Canberra covers for Bush on greenhouse

Issue 

BY JIM GREEN
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The Australian government has been the main accomplice of the United States in its efforts to kill the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.

The US government's strategy was spelt out in an April 1 state department cable to US embassies, leaked during a United Nations climate change conference in New York on April 21-22. The cable says that the US rejects the Kyoto Protocol "under any circumstances". It further states that the US plans to remain engaged with the "Umbrella Group" of countries (which includes Japan, Canada and Australia) that has continually fought to weaken the Kyoto Protocol. "We clearly consider the members of the umbrella group to be our closest friends and allies", the cable says.

The US is lobbying Umbrella Group members not to follow the European Union's plan to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, with or without the US. Jan Pronk, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said it would be "very, very difficult" for the treaty to proceed if wavering countries like Australia, Canada and Japan followed the US's lead.

The US has found precious few allies. US President George W. Bush told the Washington Post in late April that Canada and Australia "appreciate" the US position. "Australia said they understand why we took the position. I don't want to get their respective leaders in trouble by saying they endorsed George Bush's plan, which may be the kiss of death for some political leaders. But nevertheless they understand what we are doing", Bush said.

However, the Canadian government has criticised the US for pulling out of the Kyoto process. Only Australia has provided uncritical support and is therefore Washington's "prize recruit" in its campaign to kill the Kyoto Protocol, according to a report in the April 27 Australian Financial Review.

A string of federal ministers, led by Prime Minister John Howard, voiced support for the US position following the March 29 announcement by Washington that it would not support the Kyoto Protocol. Federal cabinet decided on April 2 to support the US decision. The government declared that it will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless the US does.

The Howard government also decided to work towards an alternative international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This appears to be a ploy to hasten the demise of the Kyoto Protocol. The day after the Bush administration's March 29 announcement, federal environment minister Senator Robert Hill pronounced the protocol dead. "If the US walked away from the Kyoto Protocol that would be the end of [it]", he said.

Hill was introduced at an April 17 climate change conference in Washington, organised by the Pew Center, as representing the country with the closest position to that of the US. According to the April 21 Melbourne Age, Hill "waffled at every question suggesting Australia was conveniently hiding behind the US withdrawal because it never really supported Kyoto".

Hill says the US administration "wants to work with Australia on the basis of our experiences" in reducing greenhouse gases. However, Australia has no experience in reducing greenhouse emissions. The 1999 national greenhouse gas inventory, released on April 10, reveals that Australia's emissions grew by 1.1% in 1999 and were 17.4% over 1990 levels — more than double the 8% target for Australia under the Kyoto Protocol.

Corporate front groups

The Australian government is being applauded by corporate polluters and corporate front groups at home and abroad. The Global Climate Coalition, the major front group for US corporate polluters, features on its web site an article by Alan Wood in the April 3 Australian (<http://www.globalclimate.org>). Wood's article, titled "Killing Kyoto in Australia's best interests", urges Australia to back the US in pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol.

Wood comments favourably on a paper written by climate sceptic Alan Oxley for the Lavoisier Group, an Australian "think tank" which argues that the Kyoto Protocol poses "the most serious challenge to our sovereignty since the Japanese fleet entered the Coral Sea on 3 May, 1942".

In an article in the April 11 Australian Financial Review, Professor John Quiggan said the Lavoisier Group "is devoted to the proposition that the basic principles of physics, discovered by among others the famous French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, cease to apply when they come into conflict with the interests of the Australian coal industry".

Jumping to the defence of the Lavoisier Group and its spokesperson, former federal Labor minister Peter Walsh, was none other than Andrew Thomson, federal Liberal MP and chair of the parliamentary treaties committee which was instrumental in converting the Lavoisier Groups' conspiracy theories into government policy last year (see GLW #424, October 11, 2000).

In response to Quiggan, Thomson wrote in a letter to the April 17 AFR: "It is disappointing to see the pernicious techniques of political correctness being used in an important debate such as this. Decent citizens such as Walsh should not be showered with abuse and accused of having 'links with the fossil fuel industry or to right-wing think tanks' as if these were criminal offences. Unlike his critics, at least Walsh had the guts to seek election to parliament."

The April 2 Age printed an article by Ray Evans from the Lavoisier Group, in which he stated: "President Bush has shown courage and provided world leadership by announcing that the United States will not support the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. What is baffling, however, is that some senior members of the Australian government do not seem prepared to immediately lend support to Bush. In the interests of good policy and good science, they should do so."

The same day, federal cabinet took the "courageous" decision to endorse the US position on the Kyoto Protocol.

Evans argued that the Kyoto Protocol must be sacrificed on the altar of the proposed Australia-US free trade agreement: "If John Howard can go to the electorate late this year with even half a commitment from President Bush on this proposal, he will have earned his place in Australian history. The value to Australia of a free-trade agreement that includes agriculture would rank with the ANZUS treaty in the history of Australia-US relations. If we are to break through on the Australia-US free-trade agreement, we need every friendly voice, every helpful telephone call. The prime minister now has to act. Otherwise Australia will not be taken seriously in Washington."

Unpopular

The difficulty for the Howard government is that its position on climate change is deeply unpopular and will cost it votes at the next federal election. A survey commission by Greenpeace Australia and released on April 19 found that 80.4% of respondents believed that Australia should ratify the Kyoto Protocol, without the US if necessary.

The Greenpeace survey drew an angry response from industry minister Nick Minchin. "I think it's irresponsible to be pushing this line without informing people how many jobs will be lost", he said in an April 20 media release.

"ABARE [the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics] estimates that, even with the most optimistic assumptions, the costs to Australia of meeting the Kyoto Protocol commitments would be significantly more than a severe recession and several times that of a major drought", Minchin said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation lodged a complaint with the commonwealth ombudsman about the industry bias of ABARE in 1997, and in February 1998 the ombudsman upheld the complaint and called for reform of ABARE's practices.

Nick Bolkus, federal Labor's environment spokesperson, said in a March 29 media release that "Howard should make it clear to President Bush that Australia supports the Kyoto Protocol and that we believe that the US must shoulder its responsibility on climate change and accept the Protocol".

However, Labor dropped its commitment to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol at its national conference in Hobart last year. According to the April 27 AFR, Labor's current position is that "it would like to be in a position to ratify the protocol".

On April 2, the Senate passed a motion moved by Greens Senator Bob Brown condemning the US and Australian governments "for their efforts to derail the Kyoto Climate Change Convention". Labor supported the motion, but on April 4 the ALP rejected a motion put by Brown calling on the government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Bolkus said it would be "premature" to support the motion.

Labor is under pressure from some unions. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Doug Cameron told Channel 10 on April 22 that, "We would want to talk to Labor about the effect of any protocol or any treaty on manufacturing jobs".

"I think there can be sensible co-existence between manufacturing, and manufacturing can be very clean these days", Cameron said. "There can be sensible coexistence between manufacturing and ensuring the green vote is delivered [to Labor]."