Thursday, December 3, 2009

Australian climate muddle

The word "muddle" seems right to me. It evokes mud. Dry mud.

On the eve of the Copenhagen summit, the behavior of Australia's federal opposition has been alarming, to an extent that nobody could have imagined. Australia's Liberal Party was having trouble deciding how to play its federal opposition role on the all-important subject of climate change. In a huge ego confrontation, the leader Malcolm Turnbull let himself get replaced by Tony Abbott.

At a grave moment, when a bipartisan approach to planetary problems would be expected, it's a pity that this game of musical chairs should still be going on in the party of former prime minister John Howard.

Here in France, the fact that the climate-change project of Kevin Rudd has been rejected, and the idea that Australia will be turning up at Copenhagen with empty hands, have given rise to interesting comments in the national press.

A prestigious French think tank named IRIS [Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques] studies questions of a strategic and international nature. [Click on the banner to access their website.] Their governing board includes individuals such as Pascal Lamy (director-general of the World Trade Organization), Hubert Védrine (former minister of Foreign Affairs under Mitterrand), Michel Barnier (Europe's recently-appointed internal markets commissioner) and Philippe Séguin (president of the Cour des comptes). There are younger board members such as the leftist politician Manuel Valls and even the professional soccer-player Lilian Thuram.

IRIS has reacted immediately to political events in Australia through an interview of Sylvie Matelly, a research director at the institute, published in the great daily Le Monde. I find this short interview excellent, since it summarizes well-informed French reactions to Australia's role on the international stage.

Funnily enough, this French analysis of the situation in Australia is less alarmist than the opening lines of the present blog article!

Click the banner to access the French-language article. The journalist who conducted the interview was Audrey Garric. Here is my translation of the entire interview:

LE MONDE: How do you explain the rejection of the government's climate project by the Australian senate?

SYLVIE MATELLY: To Australian political parties, this plan appeared to be too ambitious. Its goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by the year 2020, by 25% with respect to the year 2000. Well, Australian emissions increased by 30% between 1990 and 2007. And they continue to rise because of the country's strong economic activity. Politicians therefore feared that the nation would not succeed with respect to that goal. Besides, the year 2020 seemed to be too close for a nation that had only ratified the Kyoto protocol in December 2007, with the election of the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.

LE MONDE: What has brought about that lukewarm attitude of Australian politicians towards environmental issues?

SYLVIE MATELLY: Australians have been divided for a long time by climate-change questions. On the one hand, ecological awareness is quite developed at a public-opinion level. Australians are conscious of the fact that their land is one of the countries most highly affected by global warming. For example, Australians were the first people in the world to banish old-fashioned lightbulbs. The Australian press highlights regularly the consequences of climatic warming upon the desertification of the land, and the tragedy of animals dying of thirst. On the other hand, Australia's economy is highly pollutant. On a per capita basis, it's the world's second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gas. It's a very wealthy nation, with a high standard of living, and its economic growth is dynamic. So, it's a major energy consumer. Above all, its energy is almost totally coal-based. Industrialists and the energy sector have no desire to see their activities curtailed.

LE MONDE: The government intends to resubmit its law project to senators in February. If the text were to be rejected for the second time, what would be the consequences as far as global warming is concerned?

SYLVIE MATELLY: There is little chance that this controversial project, rejected twice by the senate, could be adopted in February, especially if an early federal election is announced, as expected, in the beginning of 2010. In any case, the recent rejection of the present climate-change project cannot possibly influence adversely the Copenhagen summit, since Australia does not have a major role to play in the combat against global warming. Australia may well be the second per-capita producer of CO2, but the nation is down in the 15th position when judged in terms of the gross quantity of emitted gas. The major problems to be handled are more concerned with emissions from the USA, China, the EU and oil-producing nations. So, the rejection of the government's project should not aggravate Australia's problems of desertification and water shortage. In other words, Australians suffer from the consequences of global warming without being in a position to act upon the causes. Nevertheless, the adoption of a climate-change project would have enabled the nation to think about redesigning its economic model and increasing its investments in new forms of energy. Australia might end up lagging in the ecological arena.

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