Anyone can understand that delaying an ambulance carrying a heart attack patient could be a crime.
But what about something much bigger? Delaying effective action on global warming for 20 years is not commonly viewed as a crime, and yet it could condemn humanity to oblivion.
Last week, on May 27, at 8am we held a banner, flapping in the cold wind outside the Minerals Council of Australia conference at the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra. We encouraged passing cars to beep if they supported "no taxpayer dollars to polluters". While standing there, I thought about Australian taxpayers as the visible tip of the iceberg of the mass of humanity, whose futures are influenced by the lobbying of mining companies. As the world braces for perhaps our final chance to save the climate, at the UN Copenhagen negotiations in December (Kyoto Protocol mark 2), we need to register the massive and disproportionate influence that the Australian polluter lobbies have had in undermining global climate policy in the last two decades.
The Hyatt Hotel is a cosy 100 metres from Australian federal parliament. This proximity is a powerful symbol of the long standing close relationship between the Australian mining industry and successive governments since federation. On Wednesday, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change Greg Combet gave a keynote speech, assuring the minerals lobby they will never get a better deal than what is currently on the table under the government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). Yet the real game was almost certainly conversations between mining lobbyists on how to influence the upcoming UN Copenhagen negotiations.
I have recently had many discussions with professional influencers: supporters of the government’s CPRS: bureaucrats, company representatives and scientists - people who are good at framing the terms of the conversation. So I have to constantly have my wits about me to notice underlying assumptions that form the core of our disagreements. Apparently, as the line goes, Australia has not acted any worse than any other industrialised country on climate in recent years - in fact, China and the US are worse, and hence Australia has few obligations to make amends in this new round of negotiations.
Like in Orwell's 1984, (in which the history books are changed to give an impression of an unchanging and benign status quo, for example, when Oceania ends its war with Eurasia and commences its war with Eastasia, the books are revised to say it has always been at war with Eastasia) this is an amnesia of convenience: allowing for the evasion of important issues concerning Australia's responsibility to take stronger action this time around.
Remember that it was Australia's fossil fuel lobbyists, embedded in the Australian official delegation to several Kyoto Protocol negotiations, who held to ransom, and effectively sabotaged the global negotiations - particularly in 2001. These people were the hard edge, often more extreme than the US, in pushing for “flexible mechanisms” - loopholes big enough to drive a road train through, and then delaying the Protocol by refusing to sign it.
China and the US are actually beginning to pull their weight: they are turning their economies around, and are among the world's top six global investors in renewable energy solutions, with detailed plans about how to roll out more renewable energy capacity.
We need some context about Australia's history of intransigence. In 1997, in anticipation of Kyoto Protocol negotiations, hardline mining industry lobbyists in the Lavoissier Group ran a conference in Canberra called “The Costs of Kyoto”, arguing “the Kyoto Protocol is the greatest threat to Australia’s sovereignty since the Japanese invasion of Sydney Harbour”.
These fledglings of Australia’s “greenhouse mafia”, convinced Australian politicians that the interests of our exporting coal industry are one and the same as national interest and GDP. In other words, our economy is essentially a quarry that can be boiled down to coal.
They argued that binding international legislation on climate change was not in Australia’s interest, and that any laws making renewable energy competitive with polluting coal fired energy would lead to our economic demise. Australia then argued this at the UN negotiations on behalf of its citizens. Staffers and ministers who were conscientious on climate change in key positions of the Liberal Party were not promoted.
Even though the government has now changed, and Kevin Rudd has signed the Kyoto Protocol, the same mentality prevails within key institutions and the same negotiators lead Australia’s delegations. Former Liberal party insider Guy Pearse's recent Quarterly essay explains this in detail.
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