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Environmental Capitalism and Climate Change Wars: Australia in 2000

The Australian was convinced. “Australia could have avoided two decades of climate change wars had the Howard government pushed ahead with its majority view of an emissions trading scheme (ETS), newly released documents reveal.” Historian Chris Wallace is not as unequivocal in this assertion, but nonetheless observes in The Conversation that “a working consensus among cabinet ministers” is discernible, “with one exception, that an emissions trading scheme (ETS) was not only a possible but a likely route by which Australia would eventually fulfil its international environmental obligations.”

These views came in light of the release by the Australian National Archives of the 2000 cabinet papers. Climate change sceptics are not in the ascendant; the Australian Greenhouse Office is working on a variant of the ETS, and requested funding for its operations in the May budget.

This is a far too rosy reading. The Howard government had already argued in December 1997 at Kyoto (Conference of the Parties COP3) that greenhouse gas emissions growth would be permitted to 108% of its 1990 baseline. Along with Iceland and Norway, it was one of three countries granted an increase in emission levels from its 1990 base. To this could be added Australia’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, though Prime Minister John Howard was still boastful of his environmental measures, including the creation of the Australian Greenhouse Office.

How to even meet Australia’s singularly generous targets was a source of concern among ministers. Environment minister Robert Hill’s submission in May to his colleagues drew attention to two projects – the coal-fired Kogan Creek power station in Queensland and Comalco Alumina – that would together account for 25% of emissions growth allowed by the Kyoto undertakings.

Issues of efficiency were raised: the Kogan Creek power station would only be half as efficient as a gas-fired version. Hill suggested the imposition of various conditions, one of which would be a commitment to abate the carbon arising from the projects. Three departments – the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and the Department of Finance – pooh-poohed the idea. In the curt response from PM&C, it was “desirable to clarify future greenhouse policies as soon as possible to reduce the uncertainty faced by investors in projects such as these.”

But there was one figure looming large, an aggressive paladin for the resource sector sceptical about the climate change narrative. Nick Minchin was the Howard government’s Industry and Resources Minister. He had big, aggressive dreams for gas. His goal: to blunt any emissions trading scheme through large compensation packages across carbon-intensive industries.

This is not to say that any ETS would not have been gravely deficient in either its philosophy or its realisation. At COP6 at The Hague, a vocal lobby for the marketing of greenhouse gases, groups seeking to corporatize the ostensible reduction of emissions through free trade environmentalism, were much in evidence. These included the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The Kyoto Protocol risked becoming a corporate friendly charter.

Australia’s less than heroic contribution at The Hague was important in ensuring that no agreement was reached between participating countries, largely due to disagreements between the US and European Union. Hill was charged with easing his country’s feather light burden of environmental responsibility further, with a brief that would seek additional carbon sinks already agreed to under the Kyoto negotiations.

The minister would “minimise the cost of implementing Kyoto and the impact on Australian trade competitiveness.” Should the spectre of disproportionate costs to Australia arise at the COP6 negotiations, Hill was to become a committed saboteur, working “with like-minded countries to block consensus or failing this, make a statement of Australia’s position.” Australia, as part of an Umbrella Group including Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Iceland, Norway and Iceland duly concurred with US proposals favouring the use of carbon sinks.

The fact that Minchin would not even accept a market model for emissions trading suggested an encampment, an ideology pre-heliocentric in nature. Most of the cabinet ministers in the Howard government did, on some level, accept the gravity of anthropogenic induced climate change. But a survey of Minchin’s opinions over the years reveals how his militant stance on climate has become the orthodoxy of Australian governments from Abbott to Morrison. Along with Abbott, he is a fan of carbon dioxide, “more of a friend than an enemy to the earth’s flora and fauna.” Climate change was a natural process of complexity requiring “prudent and cost-effective adaptation.” He remained unconvinced “about the theory of anthropogenic global warming.”

In July 2013, Minchin launched Taxing Air: Facts & Fallacies About Climate Change. Written by Bob Carter and a host of other sceptics, including Stewart Franks and Bill Kininmonth, Minchin was “flattered” at being asked to launch a book he felt should be “in every school, every university and every community library.” Carter was “a terrific and leading voice in combating the scare mongering we have all been subjected to on the theory of anthropogenic global warming.”

In 2009, Minchin was a cardinal knife wielder in the Liberal Party coup against then leader and future prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull was an ETS convert; his replacement, a certain climate change denialist Tony Abbott, was not. Abbott became prime minister in 2013 cresting on promises to dismantle carbon-pricing schemes. Australian climate change policy, flawed as it was, had been effectively, and comprehensively, jettisoned.

In 2021, Minchin’s legacy is holding firm and fast. Australia retains a near manic ambivalence to the reduction of emissions. The mining lobbies remain boisterously strong, the environmental portfolio in the Morrison cabinet, weak. The government’s lack of ambition has seen it keep company with Saudi Arabia and Brazil in being excluded from the latest United Nations Climate Action Summit. That trend was already set at the start of the new millennium.

 

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6 comments

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  1. Terence Mills

    Looking at Nick Minchins bio on Wikipedia it would seem that he was influenced by the tobacco lobby when he dissented from a Senate enquiry on tobacco related illnesses :

    >Senator Minchin wishes to record his dissent from the committee's statements that it believes cigarettes are addictive and that passive smoking causes a number of adverse health effects for non-smokers. Senator Minchin believes these claims (the harmful effects of passive smoking) are not yet conclusively proved ... there is insufficient evidence to link passive smoking with a range of adverse health effects.
    — Nick Minchin, Senate Committee's Minority Report on Tobacco-related Illnesses.

    Senator Minchin wishes to record his dissent from the committee’s statements that it believes cigarettes are addictive and that passive smoking causes a number of adverse health effects for non-smokers. Senator Minchin believes these claims (the harmful effects of passive smoking) are not yet conclusively proved … there is insufficient evidence to link passive smoking with a range of adverse health effects.
    — Nick Minchin, Senate Committee’s Minority Report on Tobacco-related Illnesses

    As Malcolm Turnbull subsequently noted :

    “As Tony [Abbott] observed on one occasion, ‘climate change is crap’, or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it’s cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the world”.

    After leaving politics, Minchin also joined his buddy Alexander Downer at lobbyist Bespoke Approach whose client list includes Wesfarmers, coal seam gas miner Santos and Chinese-owned coal miner Yancoal.

  2. Andrew J. Smith

    Interesting Terence Mills, I was going to posit the question who are Minchin’s puppeteers?

    Further, tobacco protaganists, along with fossil fuel, and climate science denial sounds like ALEC or one of the Koch linked think tanks in the US, plus of course the IPA.

    In DeSmog Blog (Canada) a Graham Readfearn has written much about Australia including ‘Australia Appoints Climate Science Denier As Top New York Official’ (3 Feb 2014) referring to Nick Minchin:

    ‘The new Consul-General, a former government minister, might also have a job convincing the New York Times that climate change is just a scary story. The paper’s editorials repeatedly warn of the risks of climate change.

    Most recently, the paper’s editorial board said there would be “devastating climate-change consequences” unless there were “aggressive moves” to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

    Minchin himself has fought hard for the opposite. When the Liberal Party was in opposition, Minchin played a key role in unseating leader Malcolm Turnbull and replacing him with Tony Abbott, now the country’s Prime Minsiter.

    Turnbull wanted to support an emissions trading scheme, but Abbott — who once described the science of climate change as “absolute crap” — did not. Abbott, backed by Minchin, won, but has since claimed he accepts the science.’

    He also was involved in a documentary:

    ‘In a segment not aired on the show, Minchin was taken to meet Naomi Oreskes, a science history professor at UC San Diego and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

    Oreskes warned Minchin that he was basing his decision on “bad information” and said that while many conservatives feared regulating greenhouse gas emissions amounted to an unwelcome government intrusion, avoiding taking action actually made those fears far more likely to come true.

    Minchin’s “expert” choices included Marc Morano, the communications director for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) and former advisor to Republican Senator James Inhofe, who says global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

    CFACT has accepted at least $4 million from Donors Trust – a fund that spends cash on behalf of rich conservative millionaires while keeping their identities a secret. CFACT has also accepted cash from fossil fuel interests, including $500,000 from Exxon.

    Morano told the recent United Nations climate talks in Warsaw that coal was the “moral choice” for the developing world.’

    https://www.desmogblog.com/2014/02/13/australia-appoints-climate-science-denier-top-new-york-diplomat

    So it does not appear to be ALEC but CFACT which like ALEC receives suppport and inflruence from Kochs et al.

    The relevance for Australia is that our MPs, Committees and one guesses PS, can be easily influenced against science as most if not all are not science literate (degrees in arts, law or economics); a good and cheap barrier to innovation that threatens legacy industries.

  3. Matters Not

    Re:

    … can be easily influenced against science as most if not all are not science literate (degrees in arts, law or economics);

    Interesting theory – but how does it accommodate the current, widespread claims that Arts, Law, Economics (and Philosophy) etc are being over-priced while STEM subjects are made more financially attractive? Or perhaps things are more complex than they seem at first glance?

  4. Matters Not

    Re:

    Minchin also joined his buddy Alexander Downer at lobbyist Bespoke Approach

    Ex-politicians choosing to to become lobbyists is almost the norm these days, particularly if they believe that they have influence (broadly defined to include, contacts, knowledge, expertise etc) to sell. And the vast majority are strongly of that opinion.

  5. Andrew J. Smith

    Matters Not: On ‘Interesting theory – but how does it accommodate the current, widespread claims that Arts, Law, Economics (and Philosophy) etc are being over-priced while STEM subjects are made more financially attractive? Or perhaps things are more complex than they seem at first glance?’

    Not sure what linkage is being made? The generation in parliament now will not be affected by non STEM subjects being more expensive, since most studied for free or lower fees with HECS, but does impact younger generations, a line in the sand on the ‘clever country’? Australia too has been promoting similar to the Koch’s K12 obsession on charter schools since there is strong bipartisan support for religious based schools over secular state schools.

    I do know that Koch linked think tanks have a strong interest in higher education promoting, but promote more vocational, like STEM (essential for industry) and medical (demand in health or human biology). However, the Kochs like the LNP have strong antipathy towards liberal arts and higher level skills (aka Bloom’s Taxonomy) including analysis, evaluation and understanding (science) research process (if post grad study done).

    Better to keep people dumbed down and only need minimum education needed to work…. it’s why across the world right wing nativist conservatives and/or religious types have strong antipathy towards the educated who are dog whistled as ‘elites’…..

    Then ‘Ex-politicians choosing to to become lobbyists is almost the norm these days, particularly if they believe that they have influence (broadly defined to include, contacts, knowledge, expertise etc) to sell. And the vast majority are strongly of that opinion.’

    That does not make becoming a lobbyist, from an insider position, either ethical or supported by citizens? Like most MPs, they approve of their own benefits, access by lobbyists etc. almost actively defying the wishes of the electorate with lack of trust in elected members?

  6. Wam

    Idiots, like me, are used to ideas being dismissed.
    But I can still not accept the criticism of the basic premise behind my acceptance of a drastic need for renewables.
    The first is nature has taken billions of years to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as coal, oil and gas. In 200 years we have released billions of tons back into the atmosphere surely that alone must affect any balance in nature.
    The more understandable point is in the words ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions resulting in the greenhouse effect. A look at the hottest planet will show you the dangers.
    Kaye is one of the deeply concerned supporters of climate change who is so dismisseth
    of the suggestion that nobody can deny global warming if fox melts?
    But the lying rodent put turnbull up for action and the lemon put up Wong between them they came up with a bipartisan scheme. The lemon was too slow and got dumped then minchin’s boy and Boobbie killed it in 2009 leaving an 11 year void.
    (Bobby’s loonies tried to rationalize that the scheme wouldn’t work but they were sheep.to the ideal of greenies long gone with the dilundransimkims.

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