Climate is on the agenda in spite of Abbott

The G20 summit has been like a series of cascading shirt-fronts – even from the UK Tories and Turkey - for a government that didn't think anyone cared about climate change.

In spite of the fact that the Prime Minister Tony Abbott didn’t want to talk about it, and as convening host he could pull it from the agenda of the G20 meeting, in the end an awful lot of people did talk about climate change over the past few days.

Abbott may be Prime Minister, and a significant and powerful section of his partyroom colleagues may think global warming to be a hoax, but even in government and holding all the strings the reality is they are not going to win the day over the shared opinion of just about every one of the G20’s nations’ meteorological agencies (including Australia’s) and their Academies of Science.

US President Obama and China’s President Xi, by their actions in the days preceding the G20 meeting, ensured that everyone would be talking about what we’re going to do to reduce carbon emissions.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (chair of the next G20 summit) said it was "the biggest challenge to all humanity today", and this is coming from a national leader who has the ISIL “death cult” on his back door step. (You literally only have to possess some binoculars to see the "death cult" in action over the other side of the Turkey border.)

British Prime Minister David Cameron singled out Australia in telling Britain’s Sky News that a range of countries needed to put forward more ambitious plans on emissions reductions ahead of the UN climate summit in Paris. He said: “Countries that have so far done the least have to think about what more they can do. I’ve had good and friendly discussions with Prime Minister Abbott about that.”

President Obama then decided to keep the ball rolling in a speech at the University of Queensland, noting that: “The US and Australia have a lot in common. One of the things we have in common is we produce a lot of carbon.”

He told the audience that they had to “keep raising your voices” about containing global warming and “challenge entrenched interests”.

Liberal WA Premier Colin Barnett, who attended the speech, was sufficiently moved to say in comments reported by the West Australian, "I think that we can be bolder in Australia, including in WA.” He said of the speech, "It was a call to arms, not only to Australia but to other countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific area. Australia, and I think all of us, do need to lift their game." And in comments at odds with Abbott’s self-appointed role in “standing up for coal” at the summit, Barnett commented that we need to ensure new power generation is “at least gas-fired and not coal”.

It’s now apparent, thanks to reporting by Reuters and Lenore Taylor at The Guardian, that this carried into the actual G20 summit negotiations. In spite of Abbott’s efforts, climate change was definitely on the agenda and the ultimate summit communique. An EU official told reporters: "The most difficult discussion was on climate change. This was really trench warfare, this was really step by step by step. In the end we have references to most of the things we wanted." Leaks from the negotiations have revealed that Australia fought unsuccessfully against US and European nations push for the communique to include:

– Reference to nations announcing their post 2020 emission reduction pledges well in advance of the Paris Conference, and ideally by the first quarter of 2015;

– The need to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels; and

– Providing greater levels of financial support to the Green Climate Fund (to be managed by the World Bank) that is intended to assist poorer nations in adapting to climate change and decarbonising their energy supply.

Given the events of the last week one wonders whether the G20 will be like a wake-up call for pragmatism to prevail over ideology within government ranks. It doesn’t really matter one iota what the Coalition partyroom thinks about atmospheric science, they are treated by a large proportion of world leaders and journalists like butchers demanding to be listened to on matters of cardiac surgery.

At present the government is maintaining a brave face. Abbott has now resorted to beefing-up his emission reduction policy by including reference not just to the $2.5 billion Emission Reduction Fund, but also the $10 billion allocated to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation which he is seeking to abolish.

And Joe Hockey argued: “Barack Obama has to get any initiative on climate change through a hostile US Congress. So far he hasn’t had great success.”

However, Hockey might want to familiarise himself with the US Supreme Court ruling in relation to Massachusetts v Environmental Protection Agency (commonly referred to as the 'Endangerment Finding'), where the court held that “greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of ‘air pollutant’”. This ruling set out that the EPA has a statutory authority, indeed an obligation, to regulate carbon emissions under the existing Clean Air Act. This empowers Obama to regulate power station and motor vehicle carbon emissions immune from the scientifically illiterate huffing and puffing coming from some US Congress members.

Tony Abbott and his Environment Minister have been like lazy students that have been able to cover up their inadequate study through bluffing their way through class with the assertion they are "confident" their policies will do the job. While they provide no evidence to support such claims, so far it has been enough to get past a time-poor media.

But the Paris UN Climate Conference to be held in December next year may be that gruelling exam that will require some genuine policy work and analysis rather than bluff.