Tony Abbott’s voyage of discovery. Or not.

The Abbott government’s approach to climate change and what to do about it is a world away from that of the Obama administration. [17 June 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Tony Abbott and Barak Obama at the White House. PHOTO DAILY TELEGRAPH

Tony Abbott and Barak Obama at the White House. PHOTO DAILY TELEGRAPH

Travel broadens the mind. Tony Abbott’s mind seems pretty well made up and his latest venture abroad was limited to the elite of a few wealthy countries, but even that restricted exposure should have had some impact.

It should certainly have alerted him to the fact that an ideology or a think-tank policy package can’t possibly encompass the world’s infinite complexities. Witness the growing chaos in Iraq, unfolding as he was visiting the White House.

Not to mention climate action, an issue that he seemed determined early on to ignore if at all possible, but which kept cropping up at every stop in his North American travels.

First the good news. His meeting with US president Barak Obama in Washington was sandwiched between some very convivial encounters: Ottawa with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, New York with Rupert Murdoch and Wall Street money, and Houston among the oil barons.

Climate change was “not the most important problem the world faces”, Abbott declared in Ottawa: Australia should take reasonable steps to limit emissions and avoid man-made climate change, but “we shouldn’t clobber the economy”.

In global statesman mode, he imagined aloud an alliance of Australian, Canadian, British, Indian and New Zealand leaders to see off the scourge of carbon pricing. Harper welcomed the idea, but it got a thumbs-down from Britain’s David Cameron and New Zealand’s John Key.

In New York, after knocking back UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s invitation to a global climate summit in September, he enjoyed a round of applause from captains of capital at the New York Stock Exchange and a chat over dinner with News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch.

Then there was Washington. First, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, known to favour strong climate measures including carbon pricing. And then, Barak Obama.

Ten days ago New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported Obama saying this in a recent interview: “There is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”

“Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to… have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon.”

National security implications in poorer nations could be “profound”, Obama said. “Entire countries can be finding themselves unable to feed themselves, and the potential incidence of conflict that arises out of that gets your attention.”

Asked to name the main outstanding task in America’s action on climate change, he said this: “If there’s one thing I would like to see, it’d be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions.”

Abbott emerged from his meeting with Obama claiming to the two leaders were on the same page in that they both took climate change “very seriously”. “We all want to do the right thing by our planet,” he told an ABC reporter. “I regard myself as a conservationist”.

His post-meeting comment that the raised fuel excise was “a carbon tax on steroids” wasn’t far off the mark. It was also hypocritical and politically foolish. What on earth did he imagine those who elected him would make of this, after his four-year campaign against a carbon tax?

Then in Houston, the capital of big oil, Abbott picked up where he left off in Canberra in Budget week, singing the praises of coal to industry heavyweights. The Australian Coal Association might have written his Houston speech for him, but it’s doubtful he needed any help.

“For many decades at least, coal will continue to fuel human progress as an affordable, dependable energy source for wealthy and developing countries alike,” he told his audience. Then to underline the point he repeated the sentence, slowly and deliberately.

All major climate science institutions and the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that use of fossil fuel, especially coal, must be phased out as soon as possible. Abbott says he takes climate change seriously. Both can’t be right.

Abbott sought to present himself as being on the same climate policy page as Obama, claiming his $2.55 billion “incentive-based” Direct Action plan to cut emissions through “afforestation, soil carbon and cleaner power stations” was closely akin to Obama’s recently-announced measures.

Setting aside the inability of afforestation and soil carbon measures to make any difference to emissions for many years, Abbott’s statement ignores all the available evidence.

Obama’s plan, for a 30 per cent reduction in emissions from fossil-fuel energy by 2030, is based on using regulation to force electricity companies to cut their carbon dioxide output. Direct Action will rely on a voluntary “emissions reduction fund”, offering money to companies to do the right thing.

Abbott and environment minister Greg Hunt claim the US doesn’t want a carbon price; Obama says it’s the best option if only the US Congress would allow it to pass, and his current plan opens the door to new state-based pricing schemes over and above state schemes currently in place.

Abbott wants all countries, developed and developing, to be able to burn coal “for many decades”. Obama says renewable alternatives need to be phased in as soon as possible.

Abbott views current climate change measures in Australia as a drag on the national economy, and seeks to cut investment incentives for renewable energy. But to Obama, “a low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come”.

While Abbott sees climate change as less important than other issues, Obama sees it “possibly the most significant”, a creeping security crisis with a huge cost, measured in “lost lives and livelihoods, lost homes and businesses; and higher prices for food, insurance, and rebuilding”.

On the same page? I don’t think so. And I see no sign of a broadening mind.

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