Australia’s New PM Called On to Tackle Climate Change


Melbourne – Australia’s newly appointed prime minister, Julia Gillard, has hardly warmed her seat, yet she has already been urged to take action on climate change.

“We call on Prime Minister-elect Gillard to make good on her party’s promise to take the threat posed by climate change seriously,” said Dr Linda Selvey, chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, last week after Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Australia’s prime minister.

Gilliard, who was sworn in Australia’s 27th prime minister on Jun. 24, is the first woman to hold this country’s highest political office.

The parliamentary members of the governing Australian Labor Party (ALP) last week lost confidence in Rudd’s ability to lead the ALP to consecutive election wins after a disastrous few months and elevated 48-year-old Gillard, Rudd’s former deputy, to the top job.

Despite riding high in opinion polls conducted in the first two years of his term, Rudd’s popularity had shrunk considerably in recent months.

While part of this slide can be attributed to policy blunders, including the failure to counter the conservative Opposition’s claims that the Rudd government was soft on border security and the recent battle with mining companies over increased taxation, Rudd’s perceived inability to match action with his own rhetoric on climate change was a decisive factor in his downfall.

Rudd, who famously dubbed climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation,” led the ALP to victory in the 2007 election partly as a result of perceptions that he had better policies on climate change and the environment than the then incumbent John Howard.

But while Rudd was widely applauded for immediately taking steps to ratify the Kyoto Protocol – under which countries committed to reductions in greenhouse gases (GhG) and which Howard had refused to back – his government was heavily criticised when it announced in December 2008 that its target for 2020 was just a five to 15 percent reduction in GhG emissions on 2000 levels.

This was even less than the cut of between 10 and 25 percent that had earlier been recommended by Prof Ross Garnaut, the Rudd government’s chief climate change advisor, and which had also been slammed.

But things went from bad to worse for Rudd, who had been banking on an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to deliver the 2020 reduction target.

Also known as a cap-and-trade system, an ETS puts a price on carbon emissions to encourage major polluters to reduce their emissions.

The ETS legislation failed on three occasions to make it through parliament, with the Opposition and the minor Australian Greens Party both against the scheme, albeit for quite different reasons.

The Opposition was divided over climate change policies while the Greens regarded the ETS as too weak to be effective.

This led Rudd to delay the ETS, which he did in April, declaring that his government would not seek to implement the scheme again until after the current Kyoto commitment period concludes at the end of 2012.

“By the end of that period the governments around the world will be required to make clear their commitments for the post-2012 period. And that will provide, therefore, the Australian Government with a better position to assess the level of global action on climate change prior to the implementation of [an ETS],” said Rudd at the time.

For a prime minister who promoted himself as a genuine leader and who, last November, slammed suggestions that Australia should wait until after the Copenhagen climate conference before acting to reduce its GhG emissions as “absolute political cowardice” and a “failure of leadership,” such weak policies undermined his own image and added to growing disquiet among voters.

“The electorate felt betrayed by Kevin Rudd when he walked away from such a fundamental commitment. It is clear the government vastly underestimated the desire in the community for real action on climate change,” said Selvey.

That desire does seem genuine. According to a poll conducted in March and released earlier this month by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, 72 percent of respondents wanted Australia, among the world’s biggest carbon polluters per capita, to take action to reduce its GhG emissions even without a post-Kyoto global agreement in place.

And that is what the new prime minister, aiming to get a mandate on action from an election likely to be held within months, is now being implored to do.

“I congratulate Ms Gillard and urge her to lead an Australian shift from a pollution-dependent economy to a clean economy and a healthy environment,” said Don Henry, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, a non-governmental community-based organisation.

Others, including representatives from the Investor Group on Climate Change, which represents investors concerned with the impact of global warming, and the Climate Institute, an independent research organisation, have also called on her to act.

For her part, Gillard has labelled climate change as a top priority of her government in a nationally broadcast media conference last week, along with refugees and reaching an agreement on the mining tax.

“If elected as prime minister [at the next election], I will re-prosecute the case for a carbon price at home and abroad,” said Gillard, who has also raised the possibility of introducing a carbon tax to promote renewable energy sources to reduce GhG emissions if no broad-based support for an ETS exists.

Whatever policies she makes on climate change, failure to match her words with action is likely to be as politically fatal to Gillard as it was to Rudd.

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