As America is changing course on the climate, it’s best that we re-examine our own turning point, when we chose scepticism over meaningful change.
The Australian was convinced. “Australia could have avoided two decades of climate change wars had the Howard government pushed ahead with its majority view of an emissions trading scheme (ETS), newly released documents reveal.” Historian Chris Wallace is not as unequivocal in this assertion, but nonetheless observes in The Conversation that “a working consensus among cabinet ministers” is discernible, “with one exception, that an emissions trading scheme (ETS) was not only a possible but a likely route by which Australia would eventually fulfil its international environmental obligations.”
These views came in light of the release by the Australian National Archives of the 2000 cabinet papers. Climate change sceptics are not in the ascendant; the Australian Greenhouse Office is working on a variant of the ETS and requested funding for its operations in the May budget.
This is a far too rosy reading. The Howard government had already argued in December 1997 at Kyoto (Conference of the Parties COP3) that greenhouse gas emissions growth would be permitted to 108% of its 1990 baseline. Along with Iceland and Norway, it was one of three countries granted an increase in emission levels from its 1990 base. To this could be added Australia’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, though Prime Minister John Howard was still boastful of his environmental measures, including the creation of the Australian Greenhouse Office.
How to even meet Australia’s singularly generous targets was a source of concern among ministers. Environment Minister Robert Hill’s submission in May to his colleagues drew attention to two projects – the coal-fired Kogan Creek power station in Queensland and Comalco Alumina – that would together account for 25% of emissions growth allowed by the Kyoto undertakings.
Issues of efficiency were raised: the Kogan Creek power station would only be half as efficient as a gas-fired version. Hill suggested the imposition of various conditions, one of which would be a commitment to abate the carbon arising from the projects. Three departments – the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and the Department of Finance – pooh-poohed the idea. In the curt response from PM&C, it was “desirable to clarify future greenhouse policies as soon as possible to reduce the uncertainty faced by investors in projects such as these.”
But there was one figure looming large, an aggressive paladin for the resource sector sceptical about the climate change narrative. Nick Minchin was the Howard government’s Industry and Resources Minister. He had big, aggressive dreams for gas. His goal: to blunt any emissions trading scheme through large compensation packages across carbon-intensive industries.
This is not to say that any ETS would not have been gravely deficient in either its philosophy or its realisation. At COP6 at The Hague, a vocal lobby for the marketing of greenhouse gases, groups seeking to corporatise the ostensible reduction of emissions through free trade environmentalism, were much in evidence. These included the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The Kyoto Protocol risked becoming a corporate-friendly charter.
Australia’s less than heroic contribution at The Hague was important in ensuring that no agreement was reached between participating countries, largely due to disagreements between the US and European Union. Hill was charged with easing his country’s feather-light burden of environmental responsibility further, with a brief that would seek additional carbon sinks already agreed to under the Kyoto negotiations.
The minister would “minimise the cost of implementing Kyoto and the impact on Australian trade competitiveness.” Should the spectre of disproportionate costs to Australia arise at the COP6 negotiations, Hill was to become a committed saboteur, working “with like-minded countries to block consensus or failing this, make a statement of Australia’s position.” Australia, as part of an Umbrella Group including Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Iceland, Norway and Iceland duly concurred with US proposals favouring the use of carbon sinks.
The fact that Minchin would not even accept a market model for emissions trading suggested an encampment, an ideology pre-heliocentric in nature. Most of the cabinet ministers in the Howard government did, on some level, accept the gravity of anthropogenic induced climate change. But a survey of Minchin’s opinions over the years reveals how his militant stance on climate has become the orthodoxy of Australian governments from Abbott to Morrison. Along with Abbott, he is a fan of carbon dioxide, “more of a friend than an enemy to the earth’s flora and fauna.” Climate change was a natural process of complexity requiring “prudent and cost-effective adaptation.” He remained unconvinced “about the theory of anthropogenic global warming.”
In July 2013, Minchin launched Taxing Air: Facts & Fallacies About Climate Change. Written by Bob Carter and a host of other sceptics, including Stewart Franks and Bill Kininmonth, Minchin was “flattered” at being asked to launch a book he felt should be “in every school, every university and every community library.” Carter was “a terrific and leading voice in combating the scaremongering we have all been subjected to on the theory of anthropogenic global warming.”
In 2009, Minchin was a cardinal knife-wielder in the Liberal Party coup against then leader and future prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull was an ETS convert; his replacement, a certain climate change denialist Tony Abbott, was not. Abbott became prime minister in 2013 cresting on promises to dismantle carbon-pricing schemes. Australian climate change policy, flawed as it was, had been effectively, and comprehensively, jettisoned.
In 2021, Minchin’s legacy is holding firm and fast. Australia retains a near manic ambivalence to the reduction of emissions. The mining lobbies remain boisterously strong, the environmental portfolio in the Morrison cabinet, weak. The government’s lack of ambition has seen it keep company with Saudi Arabia and Brazil in being excluded from the latest United Nations Climate Action Summit. That trend was already set at the start of the new millennium.