Climate Politics Are Stranger Than Fiction In Australia

CREDIT: AP/Alan Porritt

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chat during a tour of the Rio Tinto West Angelas iron ore mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia, Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

When Australia first passed the Clean Energy Plan with a carbon price in 2011 it was because the Green party held the balance of power in the Senate. This week, a conservative government led by fossil fuel-friendly prime minister Tony Abbott was unable to repeal the carbon pricing due to another faction holding sway in the Senate — a group of four Palmer United Party (PUP) senators, a new party founded by mining multimillionaire Clive Palmer.

With the Senate recently back in session, Abbott had been expecting to celebrate the repeal of the carbon price after touting it as a major goal of his administration since last summer. However, with the left-leaning Labor party and the PUP uniting against it, his coalition is stuck trying to find a quick new way forward. It was Abbott’s second attempt to pass the legislation in the upper house, and it narrowly failed 37-35.

Palmer had been on board with Abbott’s plan to scrap the carbon tax, but changed his mind at the last minute after asserting that the Liberal-National coalition government had “double-crossed” his party with final amendments to the legislation. Palmer’s fussiness and refusal to toe the line are a setback for Abbott’s latest anti-climate move, part on an agenda that’s included angering world leaders by downplaying the issue, axing Australia’s climate commission, and abandoning greenhouse gas emissions targets.

July 5th, 2014 photo of mining magnate Clive Palmer, member of the House of Representatives in Australia and founder of the Palmer United Party in 2013.

July 5th, 2014 photo of mining magnate Clive Palmer, member of the House of Representatives in Australia and founder of the Palmer United Party in 2013.

CREDIT: flickr/Benjamin J MacDonald

While Abbott wants to make good on industry-friendly campaign promises, Palmer’s motives are somewhat harder to discern — his mining interests would benefit from the repeal of the carbon tax. He’s an eccentric personality who owns millions in mineral holdings, is building a replica of the Titanic, and is working on a large, dinosaur theme park in Australia. Palmer is a member of the House of Representatives, and was not even in the chamber when the four PUP senators voted against the repeal. The senators argued that they wanted the government to guarantee that the savings from the repeal of the carbon price be passed on to consumers. The night before the amendment was strengthened to include harsh penalties for companies that failed to pass on the full savings within a year. But still this wasn’t enough for Palmer.

“Here was Clive Palmer, a mining man who has no love of the tax and less for Tony Abbott, instructing his little band of Senators to ruin the prime minister’s day and to show the whole country who was the new master of time,” wrote Tony Wright, national affairs editor of The Age, an Australian newspaper. “And while all around wore serious suits and smart little business frocks, the big man lounged in chinos and a checked shirt unbuttoned halfway to his belly. An emperor in clothes of his own choosing.”

Abbott will now be forced to take the bill back to the lower house and try to reach an agreement on revisions. Another vote could happen within weeks.

Even if Palmer’s motives may be questionable and his allegiance mercurial, John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute in Australia, thinks overall the Senate made a sensible choice by rejecting the repeal.

“New crossbench Senators are rightfully struggling with the implications of repealing of laws that are working as intended,” said Connor in a statement. “We have long said that repeal would lead to institutionalized volatility for Australian society and business.”

Connor recommends that Parliament take their time in reviewing the carbon price and look for alternative options to repeal, such as reducing the price, saying that the current laws are effective and are delivering emission reductions in a growing economy.

Green party leader Christine Milne said the chaos in the Senate was “government by incompetence,” and that the prime minister’s “back room deals, trying to ram things through, hoodwink the Senate, have failed, and failed utterly.”

As the uproar in the upper house slows Abbott’s agenda, climate change is still pushing full-steam ahead in Australia. The country recently experienced its two hottest years on record, with winter temperatures delayed far into the season causing the ski industry to rely on artificial snow on many slopes.

With all eyes focused on the inward bickering, a new report led by renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs found that Australia could cut emissions from its energy sector to zero by 2050 and still grow GDP by an average of 2.4 percent over that period.

The interim report delivered to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that focused on 15 countries found that it’s technically possible for Australia to get almost all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050 and to offset the rest by storing carbon in soil or planting more trees.

“The world has committed to limit warming to below 2 degrees C, but it has not committed to the practical ways to achieve that goal,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the report, called the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, and of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Success will be tough — the needed transformation is enormous — but is feasible, and is needed to keep the world safe for us and for future generations. One key message is to invest in developing the low-carbon technologies that can make a difference.”