The climate speech Tony Abbott should make

Australian PM Tony Abbott isn’t going to the Ban-Ki-Moon climate summit in New York City on 23 September. He should be, and these are the carefully scripted remarks that he should make there.

I humbly stand before you to seek forgiveness from the delegates present, and from all citizens of the Earth, for my thoughtless actions to date.

I have come to the realization that anthropogenic global warming is the greatest and most urgent threat to the future of humanity and life on Earth. Until recently, I had uncritically accepted the arguments made by many conservative thinkers that scientists were inflating their predictions and ignoring a pause in atmospheric warming. The latest climate observations have convinced me that the Earth system as a whole is gathering heat faster than ever; and far from exaggerating, the scientists significantly under-predicted the rate of global heating and its impacts. With horror, I came to understand that global warming is already costing lives around the world, including in Australia, through worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and fires, which scientists have found are extremely unlikely to have occurred naturally. Even Wikipedia says so.

Worse, I have come to realize that my government, and to a lesser degree Australian governments before mine, have obstructed climate action. Environment Minister Greg Hunt and I have actively promoted relentless expansion of the fossil fuel mining industries driving the problem, subsidizing them and approving over $800 billion worth of projects. We’ve promoted the dangerous new coal seam gas industry and promised to restore the profitability of coal-fired power plants. We’ve cut funding to environmental groups who run political campaigns, supported laws restricting the right to protest, and proposed outlawing environmental boycotts. We played an obstructive role in last year’s climate talks, backtracking from our conditional emissions targets and refusing to contribute to climate finance. We’ve left climate off the G20 agenda. We’ve zealously abolished most existing policies on climate, renewables, and energy efficiency, cutting total spending by three-quarters, and have recently been trying to finish off the former government’s Renewable Energy Target.

Our own proposed climate policy is, I must confess, not properly thought out because when my shadow cabinet designed it most of us were neither well-informed nor fully convinced about climate science. It is no more than a limited pot of money to pay polluting companies for voluntary efficiency improvements they probably would have made anyway, while allowing their total emissions to continue rising along with business-as-usual production growth. It will never achieve our target to cut emissions 5% by 2020, which I now see is a woefully inadequate target anyway. If Australia continues along its present course, our emissions will surely go up, not down. Though I used my daughters as props in my election campaign, my policies are destroying the world in which they will live.

In my defence I can only say that I have followed in the footsteps of my predecessors. When global warming became a political issue in the late 1980s, the Hawke Labor government should have introduced regulations to gradually phase out fossil fuels over the following decades. Instead Bob Hawke, and particularly his successor Paul Keating, chose to deregulate the energy market and grow the fossil fuel industry, sending emissions soaring. In 1990 Hawke promised to cut Australia’s emissions 20% by 2005, but Cabinet crippled this target by ruling out any policies with economic costs, even if the cost was merely slower growth. The only policies introduced were voluntary standards, which were ignored.

John Howard’s Liberal government, of which I was a member and eventually senior minister, similarly failed to act. At Kyoto in 1997, we demanded that Australia be allowed to increase its emissions 8% by 2012, and inserted an “Australia clause” allowing us to count one-off reductions in land sector emissions as an offset for increasing industrial emissions, despite the former being more temporary than the latter. We never ratified the agreement, refusing to accept binding targets unless developing countries would too. Domestically, we put off mandatory policies like carbon pricing in favour of voluntary grant programs and public-private partnerships, an approach pioneered by the dying Keating government. We neutered our only mandatory policy, a Renewable Energy Target, when it proved more successful than expected, and prioritized funding to energy R&D rather than renewable energy deployment. We wasted billions of dollars a year exponentially increasing tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels.

By 2006, Australia was being ravaged by droughts and bushfires, and Australians were growing concerned about climate change and disillusioned with our policies. We set up a taskforce of business lobbyists to design a new policy intended, as John himself recently admitted, to placate the public in a way that wouldn’t hurt the fossil fuel industry. We came up with an emissions trading scheme, or ETS, a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one. Our proposed ETS was to begin around 2012 and allow Australia to buy offsets from other countries, another provision we had secured in Kyoto. But we lost the 2007 election. In a funk, I became a bit of a weathervane on climate – ironically at one stage I even advocated a carbon tax.

The Rudd Labor government acknowledged global warming as the greatest moral challenge of our time, but ignored the implied need to phase out fossil fuels. Like John Howard, Kevin Rudd and his successor Julia Gillard insisted the cheapest climate policy was an ETS, with international offsets allowing Australia’s emissions to go up, not down. Offsets are notorious for fraudulent accounting and displace the required economic transition at home. Their ETS would have locked in a trajectory of weak emissions caps that would actively limit action, because carbon permits give polluters a legally-recognized right to pollute. Many companies were granted permits for free, a wasteful exercise in protectionism of an industry with a wrongful sense of entitlement. Yet even the Greens eventually bought into it, via an agreement to start with a $23/tonne fixed carbon tax and delay the ETS phase until 2015 when the government would consider strengthening its emissions target. They also agreed to introduce other climate policies, but Labor backslid on some of those after the carbon tax was legislated. Eventually Rudd regained the leadership and promised to sideline the Greens and revert back to the original plan if re-elected. All in all, the Labor-Greens climate policy was a rort designed by an incompetent and divided government.

I am ashamed to say that after I was elected Opposition Leader on an anti-ETS platform, I largely overlooked these legitimate criticisms of Rudd and Gillard. Instead I attacked their climate policies, particularly in the case of the carbon tax, for what I feared would be their massive economy-destroying costs. I returned party policy to John’s original voluntary, non-penalizing approach. As the tax’s implementation date drew nearer and economic analysis failed to support some of my initial predictions, I convinced myself that this was because it would be a python squeeze rather than a cobra strike. The carbon tax remained in place for two years until I eventually succeeded in repealing it, yet the sky had still not fallen in and emissions did seem to be decreasing. Lying awake the night after celebrating the repeal, I was plagued by nagging doubts that the whole time I’d been deeply misguided.

As difficult as it is to admit that I spent years of my life tilting at literal windmills, I am strong enough to say that I was wrong. The carbon tax was never a threat to the Australian way of life. The real threat was always human-caused global warming, to which the carbon tax was a very inadequate response.

I now hear loud and clear the people saying they want action. On Sunday 400,000 marched for climate action here in New York City. Back home 30,000 marched in Melbourne and it wasn’t St Patrick’s Day. Seeing the diversity of the protesters, I can no longer dismiss climate activists as latte-drinkers – this is an issue that affects everyone. I apologise on behalf of my party for implementing increasingly draconian laws restricting the right to protest. I now realize the true threat to human societies is not the activists for system change, but the corporations driving climate change.

I am a conservative, but past inaction on climate has brought us to a point where there is no longer a non-radical option. It’s either radical transition now, or radical collapse later. We will no longer place blind faith in market-friendly policies after they have failed for 25 years. We must take direct action to cut greenhouse gas emissions toward zero as fast as possible, particularly the largest and fastest-growing contributor to the warming, fossil fuel CO2 emissions. With mounting evidence that global warming has already reached a dangerous level, I can think of few things more damaging to our future than for Australia’s fossil fuels to be sold and not left in the ground.

Because the fossil fuel industry cannot be allowed to survive, my political party will stop taking donations from them, cut our ties with their front groups such as the Institute of Public Affairs, and stop listening to their self-interested arguments which I now realize are calculated to sabotage climate action. The industry has inflated its importance to the Australian economy; in reality coal mining only provides 0.3% of Australian jobs, and most of its profits are going overseas or to a handful of super-rich individuals. Their claim to provide the only cheap energy ignores the consequent costs of climate change, and is outdated as renewables are increasingly competitive.

I no longer believe Australia should wait for the rest of the world. If all countries waited for others to act, nobody would ever do anything. Australia’s wealth and high responsibility for emissions oblige us to lead the world. It has been unfair of Australian governments to make our actions conditional on those of poorer countries who are less responsible.

Australia is withdrawing from the Umbrella Group, which I now realise is a thinly veiled club for rich countries crafting loopholes to avoid making genuine emissions cuts. We will instead seek an alliance with the small island states, who despite their limited resources have bravely taken the lead in their fight for survival by banding together to start transforming their own energy systems. Australia is committed to working with developing countries to ensure, to the extent possible, that the policies we are about to announce do not adversely affect economic development in those countries, so they can grow sustainably.

Today I am proud to announce Australia will ban new fossil fuel mining projects, fossil fuel export infrastructure, fossil-fuelled power stations, and exploration for fossil fuels. We will then draw up a plan to phase out our fossil fuel exports, because countries share responsibility for emissions resulting from international trade in a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target. As Australia is one of the world’s top two coal exporters, our exiting the fossil fuel trade will substantially reduce global supply, increase global coal prices, and help create a new international norm of leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Other countries will not be able to immediately scale up supply to replace Australia’s fossil fuel.

We will also phase out emissions at home as fast as we can. Presently governments are insisting on weak targets until 2020. My government has refused to plan beyond 2020, while others are using post-2020 targets to stave off any pressure to ramp up action this decade. I now realize we cannot wait another six years to take meaningful action. Australia will hold itself accountable by slashing emissions in a single electoral term, setting itself an ambitious target of a 20% reduction by 2016. That’s a difficult ask, but former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding has argued that such an emergency-speed target is possible if there is political will.

I have come to realize it is appropriate for renewable energy to receive support and subsidies from government, considering it is a relatively new industry yet essential to maintaining a safe climate. We will increase the Renewable Energy Target to 100% by 2025 – I can’t resist upstaging South Australia’s Labor government who today announced a 50% by 2025 target. Think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions, or BZE has shown 100% can be achieved within ten years. The target will be delivered by feed-in tariffs for each renewable energy technology, as that will provide more certainty than the current tradeable certificate system. We will increase funding for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and ensure it is solely directed to zero-carbon technologies. We will also fund community renewable energy projects, and upgrade the electricity grid to support 100% renewable energy.

We will draw up similar plans to decarbonize each sector of the economy by deploying the best available zero-carbon and energy-efficient technologies. For example, in the transport sector BZE is currently looking into electrification of cars, trams, and trains; high-speed rail and regional rail upgrades; and biofuels for long-distance car trips.

Real action may require Australians to accept some costs or lifestyle changes, and will certainly cost those invested in polluting industries that must be shut down, but any short-term costs will be dwarfed by the avoided devastating long-term costs of human-caused global warming. There are no jobs on a dead planet. That said, having learned from my mistakes in my first budget which hurt the poor, we will do everything we can to assist Australians through the transition to a zero-carbon economy. Workers from old polluting industries will be retrained to build and maintain the new renewable energy and zero-carbon infrastructure. Communities will be involved in the planning process, but let me be clear, we will consult on the method but the goal is non-negotiable.

To ensure our government retains the power to implement climate policies, we will withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, take a more critical approach to free trade negotiations, and refuse to sign any trade deal containing investor-state dispute settlement provisions.

Australia will promote global climate action, particularly fossil fuel phase-out, both in and outside of UN climate talks. We will shift the focus of our negotiation efforts from the promised post-2020 agreement to the more immediate workplan on pre-2020 ambition, because 2020 is too late to wait. Australia will unconditionally increase its 2020 Kyoto Protocol target. We will propose an amendment to revoke the Australia clause, oppose international emissions trading and offsets, and cancel our surplus emissions units from the first commitment period as we now realize they were ill-gained. Though Australia appeared to overachieve our Kyoto Protocol target, in reality our emissions excluding the land sector increased 31% from 1990 to 2012.

We will provide funding and technology for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. I apologize for previously ridiculing the developing world’s pleas for financial assistance by invoking a superficial comparison to a domestic political opponent. While technology transfer may raise thorny legal issues around intellectual property, I am committed to making every possible effort to work through these, as climate action and sustainable development are higher priorities than intellectual property. I want Australia to be the first renewable energy superpower, for a change supplying our cousins with the solution to global warming instead of its cause.

We will fund research into possible geoengineering solutions in case we need to cool the planet fast. As my side of politics has traditionally touted the possibility of geoengineering as a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid cutting emissions in the present, I want to be clear that here I raise it only as a stopgap that may regrettably be required in the future despite its potential hazards. If and when it does emerge as a policy proposal, I would suggest a global referendum on the question to ensure it is not forced on the people of the world – there should be no sunlight reflection without an election.

Australia will find money in its budget to redirect several percent of its GDP to climate action domestically and in poor countries. We will cut the fossil fuel subsidies – that alone will raise $14 billion annually. We will cut back on the military and border security, as I now realize climate change is the most pressing security threat to the world’s people. We will raise taxes on the super-rich and corporations and clean up the loopholes that allow tax avoidance, again having learned from my toxic budget. If necessary we may borrow money, as I now understand it is not fiscal debt but ecological debt that is truly in crisis.

I will even reinstate the fixed carbon tax, albeit without Labor’s emissions trading. In fact, I will increase it to a level sufficient to ensure energy investment is redirected from fossil fuels to renewables, and expand it to apply to emissions from the offshore burning of fossil fuel exports. And we will ensure that households are assisted through the transition, by restarting energy efficiency programs on a larger scale and introducing a home insulation scheme with proper safety precautions.

So we will have raised the price of carbon and we’ll have gone down a path that everyone understands. As I’ve said before – if you want to put a price on carbon, why not just do it with a simple tax?

We urge our fellow countries to join us. I know that most of you have come here with instructions to obstruct action to protect the supposed interests of your respective nations, which you equate with the interests of your local fossil fuel industries. Until very recently I thought the same way. But these talks are about something more important than the relative power of states or corporations. We are here to save the planet.

Australia is about to lead on climate. It’s time for the world to follow.

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