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.
"Leadership of Prime Minister Gillard and the courage of legislators"
After the second rejection of his ETS, Rudd shelved the policy indefinitely, to the dismay of the world's environmentalists. The inner circle which advised him to take this course, according to later revelations, included Julia Gillard. On becoming prime minister she showed little enthusiasm for the climate cause, ruling out a price on carbon unless there was "a deep and abiding community consensus". Her tokenistic policy at the 2010 election was "citizen's assembly" to canvass options. The opposition also ruled out a price on carbon. Twice in the lead up to polling day, Gillard explicitly denied rumours of a hidden agenda, uttering the now infamous words "there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead".
Gillard entered the post-election negotiations desperately hoping to save her prime ministership. The radical Greens would never have backed the conservative opposition. But when they demanded a carbon tax as the price of their support, she caved in a fit of panic, displaying little of the courage praised by Gore. The independents signed on to keep the minority government in business.
Labor's Clean Energy Future package includes a carbon tax, but also billions of dollars of compensation and credits to cushion the blow. In a massive money churn, around $5 billion of the revenue is disbursed to households in higher benefits and tax breaks, and $9.2 billion goes to industry assistance, including free permits for high emitting industries, $300 million to the steel industry, $1.26 billion to the coal sector, and $1.2 billion to manufacturing. Unhappy about these handouts, the Greens were bought off with a $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Australians are left wondering how all of this encourages shifts to "cleaner" energy sources. The handouts muffle some damaging impacts of the tax, but they are hardly "courageous" from the perspective of Al Gore.
"The voice of the people of Australia has rung loud and clear"
Gillard made her plans for a carbon tax public on 25th February 2011. Her residual popularity sank like a stone. The Newspoll of 18-20 February 2011 recorded 50 per cent satisfied and 39 per cent dissatisfied with her performance. In the next survey of 4-6 March 2011, those figures were reversed: 39 per cent satisfied, 51 per cent dissatisfied. Labor's support (first preference) plunged to 30 per cent in the March survey, from 38 per cent at the election. These results were consistent with a general fall in support for climate action. From a high of 68 per cent in 2006, reported the Lowy Institute Poll, it dropped to 41 per cent in 2011. Only 32 per cent of Australians supported the carbon tax when Gore wrote his rapturous blog post.
Gillard's frantic attempts to recover have come to nothing, and calling an election for 14th September hasn't helped. The latest Newspoll of 5-7 April 2013 had her satisfaction rating at a dismal 28 per cent, with 62 per cent dissatisfied. Labor's support is still in the basement at 32 per cent, with the Liberal-Nationals at 48 per cent. Likely, the government faces a devastating loss of around 20 seats.
The opposition's implacable campaign against the carbon tax has rocked Gillard's time in office. They promise to repeal it, dismantle much of the Clean Energy Future package and even abolish the Department of Climate Change. Since the 2010 election Labor has suffered a succession of defeats at the state level, losing power in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory, while the Liberal-National Coalition improved their majority in Western Australia. These elections were fought on state issues, but in every case the conservatives echoed Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's anti-carbon tax message. Closer to home, Gillard was forced to stare down moves against her by colleagues to restore Kevin Rudd, once in February 2012 and again in March this year. Four senior cabinet ministers were sacked or resigned after the second episode. Labor limps forward in the worst possible shape.
A Liberal-National victory would probably mean the end of climate change as a major political priority in Australian politics. Al Gore was mistaken. He didn't hear "the voice of the people of Australia" on 8th November 2011; but if he's listening he'll hear it "loud and clear" on 14th September 2013.