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'Trench Warfare': How Australia Tried to Stop Climate Change Discussion at the G20 Summit

As hosts, Australia resisted putting climate change on the G20 agenda, bringing fault lines in the international community to the surface heading into major negotiations in 2015.

by Scott Mitchell and Lauren Gillen
Nov 17 2014, 5:40pm

Image via G20 Australia

Climate change wasn't supposed to be discussed much at this weekend's G20 summit because the hosts, Australia, didn't want it to be. Instead, world leaders arrived, ignored the official agenda, and contradicted almost everything Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said.

The day before the global heads arrived in Brisbane, Abbott insisted that climate change was "hardly discussed" by leaders earlier in the week in Beijing, where the US and China had struck their landmark emissions and energy deal during the Asia Pacific Economic Community meeting.

When asked about whether it would force climate change onto the agenda at the G20, Abbott said: "I certainly expect the focus will be on economic reform, economic growth, how do we drive growth and jobs. That is my constant preoccupation."

Since Australia took on the presidency of the G20 forum last year, the Abbott government has resisted putting climate change on the agenda. And the constant refrain has been that the conference should focus on "economic" issues, not the environment.

The phrase "climate change" appeared nowhere on the policy note prepared by Australia that outlined the objectives of the conference, or in the draft of the energy efficiency plan that it deliberated. Reportedly, the phrase only scraped onto the agenda distributed in a sub-paragraph under the section titled "Energy efficiency," after lobbying from the US and France.

"Australia has been trying to run an agenda that is completely at odds with the rest of the G20 nations, except maybe Canada," Dr. Tim Flannery told VICE News during the conference. Flannery was the chief commissioner of Australia's Climate Commission, which was set up to provide information on climate change to the public and businesses, until last year. The first act of Abbott's government was to abolish it.

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"Of course climate change is an economic issue," Flannery continued. "But the US-China deal last week makes it particularly unavoidable now. The cost of renewables is going to plummet, because manufacturing volume is set to go through the roof. China is going to be increasing their green energy sector faster than their coal fired power plant energy for the first time in history. This is a global issue that has to be discussed."

This was a case of domestic politics attempting to dictate the international agenda. Inevitably, the opposite happened once the leaders of the world's most powerful economies touched down. By the end of the weekend, Abbott had been forced into a dramatic change in language. During his press conference at the end of G20 discussions he said: "Obviously, it goes without saying that G20 leaders, all of us, support strong and effective action to address climate change."

The process began when President Obama contradicted a number of Abbott's positions during a speech on Saturday when Obama said climate change in Australia means "longer droughts, more wildfires" and that: "No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part."

Abbott, on the other hand, has said that wild fires, "are certainly not a function of climate change, they're a function of life in Australia." He also accused the head of the UN's climate change negotiations of "talking through her hat" for connecting climate change to an increased risk of bush fires.

The US president also expressed concern about Queensland's world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef and Abbott was said to be privately seething at his speech.

Similarly UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called climate change the "defining issue of our times" and called on G20 leaders to make it a priority.

Even Russia took shots at Australia's position. The two governments have been locked in a war of words ever since Abbott said he would "shirt-front" Russian President Vladimir Putin when he arrived in Brisbane (using an Australian sporting term for bumping an opponent in the chest), in response to the MH17 disaster.

During the summit Russia deployed four naval ships off the coast of Australia and the Russian embassy they were in the area to study climate change, in what could be interpreted as a swipe at Abbott's attempt to keep the subject off the agenda.

The wrangle continued during closed-door negotiations. Reuters reported that an anonymous EU official said that inside the talks, "the most difficult discussion was on climate change, this was really trench warfare, this was really step by step by step. In the end we have references to most of the things we wanted."

The Sydney Morning Herald also reported a clear majority of leaders argued for stronger language in the communique on climate change, to the apparent chagrin of Abbott, who argued in favor of the role of coal and fossil fuels in the future world economy, with support from only Saudi Arabia and Canada. In October Abbott said coal is "good for humanity" and "essential for the prosperity of the world."

Speaking of the UN Climate Change Conference in November 2015 that will outline global emissions targets, Dr. Flannery told VICE News: "The concern is that Australia could join with other similarly minded governments and form a sort of coalition of the unwilling. It could be very disruptive. It could happen, and I suppose we have to prepare for the worst."

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A significant bloc could derail attempts to set post-2020 global emissions targets, although many countries, including the US and China, have already set their own.

"We will all work constructively towards the climate change conference in Paris next year," Abbott professed during his closing remarks.

But Australia's environmental policies could give pause to international hopes for co-operation. The Abbott government has ended the country's carbon tax, abolished the Climate Commission and ordered the Climate Authority and Clean Energy Finance Corporation to cease operations.

"What's more, we're missing economic opportunities," said Flannery. "Since the government has come into office they've wanted to alter the Renewable Energy Target, which is now in limbo. We've lost Australian $1.8 billion (US $1.6bn) of investment in renewables because of that market uncertainty. That's $1.8 billion dollars of capital investment that government policy has cost, because the market is unsure about Australia's commitment to renewables."

Flannery, a former Australian of the Year and a scientist himself, was once described by Sir David Attenborough as "in the league of the all-time great explorers" because of his discovery of new mammal species. When asked about the relationship between the scientific community and the government, he said: "It's the equivalent of if Sarah Palin won the US presidency. This is the first Australian government since 1938 to not have a science minister. Science is not on the list of priorities."

Flannery is quick to point out that while climate policy may not be central to the government's thinking, many Australians are concerned. When the Climate Commission was shut down in October, staff decided to ask the public to support their work. Through online crowd funding, the public donated Australian $1 million in a week to keep the organization together, a national crowd funding record. It has now been revived as a non-profit called the Climate Council and has since published 18 reports on climate science.

The ongoing tussle between voices like Flannery and Australia's government could end up being crucial to the Paris climate talks next December, and in deciding if one of the world's 20 most influential economies stymies efforts to tackle climate change, or joins them.

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