Posted 30 April 2010
The World Rethinks Climate Legislation
By TOM SWITZER in the Wall Street Journal Asia
It was always going to be an uphill battle for the U.S. Congress to
pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation in an election year.
But with Senator Lindsey Graham's likely decision to withdraw his
support from the landmark bill, the prospects are now virtually zero.
That is not just because Mr. Graham had been the only Republican
senator to endorse a broad approach to tackling global warming. It's
because the climate, politically speaking, has changed dramatically
since June when the House of Representatives narrowly passed a climate
cap-and-tax bill. President Obama's decision to make immigration
reform a higher priority in the Senate legislative calendar is a
recognition of this reality: Cap-and-tax is dead. And not just in
All over the globe, politicians of different ideological stripes are
reconsidering the costs of slashing greenhouse gases to combat the
speculative problem of global warming. In France, the government of
President Nicolas Sarkozy has shelved its carbon-tax plans. In Canada,
cap-and-trade is stalled in legislative limbo. In Japan, Prime
Minister Yukio Hatoyama is struggling to pass an emissions trading
scheme. In China and India, leaders insist they won't sign a global
agreement to cap emissions, which they see as an economic suicide
pact. Even in New Zealand, pressure is building on the conservative
government of John Key to delay the implementation of a cap-and-trade
The changing climate is most evident in Australia. This week, the
Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided to shelve its
own proposed cap-and-trade for three years. Mr. Rudd had discovered
that after the Senate had twice rejected his centerpiece policy of
cutting carbon emissions by 5% to 15% from 2000 levels by 2020, it
would defeat the bills in a third vote in several weeks. It is
believed that Labor's retreat from climate change will save Canberra
about 4 billion Australian dollars ($3.7 billion) in the federal
budget on May 11.
Mr. Rudd's backflip not only amounts to what the nation's leading
political commentator Paul Kelly describes as "one of the most
spectacular backdowns by a prime minister in decades." It also
represents a victory for conservatives who have opposed what the
center-right Liberal leader Tony Abbott says is "great big tax to
create a big slush fund to provide politicized handouts, run by a
gallery's script that Australia, which accounts for 1.4% of global
greenhouse gases, should lead the world on emissions reductions.
This marks a big shift in the intellectual winds—not to mention
political strategy—swirling around this issue. Since the election
defeat of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in November 2007, the
climate debate had been conducted in a heretic-hunting, anti-
intellectual atmosphere. Not only was it impermissible to question the
science of man-made global warming, it was deemed blasphemy that
anyone dare question the government's policy response. Conventional
wisdom held that if the Liberals opposed cap-and-trade, it would lead
to a massive backlash against the opposition parties at the ballot box.
This argument increasingly fell apart after the collapse of December's
Copenhagen Summit attempt to agree to a world-wide framework for
emissions cuts. Suddenly the Liberals started to look more like part
of the global mainstream than Mr. Rudd. He had, after all, once
declared climate change the "great moral challenge" of our time, and
only months ago linked climate "deniers" with "conspiracy theories"
and "vested interests." Fewer world leaders agreed with him than he
had apparently reckoned.
Credit goes to Mr. Abbott. By subjecting Labor's agenda to impose
potentially crushing costs on business and consumers to some much-
needed scrutiny, the center-right leader has helped change the
political climate down under. To be sure, other factors have been in
play: Wall Street's meltdown, record northern-hemisphere winter
snowstorms, climategate and glaciergate, and not least the Copenhagen
failure. But by spelling out in the most forceful and coherent
language how cap-and-trade amounted to economic pain for no
environmental gain, Mr. Abbott has comprehensively wrong-footed Mr.
In the process, the conservative Liberal warrior is setting a global
trend. Although he opposes emissions trading and a carbon tax, his
case is not an appeal to do nothing. Indeed, he champions
environmental measures with a A$3.2 billion direct-action plan that
includes planting 20 million trees, putting solar cells on a million
roofs by 2020 and providing incentives for industry and farmers to
reduce emissions through measures such as storing carbon in soil.
Meanwhile, he downplays the overheated claims of rising sea levels,
melting glaciers and disappearing polar bears. It seems climate
scepticism is cool now.
All of this has consequences for the next round of global climate
talks in Mexico City in December, where world leaders hope to map out
a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.
Judging by Messrs. Rudd's and Obama's rapidly changing priorities in
recent days, hopes for any verifiable, enforceable and legally binding
agreement to reduce greenhouse gases—and to include developing nations
such as China and India that are polluting their way to prosperity—are
a chimera. The climate is indeed changing.