Obama Is Right, Climate Change A Greater Threat Than Terror


You may not have heard much about it – what with all this terrorism going on and stuff – but on Tuesday, the United Nations hosted a global summit on climate change in New York.

The aim of the summit was relatively simple: to build political support to tackle climate change.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said in New York this week, “the purpose of the 2014 Climate Summit was to raise political momentum for a meaningful universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015.” Given that modest goal, it may well have succeeded.

When it comes to climate change, the UN has often been accused of hosting talk-fests that achieve little. Exhibit A for the prosecution is generally considered to be the ill-fated Copenhagen summit of December 2009. Hopes for that conference were high, with many world leaders attending, but the outcomes were disappointing.

The ultimate product of the summit, a wishy-washy document named the Copenhagen Accord, was eventually signed by more than 130 nations. But, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, it’s not legally binding, and therefore doesn’t really commit anyone to anything.

The Kyoto Protocol is thus in limbo. The diplomats are still trying for a second commitment period. But hopes for action now rest with a number of nations voluntarily signing up for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Australia is one of them – we have a bipartisan commitment to a 5 per cent reduction in our emissions levels by 2020, compared with 2000 figures.

But the Abbott government is hardly a convert to concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Given the shaky status of its Direct Action policy in the Senate – it is opposed by Labor and the minor parties – it remains to be seen whether Australia will even meet that 5 per cent target under current policy settings, which allow big polluters to belch smoke scot-free.

As we’ve reported here at New Matilda, the Abbott government has made climate policy a central target since coming to office. Key government agencies and departments have been dismantled or abolished.

The carbon tax has been repealed, and no climate policy has replaced it. Funding for renewable energy has been slashed, while a hand-picked government review of the Renewable Energy Target has recommended killing off one of Australia’s most successful environment policies. To top it all off, Environment Minister Greg Hunt ticked off on one of the world’s largest coalmines.

The hits just keep on coming.

This week, the Abbott government released its Energy Green Paper,which will set the framework for the government’s energy policies in the years to come.

There’s no prize for guessing what the paper recommends: lots and lots of fossil fuels.

Gas and coal are the dominant themes of the paper. The government wants Australia to become an “energy super-power”, boasting that “the booming liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry in Queensland will make Australia the first nation in the world to bring onshore coal seam gas (CSG) to export markets.”

It contrast, it dismisses renewable energy as a sideshow suitable mainly for “regional and remote areas that are off the main electricity grid.” You know, remote areas like the state of South Australia, where renewable energy regularly provides more than half of the state’s electricity demand. 

And what about climate change? The Green Paper pretends it doesn’t matter. The very existence of climate change is mentioned only in passing, as something we should probably think about, given Australia might have responsibilities under a post-2020 Kyoto successor treaty. In contrast, the words “coal” and “gas” are collectively mentioned more than 500 times.

Perhaps the most brazen line in the entire paper is this bald-faced lie: “the Australian Government is committed to providing policy stability and certainty as a priority so that Australia is an attractive investment destination.”

That’d be the same government that killed off a carbon price only two years after it was introduced, with vague plans to replace it with the laughable Direct Action policy. That’d be the same government that decided to the Renewable Energy Target only eighteen months after the last review of the policy, causing so much industry confusion that renewables investment has effectively ceased in this country.

That’s the way the Abbott government sees energy: something you extract from the ground, rather than that hippy wind and solar stuff.

So open has this government’s hatred of environmentalism become, it is actively using its influence to remove climate from the international agenda.

The gestures have become pointed. Tony Abbott flew into New York this week to discuss the Islamic State and the war in Syria at the Security Council. He made sure he turned up just too late to attend the climate summit. Similarly, Australia, as host of the G20 summit in Brisbane this year, has actually taken climate change off the agenda.

The irony is that, for perhaps the first time, the world’s big economies are finally waking up to the danger that climate change poses. In New York, President Barack Obama made a significant speech in which he called climate change a bigger threat than terrorism.

“For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week – terrorism, instability, inequality, disease – there's one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate,” Obama said.

China, meanwhile, already has an emissions trading scheme in place covering several of its biggest cities and regions, including Beijing, with plans to extend it.

But while Australia hastens to lend our support to the US when it comes to foreign wars, the Abbott government is far less keen when it comes to climate change. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the UN summit that Australia was setting an “ambitious” target of 5 per cent by 2020. She also trumpeted the government’s $2.55 billion Emissions Reductions Fund as “the centerpiece of our Direct Action plan,” without mentioning that Direct Action hasn’t even been passed by Parliament, and that the May budget only allocates $1.1 billion over the forward estimates.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, let’s just remind ourselves why climate change is a thing.

Industrialisation and the burning of fossil fuels has released billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. This is warming the world’s atmospheres and oceans. Fossil fuel emissions continue to rise: by more than 2 per cent last year.

A recent report in Nature Climate Change shows that, at this rate, we’re on track for a world that is four or even five degrees warmer than pre-industrial times.

The consequences of such a temperature rise will be devastating. Oceans will rise, natural disasters will become more common, droughts will be longer and hotter, and key agricultural and tourism industries will be destroyed.

Global carbon emissions continue to rise, putting the world on track towards devastating global warming. Source: New Scientist, Global Carbon Project.


On this analysis – the consensus of the world’s climate scientists – climate change therefore ranks as one of the most dangerous threats to the future of civilisation.

Many citizens seem to agree. On the weekend, in news that was barely reported by much of the mainstream media, tens of thousands of ordinary Australians marched in the streets in nation-wide climate rallies. In New York, there may have been as many as 400,000 people rallying for action to reduce emissions.

Melbourne’s march was estimated at 30,000.

And yet, because of the stranglehold that vested interest and pro-mining ideology holds over Australia’s conservative political class, climate change is accorded far less importance than terrorism.

The government’s rhetoric in recent days has become increasingly Orwellian. The Islamic State is a “death cult” and an “existential threat” to the future of Australia.

Meanwhile, in a bizarre inversion of reality, the true existential threat to Australia’s future – a four degrees warmer world – is being pushed the sidelines, despite tens of thousands of ordinary Australians marching on the streets to demand action. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.