Australia: No Longer a Fig Leaf?

A very good piece in today’s Financial Times, “Make greenery a part of Australia’s landscape,” by Victor Mallet on the political machinations that have ensued in Australia due to a sharp pro-green shift in prevailing sentiment.

The subtext of this opinion piece is that even Australia, which is very thinly populated (20 million people on a landmass roughly as large as the continental US) is coming to see that there are consequences to polluting. And while Mallet somewhat cruelly points out that what Australia does has no impact on the world in a practical sense (Australians would like to think that they stand for more than the kangaroo, the Sydney Opera House, and Anzac Day), it has served as useful cover for the bad behavior of the US. Thus even though it is changing course for strictly domestic reasons, its decisions may put pressure on bigger bad actors.

From the FT:

The politics of John Howard – Australian prime minister, friend of George W. Bush, enemy of environmentalists and rejecter of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change – have developed an uncharacteristically greenish hue in the past few weeks.

Cynics will dismiss his apparent change of heart after more than 10 years in office as opportunism, just as they have mocked President Bush’s belated interest in energy efficiency. The greening of Mr Howard is certainly a reaction to a profound change of mood in Australia and is conveniently timed for the general election expected by the year’s end.

Kevin Rudd, new leader of the opposition Labor party, has skilfully exploited a weak spot in the conservative Mr Howard’s formidable political armour. Australians can hardly complain about the growing economy, but they have been bombarded with alarming news about the environment…

Above all, the worst drought in history in southern Australia has brought home to Australians their vulnerability to the vagaries of the world’s climate….Public opinion has rapidly become greener. Australians polled by Roy Morgan International chose “protecting the environment” as the priority for world leaders in 2007, giving it the top score of 22 per cent, up from 8 per cent two years earlier. The “war on terrorism” fell to 9 per cent from 26 per cent.

When Mr Rudd appointed Peter Garrett, the charismatic conservationist and former lead singer of the rock band Midnight Oil, as shadow minister for climate change and the environment, Mr Howard swiftly responded by promoting Malcolm Turnbull, a well-known banker, businessman and lawyer, to the environment and water portfolio.

Australia’s government is now less sceptical about climate change and generally greener than it has been since Mr Howard first took office in 1996. The prime minister has secured support from all but one of the six state governments (all controlled by Labor) for an A$10bn (€6bn) plan to improve Australia’s management of its scarce fresh water, especially in the Murray-Darling river system.

Ten days ago, Mr Turnbull announced that Australia would phase out almost all traditional incandescent lightbulbs – which waste energy on producing heat – and replace them with fluorescent lights to save millions of tonnes a year of greenhouse gas emissions….

Australia is a vital US ally in Iraq not because its troops fight insurgents, but because the Australian presence allows Mr Bush to say he has allies in the conflict. The same is true of climate change and the environment.

Australia’s dismal record on green issues, along with its membership of the anti-Kyoto group known as the AP6 (the Asia-Pacific group opposes limits on carbon emissions and comprises the US, Australia, Japan, China, India and South Korea) provides perfect cover for the worst abusers of the global environment.

Gao Guangsheng, director of China’s Climate Change Coordination Office, deftly played the Australia card at a recent climate change meeting, pointing out that if Australia had China’s population of 1.3bn it would be producing many times as much carbon dioxide as China does today.

Australia – its seas fished by pirates, its territory infested by alien animal and plant species, its soils over-exploited and poisoned by salt and its fresh water in short supply – should be the last country to provide excuses for other nations unwilling to change their behaviour for the environmental good of the planet.

Australians need to ensure that the greening of their politics lasts beyond this year’s election and beyond the inevitable end of their most severe drought since records began.

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