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Climate change election topples Howard government

Dr. Clive Hamilton: Ratification of the Kyoto protocol is not a symbolic act

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Story Transcript

ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER/PRODUCER: Australia has a new prime minister. Kevin Rudd, head of the Australian Labor Party, defeated his Liberal rival John Howard last week. Observers cite climate change as one of the critical issues that toppled the Howard administration, which refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. According to a recent U.N. report, Australia is the third worst of the world’s polluters and the world’s largest per capita producer of carbon dioxide. I spoke to Dr. Clive Hamilton, Executive Director of The Australia Institute, on the recent election and how the issue of climate change rose to the top of the political agenda.

DR. CLIVE HAMILTON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE: Well, about eighteen months ago, climate change quite suddenly became a major political issue. Sure, they had been concerned about it for a long time, but it reached a new level of urgency in response to the announcement in January 2006 that 2005 was the hottest year on record. It just became very apparent that this was serious and was happening now and could be ignored no longer. So Australians suddenly became very concerned about it. It became a hot political issue. The debate is over. There’s still a handful of skeptics taking potshots from the sidelines, but no one takes them seriously. John Howard was the last of the serious skeptics, and he’s gone. No, I think they’re very serious about Kyoto. I think the Labor Party’s realized the damage has been done to Australia’s image as a result of our refusal to ratify. Kevin Rudd believed it would have been a political travesty in setting medium-term targets, say, a 2020 target. Mind you, they’re setting a renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, but not an emissions reduction target. Rudd’s case is not merely a symbolic act: ratification will lock Australia into an international process; but more importantly, reaching our Kyoto target will begin to set the economy on a path that will reduce emissions in the medium and long term. There’s been a long and at times bitter but behind the scenes battle within the trade union movement and the Labor Party over the last five or six years over climate change, and the forces of enlightenment have triumphed. And so we’ve seen quite a shift within the trade union movement, including those traditionally associated with the fossil fuel industry, from fossil-burnt energy systems to low-carbon ones. The Labor Party’s always been caught on this question, because another section of the CFNEU [Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union]—that trade union represents the timber workers, and they are influential in a couple of important seats, notably in Tasmania. The difficult issue in the election campaign for Labor was the proposal to build a very large copper mill in northern Tasmania. And the government did give approval for the mill at the last moment, and Labor endorsed that, which caused a great deal of concern amongst Greens, environmentalists generally, and those Labor supporters who ranked the environment highly. So that’s going to be a tricky issue for the new Rudd government to deal with, and I think many people are hoping that the Rudd government will find a way to block the pulp mills going ahead.

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