by Tom Switzer, WSJ
When I say the climate is changing, I do not mean, as many people do, that man-made global warming is destroying Planet Earth. I mean that the politics of climate change is changing rapidly all over the globe. Al Gore’s moment has come and gone.
In the United States, Democrats, nervously facing midterm elections, are calling on President Obama to jettison the cap-and-trade bills before the Senate. In Canada, the emissions-trading scheme—another term for cap-and-trade—is stalled in legislative limbo. In Britain, Tories are coming out against David Cameron’s green stance.
In the European Union, cap-and-trade has been the victim of fraudulent traders and the carbon price has more than halved to $18.50 per ton. In France, the Constitutional Council has blocked President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tax on carbon emissions that was set to take effect in the New Year.
In Copenhagen, meanwhile, the United Nations’ climate-change summit went up in smoke. And in Mexico City later this year hopes for any verifiable, enforceable and legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gases—and to bring in developing nations such as China and India that were, insanely, omitted from the Kyoto protocol in 1997—are a chimera.
Add to this that Washington was buried by record-breaking snowfalls last month, that hurricane activity is at a 30-year low in the U.S., that London is bracing itself for its coldest winter in decades, and that there has still been no recorded global warming this century, and it is no wonder public skepticism is rising across the world.
Nowhere is the changing climate more evident than in Australia. Last month, the Senate voted down the Labor Government’s legislation to implement an emissions-trading scheme. Polls show most Aussies oppose the complicated cap-and-trade system if China and India continue to chug along the smoky path to prosperity. The center-right Liberal-led opposition, moreover, is now led by Tony Abbott, a culture warrior who has described man-made global warming in language unfit to print in a family newspaper and cap-and-trade as “a great big tax to create a great big slush fund to provide politicized handouts, run by a giant bureaucracy.”
Until Mr. Abbott’s election as opposition leader last month, the climate debate in Australia had been conducted in a heretic-hunting, anti-intellectual atmosphere. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd claimed that climate change is the “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.” In clear breach of the great liberal anti-communist Sidney Hook’s rule of controversy—”Before impugning an opponent’s motives, answer his arguments”—Mr. Rudd linked “world government conspiracy theorists” and “climate-change deniers” to “vested interests.” Much of the media, business and scientific establishment deemed it blasphemy that anyone dare question his Labor Party’s grand ambitions.
Australians had heard a lot of science, much of it poorly explained. But the “dismal science” had been conspicuously absent from the climate debate. There was very little serious analysis of the economic consequences of climate change: What choices did we have to mitigate its effects, and how much would these choices cost us? Labor ministers had emitted a lot of hot air about global warming and the urgency with which resource-rich Australia (which accounts for only 1.4% of global emissions) must act.
All of this has now utterly changed: Australia’s debate has entered a new phase, one that goes beyond the religious fervor and feel-good gestures that had held sway all too often. Suddenly, political strategists are thinking the unthinkable: far from presaging an electoral debacle that was inevitable under Mr. Abbott’s green predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, the issue could be a godsend for conservatives Down Under.
Already, Mr. Abbott—an Anglophile, Rhodes scholar, patron saint of Australian conservatives and protégé of former Prime Minister John Howard—is gaining ground in the polls. In their first test at the ballot box since they killed the government’s climate legislation last month, his Liberal Party recorded impressive victories in by-elections in Sydney and Melbourne—confounding the conventional wisdom that opposition to cap-and-trade will damage a center-right party in metropolitan seats.
In this environment, Mr. Abbott deserves praise for persuading Australia’s conservatives to fight Labor on climate change—even when the liberal wing of his own party would happily bow to Mr. Rudd. Not only will he raise the temperature over the inevitable higher costs in energy, transport and groceries under the next tax—and thus appeal to Labor’s working-class and coal mining and other energy-intensive constituencies—Mr. Abbott will also radiate the technological optimism that has characterized the human species since time immemorial. His case is not an appeal to do nothing, but to avoid doing something stupid. And unilateral Australian action in a post-Copenhagen world would be stupid: Economic Pain For No Environmental Gain. Not a bad slogan during an election scare campaign.
To be sure, Mr. Rudd remains politically popular on the back of a strong local economy that has weathered the global financial storm. But as the changing climate shows, Mr. Abbott is tapping into a more skeptical mood about climate change. If he wins the federal election later this year, Australia’s opposition leader will be a role model to conservative skeptics around the world.