At G20, Obama Leapfrogs Australia’s PM With Call To Action

CREDIT: AP/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama listens as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott makes opening remarks at the first plenary session of the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014.

Over the weekend, leaders from some of the world’s most powerful countries gathered along Australia’s eastern seaboard to discuss the future of the global economy. Climate change registered clearly on the radar of the G20 summit, held in Brisbane, as the week before China and the U.S. — the two largest global economies — made a pact to reduce emissions substantially by 2030. This boost of momentum caused Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott great consternation, as he has defined his leadership by turning the once climate-friendly Australian government into essentially an apparatus of the fossil fuel industry. Abbott tried to maintain this disposition throughout the summit, causing other leaders to pounce on him for his backwards-looking agenda, especially President Obama.

In a side speech over the weekend, Obama not only announced the largest national contribution to the Green Climate Fund to date, $3 billion dollars, but he also called on Australians to look past Abbott and take the future into their own hands. Speaking to an audience of mostly students at the University of Queensland, Obama said nobody in the Asia Pacific has more at stake than Australia when it comes to thinking about and acting on climate change.

“Here, a climate that increases in temperature will mean more extreme and frequent storms, more flooding, rising seas that submerge Pacific islands,” Obama said. “Here in Australia, it means longer droughts, more wildfires. The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened.”

In a remark clearly directed at Abbott, Obama said it is in the nature of the world that “that those of us who start getting gray hair are a little set in our ways.” He said that interests get entrenched not because people are bad, but just because “that’s how we’ve been doing things”:

We make investments, and companies start depending on certain energy sources, and change is uncomfortable and difficult. And that’s why it’s so important for the next generation to be able to step and say, no, it doesn’t have to be this way. You have the power to imagine a new future in a way that some of the older folks don’t always have.

Young Australians, many of whom are exasperated by the country’s recent step backwards on climate change goals and clean energy support, were exalted by Obama’s words.

Brisbane Times political reporter Amy Remeikis wrote that that after the speech “pandemonium broke out” and that one woman, desperate to get closer, “jumped like a mountain goat over a chair.”

Obama’s remarks didn’t just lead to action in the auditorium, they also helped build upon a flurry of international climate change news as the countdown to the Paris climate summit at the end of next year commences. While Abbott maintained that he was “standing up for coal” at the summit, in the end he had little choice but to allow key climate language into the official G20 communique.

The several-page document states that the G20 supports strong and effective action to address climate change. It says that the countries will work together to adopt a protocol with legal force at the COP meeting in Paris, and it encourages countries to announce their intended national contributions by the first quarter of next year. It also reaffirms support for mobilizing finance for climate change adaptation and mitigation, such as the Green Climate Fund.

Shortly after Obama announced the U.S.’s precedent-setting $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund, a new fund that will help developing countries shift to pathways of low-carbon, climate-resilient growth, Japan also made a pledge of up to $1.5 billion. The fund, which has in initial goal of raising $10 billion, now has over $7.5 billion in commitments.

In an especially undercutting move to Abbott, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper –normally a comrade-in-arms with Abbott opposing global climate action — made the surprising announcement over the weekend that Canada will contribute to the fund.

While Harper did not give a number, he lauded the recent deal between China and the U.S. to cut GHGs, saying he’s been calling for an “international agreement of binding obligations on all major emitters” since he took power eight years ago, and that now for the first time “that is actually starting to take shape.”

In another nod to the growing role of the fund, the U.K. also announced it would pledge hundreds of millions of pounds, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that Britain has already set aside a substantial amount of money for green climate funds.

Also in Australia for the G20, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of taking action on climate change during a speech in Sydney, saying “climate change knows no borders” and that it will “not stop at the Pacific Islands.”

Merkel pressed the Australian government to announce its goals for cutting GHGs by the first quarter of next year, in line with the G20 communique. So far, Australia has only committed to releasing these numbers in the first half of 2015. Last month the E.U. agreed on a target to cut GHGs by at least 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. When the global community gathers in Paris a year from now, Australia can expect to feel the heat even more.