Commentary: A potent denier, denied

Abbott Top

September 15, 2015

One climate-denying head of state is ousted. Another one is looking over his shoulder.


By Peter Dykstra
The Daily Climate

In the face of mounting political turmoil, the Australian Liberal Party* staged a bloodless coup on Monday, ousting pugnacious Prime Minister Tony Abbott and replacing him with Malcolm Turnbull.  Turnbull is expected to ratchet down his successor’s belligerence on multiple political fronts, notably Abbott’s stern resistance to acknowledge human-caused climate change.turnbull

Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Abbott derided climate concern as “crap.” Scientists consider Australia more vulnerable to climate impacts than most nations, and unlike the U.S., climate politics has helped turn Australian elections.

The seat beneath the Australian Prime Minister rarely has a chance to get warm these days.

Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister in 2006, with his Labor Party plank vowing more climate action than his climate-reluctant predecessor, John Howard.  Rudd was toppled in 2010 by his Deputy, Julia Gillard, who upped the ante some more, casting Australia as one of the world’s more active nations on climate policy.

When Laborites feared that Gillard would alienate voters on a slate of issues including climate, they restored Rudd as leader in 2013.  His second stint as PM lasted three months.

Calling Rudd’s climate advocacy “evangelical,” Abbott, a former boxer, and his Liberal Party took over, pledging to punch out Australia’s carbon-trading scheme and put the brakes on government support for clean energy. Australia’s enormous coal industry was pleased.

Since then, Abbott and his inner circle have been cast by opponents as climate change villains. Maurice Newman, a key business adviser, said earlier this year that climate change is a Trojan horse for a United Nations takeover of the world. 

And as a possible last straw, Abbott’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, shared a joke last week about rising sea levels with the PM, not knowing it was captured by an overhead mike.  The venue was a conference where the topic was the potential demise of Pacific Island nations due to sea level rise.  The audience was not amused.

As the new Prime Minister, Turnbull has vowed to continue Abbott’s policies. But back in 2009, when he and Abbott tussled for Liberal Party leadership, he called Abbott’s jumbled climate and energy policies “bullshit” – invoking a bit of political analysis that even Donald Trump is too shy to use in American politics.  

Some Liberal Party leaders have publicly worried that Abbott’s intransigence has cost the party dearly.  So we shall see if Mr. Turnbull takes some of the edge off Abbott’s strident denialism.

With Abbott on the sidelines, Canada’s Stephen Harper stands out more boldly as a head of state accused of thwarting climate action.  

harperHarper’s nine-year run as Prime Minister could come to an end on October 19, when federal elections will pit his Conservative Party against strong challenges from two rivals.  As of Monday, polling data for CTV and the Globe and Mail showed a virtual dead heat between the Conservatives, Liberals and the New Democratic Party.  

A coalition government between the Liberals and NDP would drastically alter Canadian policy on climate and energy.  Conservatives have been dreading a downfall since May, when they placed third in Alberta’s provincial elections.  The home of the tarsands is now run by the NDP, with a Tea Party-ish local entry called the Wildrose Party as the official opposition.

Harper’s imperious style has helped imperil his party.  If Abbott had hitched his wagon to coal, so has Harper with the tarsands in his native Alberta.  His push to transform Canada into a sort of sub-Arctic oil sheikhdom has divided the nation, and has even moved the needle in U.S. politics in an unprecedented way in the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Harper legacy also includes a veritable purge on government science, slashing marine and Arctic research, forcing a pioneering freshwater research facility to seek a private/provincial bailout, and muzzling science experts from contacting the media and public.  Last month, an Environment Canada scientist was suspended for putting an anti-Harper protest song on YouTube.

These may not be the dominant factors in his approval-rating plunge, but they’re a part of the picture.

Harper’s potential demise next month, paired with the fall of Tony Abbott, precedes by a few months the latest make-or-break global shot at climate action, the Paris summit in December. 

The possibility that both Canadian and Australian delegates will regard the meeting as an opportunity, not a menace, may change the meeting’s prospects for success.

*Note to the Northern Hemisphere:  Australia’s “Liberal Party” is more politically conservative than its main rival, the Labor Party.  Australian Liberals are the rough equivalent of American Republicans.  I have no idea why the “Liberals” are conservative, or why “Labor” spells its name the American way, but they do.  

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

Top photo - nznationalparty/flickr; Second photo - Malcolm Turnbull, credit: Eva Rinaldi/flickr; Third photo - Stephen Harper/flickr

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