US, Australian climate bills’ downfalls helped by politicking

John Kerry may say it’s not over and Joe Leiberman is still fighting, but everyone else is pretty sure that the US won’t introduce a bill restricting greenhouse gas emissions this side of 2011 – and perhaps longer, if delays on the climate bill mean Republican Lindsey Graham walks away from the proposal for good.

Australia’s centre-left government, meanwhile, has shelved its planned emissions trading scheme ahead of an election due later this year, which could see the plan remain untouched for more than three years.

Ironically, both bills were stymied by political opportunism, as much as mere climate scepticism or opposition to carbon pricing.

In the US, there’s been a strategic decision to focus on immigration, which is seen as a much easier way to take votes away from Republicans than climate change.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein explains why US Senate majority leader Harry Reid has decided, despite months of work and extensive stakeholder consultation by the tripartisan team of John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Leiberman, to effectively relegate a US climate bill to next year at the earliest:

All that said, Democrats obviously have an election to win. Harry Reid, in particular, has an election to win in a state with a very large Hispanic population. And reformers were certainly given a great gift when Arizona decided to write xenophobia into its lawbooks and create a sense of emergency around state-level action on this issue. Put it all together and some Democratic strategists see the chance to bury the GOP’s relationship with Hispanics for a generation.

In Australia the strategy is a little more up for debate, but “wedge politics” – dividing the opposition – also played a big role.

Both sides of Australian politics actually agreed on the need for an emissions trading scheme going into the 2007 election, which resulted in the switch to a Labour government. For much of the past two years the conservative opposition was led by Malcolm Turnbull, who was determined to work with the government on carbon-trading legislation, despite the opposition of some rural members.

Yet as independent Australian news website Crikey notes, both prime minister Kevin Rudd and environment minister Penny Wong managed to botch it, by using the legislation to divide the opposition:

And they really botched it, first by letting every rent seeker in the country come in for their chop, and then by thinking climate change was a great weapon with which to split the coalition, rather than a “great moral and economic challenge”.

This led to a weakened bill that was unpalatable to many on the left, and some would argue this ultimately led to Turnbull’s ousting in favour of a climate sceptical replacement. Climate change once again became a politically divisive issue, and so policy action has been relegated to a distant point in the future.

The US’ own domestic actions (or lack of) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are hugely significant for struggling international climate talks, where the big emerging economies – the world’s fastest-growing polluters – argue that they shouldn’t have to agree to set emissions targets when the richest country in the world can’t do the same.

Australia meanwhile is a relatively small economy, but as one of the only developed countries to survive the financial crisis virtually unaffected and the one thought most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, their failure to introduce a climate bill will add an unfortunate echo to the much louder US failure — one that will almost certainly be noted by climate negotiators around the world.

Related links:

Deepest rift of all on show at post-Copenhagen talks - FT Energy Source
Cap-and-trade is/isn’t dead – and what it could mean - FT Energy Source

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