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Abbott's way

By Mike Pope - posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott is renowned for calling climate science "absolute crap" while his Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, assures us that ….. government accepts the science. So who do you believe? Well, actions speak louder than words so perhaps we should look to the record of the Abbott government. In less than a year, it has:

  • Introduced legislation to scrap the Carbon Tax – passed by the House of Representatives but rejected by the Senate.
  • Stated its intention of abolishing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation which provides finance to assist and promote commercialization of renewable technology.
  • Abolished the Climate Commission, an independent scientific body established to explain the causes and effects of climate change to the public.
  • Declared its intention of abolishing the Climate Change Authority an independent body responsible for advising government on emission reduction targets.
  • Appointed a climate skeptic (Dick Warburton) to review and advise government on renewable energy targets.
  • Approved a number of commercial activities likely to adversely affect the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Non-contributor to the 2013 COP climate change summitin Warsaw, refusing to send an elected Member of Parliament to participate in its deliberations.
  • Abolished the position of Minister for Science for the first time since the position was established in 1931.
  • Streamlined approval of new coal mining ventures with a view to substantially increasing production and export of coal.
  • Declared that economic factors (employment growth, increased exports and greater competitiveness) are governments' priority, taking precedence over environmental considerations such as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or environmental protection.
  • Approved logging of old growth forests, incorrectly asserting that they have largely been logged before and have limited heritage value.
  • Failed to formulate an alternative to existing legislation for cost-effective and efficient reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Capped expenditure on reduction of domestic greenhouse gas emissions to $3 billion over the next 4 years, irrespective of target set or reduction made.
  • Cut funding for scientific researchin areas related to global warming and climate change.

If that is not enough to convince you of government attitude and policy on climate science and intent on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, bear in mind that Abbott has also declared that the hitherto bi-partisan target of producing 20% of Australia's energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 is to be "reviewed". The effect of that announcement has been two-fold: A sigh of relief from coal producers who see this as a commitment to continued use of coal and: Uncertainty from would-be investors in renewable energy development. Both are intended. Both are misguided.


Notwithstanding actions of government, fossil fuels in general and coal in particular have a very limited future for production of energy. This is because of the effect their emissions have on climate and because they are becoming increasingly uncompetitive with energy produced from renewable sources. In the Pacific region, most of the Island States are already moving to clean renewable energy to reduce their emissions and their dependence on increasingly expensive imported diesel oil. Countries of the EU have long been doing this as have several Provinces of Canada, many States of the USA, China, Japan and several other countries.

Tony Abbott argues that Australian emissions (around 1.3% of global emissions), is so insignificant that Australian action can have little effect on global warming or climate change. This is wrong. Australia has a shared responsibility with all countries to reduce global emissions – to pull its weight and set an example by encouraging and assisting other countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.

What Abbott doesn't tell us is that Australia competes with Indonesia for the title of the largest coal exporter in the world and that his government actively supports an expansion of coal production and export, particularly to China and India. Australian coal is exported in the full knowledge that it will be burnt and in the process release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Those emissions exceeded 7.4 gigatonnes, making Australia a major contributor to global emissions at a time when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is accelerating at an unpredented rate.

At the present accelerating rate of emissions, we could see CO2 at double the pre-industrial level as early as 2050 or sooner with a consequential rise in average global temperate of around 3°C by then. A temperature increase of this magnitude is likely to result in dangerous climate change resulting in deterioration of the cryosphere, release into the atmosphere of natural deposits of greenhouse gases and more rapid melting of polar ice sheets. Little wonder that the IPCC's 5th Assessment Reporthas become more strident in its call for curbing CO2 emissions.

The Australian government has been told by the independent Climate Change Authority, (CCA) - which it is about to abolish - that to avoid dangerous global warming, it should act to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 19% below 2000 levels. The Authority argues that this is consistent with what other countries are doing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It is also bad news since the governments' alternative to a carbon tax (which it will abolish in July 2014) is its so called "Direct Action" plan. Direct Action has been criticized by leading economists as grossly inefficient and assessed as having little chance of reducing emission levels by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

On the other hand, if Abbott continues to ignore the advice of the CCA and the findings of thousands of climate scientists world-wide; if he persists in policy and action which fails to limit CO2 emissions, at least to the extent that other nations are doing, he risks exposing Australia to punitive sanctions. These are likely to take the form of tariffs imposed on its exports to countries which are actively engaged in making the reductions needed to ensure that global temperatures do not exceed 2°C above those of the pre-industrial period.


An increasing number of pre-eminent climate scientists now regard 2°C above the pre-industrial as very likely to produce dangerous warming in many part of the world. Climate scientists at the CCA, CSIRO, BOM and Universities warn that Australia is particularly prone to climate extremes exacerbated by global warming. These changes have already reduced rainfall in the southern half of Australia, limiting the ability of farmers to grow and maintain yield of food crops – a trend which will continue.

The incidence and severity of floods, droughts, heat waves and bushfires in Australia will increase causing a rise in premature deaths, loss of property, crops and livestock. By mid-century this is likely to be increasingly evident and problematic, with cost of repairs becoming prohibitive. Ocean warming and salination is already affecting the ability of the fishing industry to operate profitably, causing its contraction and increasing the price of fresh fish. Rising sea levels are likely to cause coastal erosion, destruction of property in close proximity to the coastline and damage to infrastructure such as port facilities, airports (Cairns, Brisbane and Mascot in particular) roads and rail links.

The policies and practices of the Abbott government - what it is actually doing - make it clear that it does not intend to take cost-effective steps which would significantly reduce Australian emissions. What amounts to deliberate rejection of the science, particularly refusal to significantly reduce emissions of CO2 – a gas which remains in the atmosphere for millennia – may not affect Australians in the very short-term but over coming years it most certainly will. Their children and grandchildren are in effect being asked to pay a very heavy price in the future for the deliberate and misguided policies and actions of to-day.

The Abbott government is in no position to complain about the emissions of other countries which contribute to atmospheric pollution which damages the Australian climate. Abbott and his Environment Minister have less than a year in which to formulate realistic reduction targets and cost-effective mechanisms for their attainment. Abbott might have felt able to ignore the 2013 Conference of the Parties (COP) held in Warsaw. The Paris COP to be held in 2015 is quite another matter. There, Australia – the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world – is likely to be held to account.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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