Harper and Abbott: Separated at Birth?

The prime ministers of Canada and Australia are reading from the same playbook on climate change says Madelaine Drohan. And that's not good for the environment.
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October 18, 2013
Madelaine Drohan
Canada correspondent for The Economist, Author of The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Resource Economies, and contributor to The Economist Intelligence Unit

The Liberals in Canada had a lot of fun a few years ago putting together a video showing Stephen Harper delivering a speech when he was still in opposition in which he repeated, sometimes word for word, one delivered on the other side of the world by John Howard, then prime minister of Australia. Tony Abbott, the new prime minister of Australia and a Howard protégé, now seems to be returning the favour, mirroring Mr. Harper’s approach and strategy when it comes to climate change.

Mr. Abbott is in the news this week after releasing proposed legislation to repeal the 2012 carbon tax put in place by the previous Labor government. His opposition to what was then a proposed tax helped him unseat the previous leader of his party, Malcolm Turnbull, in 2009 and it became one of his key campaign pledges in the September 2013 election, which his party won.

Both Mr. Abbott and Mr. Harper lead right-leaning parties – somewhat confusingly called Liberal in Australia and Conservative in Canada. The countries they lead have important natural resource sectors the government is keen to protect – energy dominates in Canada, mining in Australia. And both countries are among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis.

But the similarities in their approach to one of the most pressing global issues of the day go well beyond that casual comparison. In at least nine other aspects of how they deal with climate change, Mr. Harper and Mr. Abbott could pass as each other’s doppelganger.

1.Both were climate change deniers before admitting it was real.

There was a time when neither man wanted to admit that human activities were contributing to climate change, perhaps because that would imply that people in general and governments in particular should do something about it.

In 2002, when the House of Commons was debating the Kyoto Protocol and Mr. Harper was still in opposition, he opposed its adoption, partly because the Liberal government had not provided a credible implementation plan but also because he maintained the science wasn’t settled about man’s contribution to global warming. “There is no particular knowledge at the moment whether that relationship has to do with natural or man-made carbon dioxide,” he said.

Five years later, he acknowledged that while Canada was a small contributor to global warming, “we owe it to future generations to do whatever we can to address this world problem” and called climate change “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity”. That said, the words “climate change” did not appear in the October 16th throne speech setting out the government’s agenda for the future.

The more colourful Mr. Abbott described the science of climate change as “absolute crap” as recently as 2010. More recently he acknowledged that climate change is real, although he still questioned the “so-called settled science of climate change”, and called for effective action as long as it was not a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.

2.Both were in favour of putting a price on carbon before they were against it.

In his speech to the Conservative caucus this week, Mr. Harper repeated a now-familiar attack on the opposition New Democratic Party’s call for a cap on industrial emissions and an emissions trading market (cap-and-trade), saying that under his government “there will be no 20 billion-dollar carbon tax”:

Yet the Conservative campaign platforms for the 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections all promised to institute a remarkably similar cap-and-trade system if the party were elected (which it was in the last three elections).

Mr. Abbott supported an emissions trading system when Mr. Howard was party leader and at the start of Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal leadership, but then questioned the idea in his 2010 book Battlelines and made opposition to the Labor government’s plan a central issue in the 2013 election, which his party won.

That the two party leaders could so easily change position on this issue suggests their policies have more to do with staying in tune with the political zeitgeist than acting out of sincerely held conviction.

3.Both lead parties that advocate for free markets but both want to use the heavy hand of regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The paradox at the heart of Mr. Harper’s approach to tackling climate change is that although he frequently says he is in favour of smaller government and wants to use market forces to provide solutions, he has taken the opposite approach by using regulations rather than market-based mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While this contradiction is not confined to climate change – the raft of consumer measures in the October 16th throne speech will spawn all sorts of new regulations if they are to materialize – it is at its most obvious on this issue.

Mr. Abbott plans to replace the existing carbon tax with something called a Direct Action Plan, which involves paying companies that reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions and penalizing those that exceed emissions baselines. Some of the details remain to be worked out. But it is clear that the plan will call for more rather than less government involvement in this area. He argues that his plan will result in the same overall reduction in emissions as that produced by the tax.

One further parallel between these two approaches is that both the Canadian regulations and Mr. Abbott’s plan appear to focus on emissions intensity – the amount of emissions per unit of production – rather than absolute emissions. Critics of this approach note that even if oil companies, for example, reduce the amount of emissions for each barrel of oil, if more barrels are produced, total emissions could still rise.

4.Neither man minds thumbing his nose at the international community, regardless of the damage it does his country’s brand.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Harper and Mr. Abbott continue to advocate their particular brand of climate change action (or inaction as some critics contend) despite a growing global chorus calling for governments to put a price on carbon. The International Energy Agency, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank have all come out strongly in support of using fiscal instruments, such as a carbon tax, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This advice has gone unheeded in Ottawa and Canberra.

The two prime ministers also seem oblivious to the damaging impact on their country’s brand – an intangible but important factor in international relations – of having the dubious distinction of being the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol (Canada) and the first country to implement a carbon tax and then axe it (Australia). If Mr. Abbott continues to use Mr. Harper’s playbook on climate change, an Australian departure from the Kyoto Protocol lies in the future.

5.Both lead countries where the effects of climate change are already severely impacting some regions.

The Arctic is a signature theme for Mr. Harper’s government. The throne speech October 16th waxed eloquent, or at least waxed, on how Canadians were a northern people and the country was “the true north, strong and free”. Yet the Arctic is also where climate change is having its greatest impact in Canada, with average annual temperatures increasing at twice the rate of global average temperatures. Thawing permafrost damages houses, roads and airports. The warming trend disrupts wildlife and thus the hunters who depend on them. And the melting of sea ice has led to coastal erosion. Thus the promise in the throne speech that the government is “protecting our Arctic environmental heritage” rings hollow.

Southeastern Australia, already one of the most fire-prone areas in the world, is expected to experience more bush fires as a result of the warming climate. The BBC has some remarkable footage from this week of the skies over Sydney being darkened by the smoke of nearby blazes. More bush fires mean more deaths and more damage to livestock, property, and crops. Yet despite a record-breaking heat wave in 2013 and dire warnings of more extreme weather to come linked to climate change, Mr. Abbott has not waivered in his resolve to scrap the carbon tax and dismantle an impressive range of climate change advisory bodies (see next point).

6.Both leaders have axed institutions set up to advise government and the public on climate change.

The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was established by an Act of Parliament 25 years ago to research and analyze critical issues of sustainable development. In 2013 it closed its doors after the Conservative government repealed the legislation and stopped its funding. Foreign Minister John Baird defended the closure, saying that the government did not like the advice it was getting from the research group, especially its repeated suggestion that the government implement a carbon tax. The Conservative government has also gained a well-deserved reputation for muzzling federal scientists, especially if their work touches on climate change. Perhaps the silliest example of this muzzling is that of a government geologist who was refused permission to speak to journalists about a flood that occurred in northern Canada 13,000 years ago.

Mr. Abbott lost no time in axing a number of advisory bodies once he became prime minister. Within days of the election the government moved to close the Climate Commission, set up by the previous Labor government in 2011 to provide reliable and authoritative information on climate change, and the Climate Change Authority, meant to advise on the carbon price. The government also has the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, meant to support private investment in renewable energy, in its sights.

In eliminating authoritative views that might clash with their own, both leaders have tried to limit informed debate on climate change policy. If Mr. Abbott follows Mr. Harper’s lead, government scientists in Australia will soon fall silent.

7.Both prime ministers have appointed weak environment ministers who seem more interested in developing natural resources than protecting the environment.

Shortly after she was appointed environment minister earlier this year, Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk who grew up in the Arctic, gave an astonishing interview to the Canadian television network CTV in which she appeared to question whether the science about climate change had been settled. She said it was debatable whether the Arctic was warmer and pointed to unusual snowstorms in the summer of 2013 as proof. Any hopes that Ms. Aglukkaq would join with other Arctic groups in demanding more government action on climate change were dashed. But she is just the latest in a long line of ineffectual environment ministers who take their marching orders from the prime minister’s office.

Australia’s new environment minister, Greg Hunt, seems to be cast from the same mold. His defence of the government’s decision to repeal the carbon tax focused on the short-term savings to consumers and businesses (more on this below), while ignoring the longer-term impact that not curtailing greenhouse gas emissions will have on Australia and the world. As a Fulbright scholar who did his thesis on emissions trading versus regulation – and came down on the side of emissions trading – he should know better.

In both countries, it would be better to have no environment minister at all (a cost savings measure the prime ministers have overlooked?) than to have ones that do not see themselves primarily as responsible stewards for the environment on behalf of the public.

8.Both prime ministers appeal to the baser (financial) interests of consumers.

Mr. Harper’s attack on proposals to put a price on carbon narrowly focuses on the potential cost to taxpayers and the supposed impact on jobs. Thus the New Democratic Party’s proposal becomes a “job-killing tax”. Lost in the discussion are the longer-term costs that failing to reduce carbon emissions will entail. Also lost are examples, such as the carbon tax in the western province of British Columbia, where jobs were created, not lost, and taxpayers have supported the overall cost because of the potential long-term benefits.

Mr. Abbott has also zeroed in on the potential consumer benefits in the short-term. Australian households would be better off to the tune of $550 a year, without the tax, he says. Power prices will drop by 9% and gas prices will decrease by 7%.

Whether those predicted savings outweigh the predicted cost to the economy of more extreme weather does not come into the argument. It should. But the two leaders have one more point in common:

 9.Both are betting that their constituents don't careenough to inform themselves about climate change and perhaps challenge the government’s policy.

Ever since the global financial crisis, jobs and the economy have risen to the top of the public's list of concerns, pushing down anything that does not merit more immediate attention. An international poll released earlier this year by GlobeScan noted that public concern for the environment had hit its lowest level in 20 years. The pollster noted that even though the evidence of environmental damage was stronger than ever, the economic crisis and a lack of leadership had caused the public to tune out. People will undoubtedly tune back in again as the evidence accumulates, but by then the almost identical climate change policies put in place by the like-minded prime ministers of Canada and Australia will be well entrenched.

Does it matter that Canada and Australia are dragging their heels – or moving backwards in the case of Australia – when it comes to addressing climate change? Both leaders would argue their countries are small potatoes when you look at the world picture and that anything they do won’t materially affect global greenhouse gas emissions.

But their actions matter in both big and small ways. In a small way, at least globally speaking, they are handicapping their businesses, which are not preparing for a future in which reducing emissions will increasingly be a priority. Other countries are well ahead of both Canada and Australia and will reap the benefits while Canadian and Australia companies play catch up.

Canada is already feeling the sting of being branded as an environmental laggard in its efforts to secure U.S. approval for the Keystone XL pipeline. Is something similar lurking in Australia’s future?

And in a bigger way, both Canada and Australia are providing cover for other recalcitrant countries in climate talks aimed at an effective global deal. The days when either country could claim to be a model or lead the world in this area are sadly long gone.