Bishop on a collision course with Abbott’s climate sceptic courtiers

One would hardly describe the foreign minister as an enthusiastic backer of action on climate change, but from her international vantage point she must realise Abbott's ideological blindness must give way to pragmatic reality.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott described it as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”, and “Bob Brown’s bank on an international scale”, but somehow that was all put to one side with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announcing - to applause - in Lima, Peru that Australia would contribute $200 million ($US166 million) to the World Bank Green Climate Fund. This fund is intended to assist poor nations around the globe to adapt to climate change and help them to decarbonise their energy supplies.

When compared to the contributions of other developed nations in terms of the relative size of their economies (see chart below), this pledge might be trailing the pack but it’s not horrible and it’s an awful lot better than what New Zealand has put forward (and that’s what really matters). Yes, the US pledged $3 billion or 18 times more, but their economy also happens to be 11 times larger. Canada pledged 60% more but has an economy nearly 20% larger and mmm, OK we’re pretty much put in the shade by Japan and every European country bar Spain (who is kind of struggling).

Figure 1: Size of developed countries’ funding pledge to Global Climate Fund and economy relative to Australia

Sources: World Bank for GDP data and Climate Institute for GCF pledges

Nonetheless Australia managed to get some applause in Lima so Minister Bishop presumably managed to hit the right mark diplomatically with the amount pledged. Also, there’s several developed nations that haven’t donated anything at all.

Of course, it comes at the expense of other Australian aid to help some of the most impoverished people around the world. So while it might have helped with negotiations over controlling carbon emissions, it may not be such a great favour to the nations it’s intended to help. 

What is perhaps more interesting is that it appears to indicate that Bishop’s pragmatism has won out over Abbott’s (and maybe Peta Credlin’s?) ideological blindness to the political consequences of not taking climate change seriously.

Only weeks before heading off to Lima, Bishop was adamant that Australia would not be mixing up aid money with climate change challenges. Then she arrives in Lima and not long after she’s announcing $200 million of funding to something which her leader seemed to believe represented the personification of evil and polar opposite of his own party – Bob Brown. 

It prompts the obvious question - why the sudden change of heart?

It has come out in the press recently that Bishop had to sidestep Tony Abbott’s office and take her case directly to all Cabinet ministers to obtain approval to attend the Lima climate conference. One suspects that Bishop can see from her vantage point as Foreign Minister that it is simply not viable for her government to be seen to be doing little on climate change. The rest of the world takes the issue too seriously and this ultimately will affect Australians' own perceptions of their government.

This became incredibly obvious to the Australian public over the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Abbott’s attempt to keep climate change off the G20 meeting agenda, against the objections of the US and European nations, blew up in his face. It led to Obama’s barely obscured rebuff during his ‘The Great Barrier Reef is in danger’ speech, and European diplomats briefing the press on Abbott’s failed attempts to white-out commitments on post 2020 emission reduction targets within the G20 communique.

One can surmise that shortly after arriving in Lima, Bishop found herself bombarded by her own diplomats, as well as those of other nations, emphasising the importance of the Green Climate Fund. Given the relatively modest nature of the funding required to sooth concerns ($50 million per annum), why cop the political pain of being criticised as an international pariah? 

In the end Abbott’s conception of the Green Climate Fund as some kind of socialism by stealth was utterly ridiculous. This would have been readily apparent to Bishop based on advice from her own department and from her interactions with other countries. The deputy Director General of the Australian Government’s own aid agency is the co-chair of the Green Climate Fund board. The World Bank – hardly a favourite of the socialist movement – runs the fund and South Korea (you know the Korea that’s not communist) hosts the fund’s management.

Abbott’s attitude suggests a leader who has surrounded himself by a group of courtiers completely blinded by an ideological paranoia that the greenhouse effect was dreamed up to revive Marx from the grave. To take the word of the Institute of Public Affairs on matters of atmospheric science over the Bureau of Meteorology and Academy of Science is bizarre. His adviser on matters of business, Maurice Newman, is perhaps the clearest indication of this almost McCarthyist paranoia.

One would hardly describe Minister Bishop as an enthusiastic backer of action on climate change. The draft text for the Lima agreement sets out a goal of full decarbonisation of energy by 2050 which is reasonably in line with what’s required to limit warming to 2 degrees – a goal Australia has signed onto. Yet she observed of this goal, “How could one possibly commit to having a fossil fuel free world by 2050?”.

Nonetheless she confronts a diplomatic reality that is forcing her to be pragmatic. This has put her on a collision course with the ideological zealots that inform Abbott’s position on climate change.

This small victory for pragmatism may signal a shift with wider consequences for other emission reduction policies. For example, the government is currently prosecuting an attack on the renewable energy sector which the government’s own modelling, as well as others, suggests will increase consumers’ power bills rather than reduce them. It may work out well for the major power companies but this is hardly going to help Abbott out of his poor polling. And in a first for the government, Julie Bishop acknowledged in her speech in Lima that the RET was intended to achieve ‘at least’ 20 per cent market share for renewable energy, not ensure it didn’t grow beyond 20 per cent. 

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