In Australian Prime Minister-in-waiting Kevin Rudd’s eyes, climate change is the “great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age” – or at least it was back in 2007 when he beat the conservative Liberal leader John Howard in a general election.
Rudd’s entourage had barely unpacked his gear at the Prime Ministerial Lodge, than he was off to sign the Kyoto Protocol which Howard had described as “next to useless” because of the conspicuous absence of the US and China on the list of signatories.
Three years later, it was Rudd’s failure to legislate an emissions trading scheme to fight that great challenge that helped spur Labor’s factional leaders to pull that moral rug from underneath him and install Julia Gillard as new party leader and Prime Minister.
Climate change policy had become a toxic pill which the Liberal opposition, led by Tony Abbott, forced her and her party to swallow at every opportunity.
Yet it was Gillard, flanked by her loyal Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, who did manage to get a modified carbon price into law in 2011 which came into force in the middle of 2012. Under the circumstances, it was a remarkable achievement.
But her tax would be an economic wrecking ball – a great big new tax on everything – Abbott has constantly claimed, and the misrepresentations of the actual nature of the modest price on carbon were left to hang uncorrected in the fetted air of Australian political discourse.
Now, after events in recent hours, both Gillard and Combet are gone, replaced by Rudd and an as yet unannounced climate change minister after a leadership challenge.
When Rudd made his acceptance speech late in the evening, the words climate change didn’t pass his lips. Predictably, when Tony Abbott reacted minutes later, he pledged his party would abolish the “carbon tax” if he got in.
Before Rudd’s Phoenix-like rise back to the hot seat, polls suggested Abbott’s party would win on a landslide with catastrophic lubrication enabling Labor to slip into a political abyss. Whether Rudd will stop this lubrication before the expected September election, only the ensuing weeks will reveal.
One of the only near certainties currently in Australian climate change policy is the target to cut emissions by five per cent, based on their levels in 2000. Both parties agree on this but after that, there are question marks everywhere.
Climate change remains one of the most divisive and toxic issues in Australian politics and is one stuffed full of uncertainty. The Tea Party-like anti-carbon tax rallies which ran before the carbon price was voted through were bitter, abusive and scientifically illiterate.
At a summit for grassroots climate campaigners in Sydney last week, many campaigners voiced fears of policy carnage for climate and renewable energy under a Liberal government. The Liberal Party has already pledged it will get rid of the Department of Climate Change.
Abbott once described the science of climate change as “crap” but has also insisted he accepts the science, although he is known to be influenced by the writings of Professor Ian Plimer, a climate change sceptic and director of several mining companies, two of which are owned by billionaire Gina Rinehart. Abbott leads a party with several climate science denialists in its ranks in a country which exports more coal than any other on the planet.
Across the Pacific, US President Barack Obama has been increasingly derogatory of climate science denial. In a stirring climate change speech a day before Rudd’s rise, Obama told the crowd at Georgetown that the US did not “have time for a meeting of the flat earth society”.
Neither does Australia.
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