Little Stephen in the Land of Oz

Published September 12, 2013

The Majuro Declaration. Ever heard of it? I thought not.

The two-page document was released Sept. 5 by a group of 15 small Pacific island nations, and two somewhat larger Pacific island nations — New Zealand and Australia. It was promptly hailed by the few climate cogniscenti who were aware of it as a breakthrough in candor, if nothing else, about the gravest crisis facing the world.

No, not Syria. The crisis that is on a trajectory to exterminating most of Earth’s life forms and sharply reduce humanity’s numbers. That crisis.

The crisis in our natural security is occurring in several theatres, but climate change is its central front. And the Majuro statement was one of the more straightforward dispatches from that front in some time.

It declared that present responses to climate change leave several Forum members facing, “catastrophic impacts on the security and livelihoods of our people.” Indeed, they face an existential peril far more profound than Syria’s. The place we call Syria will still be there when the present crisis is history. As things are going the low island territories will simply cease to exist, becoming nothing more than haunted hazards to navigation.

The only way — just perhaps, and with much luck — to preserve these nations, the statement declared, would be “the urgent reduction and phase-down of greenhouse gas pollution.”

As it happened, on the same day that the Pacific Island Forum released its declaration — with Australia adding its imprimatur — Australians themselves were heading to the polls. They delivered a solid Aussie thumping to the party that had agreed to the Majuro statement.

Voters replaced the Labour government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with the (not remotely) Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott. Five days later, Abbott repudiated not only the Majuro Declaration’s alarm, but most of the policy response Labour had set in place to contain climate change.

Just as he had promised during the campaign, Abbott scrapped Australia’s carbon tax and its program for emissions trading—the two public policies judged most effective at reducing carbon emissions at the lowest cost to society.

The Aussies have installed in Canberra a spiritual twin to the man who has led Canada, its elder Commonwealth sibling, for the last seven years: Stephen Harper, an anti-charismatic economist. Whether this turns out to be a good thing for Australia’s voters is for them to decide.

It’s almost certainly a very bad thing for the world.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal—the only fossil fuel even dirtier than Canadian bitumen steam-cleaned from the tar sands. And Abbott is as starry-eyed a cheerleader for coal as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is for Alberta’s bitumen.

Stephen Harper voices a watery acknowledgement of the reality that human carbon releases are contributing to climate change and consequential changes for the worse in the weather. Aussie Abbott is more Crocodile Dundee on the subject: “The climate change argument is absolute crap.”

Abbott is Australia’s Harper in another revealing way (even beyond the fondness for Orwellian misdirection suggested by his party’s name.)

He is not fond of facts. As he was rubbishing Australia’s best chances to wind down its carbon releases painlessly, Abbott also eliminated its independent Climate Commission, a source of science-based information on the subject for Oz’s voters and legislators.

Canada, needless to say, doesn’t even have such an agency to be scrapped. (The United States, by comparison, does; America’s Department of Agriculture alone, aware of the vulnerability of food supply to climate, has three.

If Abbott is following Harper’s playbook, Australia’s scientists should be polishing their resumes, especially any in the biological and environmental sciences. Or anywhere, really, where they might trip over evidence that wild and human life may suffer a little as it adjusts to the wholesale realignment and amping up of the Earth’s weather systems.

Harper’s cabinet has closed one leading Canadian science platform after another—only pausing at the eleventh hour before delivering a coup de grace to the internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area, a globally unique open-air ‘laboratory’ that allows scientists to examine entire watersheds, after its death sentence ignited a national hue and cry.

Abbott has warned that once “bureaucrats” in places like Australia’s Climate Commission are done away with, “I suspect we might find that the particular position you refer to goes with them.”

The ‘particular position’ Abbott was talking about was, in this case, the finding by Commission scientists that climate change is making Australia’s already extreme weather, worse.

(When the long-valued, independent and non-partisan National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy had the temerity to examine the merits of a carbon tax for Canada, the Harper government eliminated it, too.)

Three days before the election, the Australia Bureau of Meteorology reported that the country had just experienced its hottest 12 months on record. The September issue of the American Meteorological Society Bulletin concluded that climate change had contributed to the torrential rains that produced calamitous flooding in southeastern Oz early in 2012.

Even U.S. President George W. Bush, not normally known for his acuity, recognized in a State of the Union address that the world’s largest economy was “addicted” to fossil fuel. Now that our global addiction is showing unequivocal signs of leading us to a painful, early death, two of the world’s biggest stashes are in the hands of hard-core pushers deep in their personal denial.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood


References and further reading:
New Scientist report on Australian election
American Meteorological Society
U.S. 2007 State of the Union Address 
Majuro Declaration  (PDF)