The United States and Australia have a lot in common, not least of all our appalling record on the environment, particularly of late, writes Cat McLeod.
The dust had barely settled. Less than 24 hours after Scott Morrison’s ascension to Australia’s top job on Friday, our new Prime Minister took a phone call from US President Donald Trump.
Both leaders took to Twitter soon after, with Morrison calling it a “great discussion”. Trump tweeted his congratulations to the new Australian Prime Minister and announced that “there are no greater friends than the United States and Australia!”
There are now talks of a Trump visit to Australia, which would be the President’s first since taking office in 2016.
Last week, as Canberra descended into chaos, the rest of the world burned.
Considering action on climate change, Morrison and Trump are notably cut from the same disappointing cloth.
On Friday August 23, while Scott Morrison was sworn in as Australia’s 30thPrime Minister, NASA’s Worldviewsatellite released an imagethat, using thermal layering technology, marked all active global fires in red. Although some are controlled agricultural burns, many are out of control wildfires – notably in California, throughout Chile and closer to home in New South Wales.
Firefighters in the US are battling the largest fire in California’s history. At the same time, NSW authorities will bring the start of the official bushfire danger season ahead by a whole month for most of the state, to begin September 1. NSW continues to struggle through a period of critical drought in the middle of winter. Media in both hemispheres continue to run report after report of increasingly unseasonal weather.
But when it comes to the Trump Administration’s record on environmental protection, Australia’s – at least under the current Coalition government – is no better.
The Trump Administration has been in the news over the last month or so for their recent environmental policy moves. Perhaps ‘unpolicy’ would be a better word. At the end of July, the US Government announced its plans to amend the Endangered Species Act, as part of its general unrolling of US regulatory frameworks. Largely considered a success by conservationists and scientists, ESA legislation has been in place since 1973 and is credited with saving animalsincluding the humpback whale, grizzly bear, and bald eagle from extinction.
The ESA has long been a contentious issue in American politics, with criticism concentrated from resource interest groups and farmers who feel that it places harsh controls on land use. Conservatives in congress have claimed that it stymies economic development. The Trump Administration’s proposed changes essentially mean a laxer approach to defining threatened species on a case-by-case basis, as well as more freedom to consider economic affect in any conservation related decisions.
Australia already has one of the worst records when it comes to species extinction, and our biodiversity is in decline. To date, we have lost54 species of fauna – mammals, birds, frogs – and 39 of flora. And, sadly, Australia has had the highest loss of mammal species anywhere in the world. Since the year 1500, 35 per cent of all mammal extinctions have been Australian – 30 out of 84 around the world. And 29 of these have been lost since colonisation.
Australia has said farewell to three animal species recently: the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys, the latter the first mammal extinction to be caused by climate change.Even the koala is battling extinctionin some parts of the country, due to climate change, urbanisation, and land clearing.
At the same time, the clearing of native vegetation in NSW has gone up 800% over the last three years.
Despite being faced with these numbers, the Coalition government has cut environmental spending since taking office in 2013, which has led to the redundancy of many conservation specialist jobs. Job cuts and reinstatements in the oceans and atmospheres division at CSIRO wasted even more taxpayer money and stalled action on climate change.
Back in May, when the Coalition budget was released under then-Treasurer Scott Morrison, Australia’s ecosystems were, unsurprisingly, let down once more. In Morrison’s speech,not once did he mention the words climate, environment or conservation. The government’s only ‘environmentally friendly’ announcement was its nebulous $444 million grant to The Great Barrier Reef foundation, which has since garnered controversyrelating to the connection between the tiny organisation – which has only six full time staff – and the Turnbull Government. The Coalition has also failed to acknowledge that increasing water temperatures and agricultural runoff have contributed to the Great Barrier Reef’s decline. More recently, the Coalition defeateda Greens/Labor motion to limit commercial fishing in marine parks.
One of Malcolm Turnbull’s last announcements as Prime Minister was to scrap the 26% emissions reduction target from the proposed National Energy Guarantee (NEG), after facing backlash from the backbench and other conservative members of the Coalition. Climate change has become a partisan issue, and discord over the slated NEG was used by Turnbull’s opponents within his own party to stage last week’s coup.
In the same week that then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reneged on the emissions target section of the NEG, Trump proposed a replacement for Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The so-called Affordable Clean Energy proposal (ACE) would allow US states to set their own emissions targets and restrict states’ ability to impose regulations on existing power plants. According to one articlepublished in The New York Times, the ACE would reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 0.7 and 1.5 percent by 2030, whereas Obama’s CPP intended to achieve a 32 percent reduction.
The rest of the Coalition aside, the comparison between new Australian leader Scott Morrison and Trump becomes almost eerie when considering coal. In this year’s State of the Union address, Trump said his administration had ended “the war on beautiful, clean coal”, a statement redolent of Morrison in 2016 bringing a lump of coal into the house of representatives, holding it up against the sea of green leather chairs and telling the room and watching cameras “don’t be afraid.”
The coal in question was supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia, whose former deputy CEO John Kunkel is now Morrison’s chief of staff.
During his time in parliament, Morrison has voted against a Carbon Pollution Reduction scheme, marine conservation, and increasing investment in renewable energy. He has voted for unconventional gas mining.
Morrison’s first order of business as Prime Minister is to visit drought-stricken Queensland, with Barnaby Joyce in tow as ‘special envoy’ for drought assistance and recovery. Without acknowledgement of climate change, however, the drought cannot properly be addressed.
For now, the NEG hangs in limbo, Morrison continues to venerate coal, and the Governments of the US and Australia are prioritising current economic opportunities over long-term environmental planning.
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