Having collected the Nobel peace prize in 2007, Al Gore's fortunes as a climate crusader slid into the doldrums. But 8th November 2011 arrived as a ray of sunshine. On that day Australia's parliament passed into law the world's first economy-wide carbon tax. Rushing to his blog, Gore posted a short but rapturous statement, cross-posted in The Huffington Post. His fervent language echoed in progressive circles across the globe. Australians have been held-up as pioneering environmentalists ever since, putting Americans to shame.
"This is a historic moment", thundered Gore. "With this vote", he blogged, "the world … turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis". He proclaimed it "the result of tireless work of an unprecedented coalition that came together to support the legislation"; he praised the "leadership of Prime Minister [Julia] Gillard and the courage of legislators"; and he declared "the voice of the people of Australia has rung loud and clear".
But maybe Gore's enthusiasm was a bit misplaced. In September, less than two years later, Australians seem likely, according to the polls, to hand the Gillard Labor government a stinging landslide defeat.
"A pivotal corner in the collective effort"
As it turns out, and not for the first time, Gore's analysis was wrong. For one thing, calling the carbon tax "pivotal" is pure hyperbole. Although a relatively large land mass, Australia is populated by just 23 million people who collectively emit a minuscule 1.5 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases. Nor is the country influential in a broader political union or association beyond its borders. Since climate change alarmists suggest that global emissions must fall by 25 to 40 per cent in 2020 compared to 1990 levels, Australia's efforts must be seen as more symbolic than effective. Currently, the tax and its post-2015 form as an emissions trading scheme (ETS) are adjusted for a trivial 5 per cent cut from 2000 levels in 2020; 5 percent of 1.5 percent of the world's emissions barely registers against a few days increase in countries like China.
Environmentalists maintain that the important thing is not results, but setting a moral example of climate action. They argue Australia's emissions may be tiny in absolute terms, but amongst the highest in per capita terms. Major emitters like the US, China, India and the EU, they argue, can be shamed into action by Australia's noble sacrifice. Unfortunately for them, this argument, not very strong to begin with, deflated like a punctured balloon since the shambles at Copenhagen.
We've been here before. In December 2009 Australia's newly minted Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, with a bulging entourage of 114 officials, descended on the Copenhagen conference to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. He was awarded the task of preparing a draft negotiating text. Rudd played an active role in the lead up, having signed Kyoto and undertaken to legislate for an ETS in his first term, a serious step given Australia's status as the world's leading coal exporter. Before flying out to Denmark, he introduced the necessary bills into parliament for a second time.
Copenhagen was a test of the 'noble sacrifice' argument driving Rudd's activism but resulted in an epic fail. Rudd's draft text was tossed aside and the conference collapsed into bickering between delegations from the developed and developing worlds. There was no successor to Kyoto, just a flimsy, non-binding accord the delegates "took note of" but didn't adopt. Greenpeace called Copenhagen "a crime scene".
The UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change has stayed off the rails ever since. Later Conferences of the Parties (COPs) at Cancun and Durban did little more than kick the can down the road. Durban opened twenty days after the "historic moment" of Australia's carbon tax, but delegates deferred all talk of a binding agreement to 2015, anticipating a possible start in 2020. Canada pulled the plug on Kyoto altogether, later followed by Japan and Russia. "This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change", huffed Friends of the Earth.
Under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord, parties were invited to submit emission reduction "pledges", and most have done so. Even if achieved, though, they get the world nowhere near 25 to 40 per cent reductions on 1990 levels in 2020. Writing in Nature, analysts from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impacts dismiss them as "paltry". Amid rising emissions, Australia's "pivotal" carbon tax is but a straw in the wind.
"An unprecedented coalition that came together"
At the end of 2009, Rudd's ETS was rejected by parliament a second time, due in part from rising doubts about the climate agenda. As 2010 progressed, his popularity waned, battered by his inept handling of the contentious mining tax. Labor colleagues bristled at his secretive and high-handed manner, while powerful union bosses resented his indifference to their concerns. Taking advantage of drooping opinion polls, Rudd was sacked and replaced with Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
This sent shockwaves through the country, which had never seen a sitting prime minister dumped in his first term. Fearing a backlash, Gillard hastily called an election for 21st August, hoping to exploit positive feelings around serving as Australia's first female leader. She proved a poor campaigner, however, and a series of damaging leaks scuttled her efforts. Labor's support faded and on election night Gillard was left with 72 seats, four short of a majority in the 150 seat House of Representatives. The Liberal-National opposition ended up with 73 seats, also short of a majority. The balance of power was in the hands of one Greens Party member and four independents.
After weeks of negotiations, the Greens and three of the independents pledged support for a Labor Government under Gillard, the first minority government since the 1940s. But it became increasingly clear that a fresh election would produce a solid Liberal-National Party majority. Returning to the people for a new mandate was never in Gillard's interests. As for the Greens and independents, fortune delivered them more power than they ever had or would ever have again. Making the most of their time in the sun, they opted for Gillard, who wasn't about to call another election. Gillard's coalition may be "unprecedented", in Al Gore's words, but it's untrue that they "came together to support" high principle. They were thrown together by electoral chance and stuck together out of grim self-interest.