked just last year), his successor, Malcolm Turnbull, has pledged not to change Australia's energy policy in the short term. That policy includes an INDC pledge to the Paris conference that is widely regarded as inadequate, especially given Australia's central role in coal export and consumption, and given the clear failure of Abbott's climate plan, an Emissions Reduction Fund that actually pays corporations to increase their fossil fuel consumption.

Beyond that bleak picture, though, there is some reason for hope: Turnbull, after all, was a supporter of Australia's path-breaking carbon exchange program in 2009, support which caused him to lose his leadership position to Abbott, who killed the exchange last year and replaced it with the toothless ERF. Furthermore, without any dramatic policy initiatives, Turnbull could--as The Guardian's Lenore Taylor points out--adjust the baseline against which emissions are measured to make the ERF an effective tool, quite similar in fact to the defunct carbon exchange system. But will he?

On the one hand Turnbull is a conservative, tenuously restored to power and not eager to put his majority on the line. On the other he clearly was on the green edge of the Liberal Party before Abbott pushed him out. Maybe more to the point, his mandate is economic development, and Abbot's vision of a coal-based future for Australia's economy--quite apart from its offensive repudiation of the whole global movement to limit emissions, especially coal-driven--looks like economic nonsense as the coal industry contracts.

There are many twists and turns on the long road to bring the world's nations--all 195--to some effective consensus on climate policy. Australia, with the world's 19th largest economy, is neither a key player nor an irrelevant one. Tony Abbott, with his big mouth and tone-deaf ear, played a disproportionately large role in undermining that consensus. If he leaves the stage, or at least loses his megaphone, even to another business-minded conservative, this can only be a good thing. Maybe Turnbull will seize the historic moment to do even more.

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