The Drum (ABC Online)

When I say the climate is changing, I do not mean, as many contributors to this site do, that anthropogenic global warming is destroying the planet. I mean that the politics of climate change is changing rapidly across the globe - most notably in Australia and the United States. Whereas a few months ago, Ross Garnaut and Al Gore represented the conventional wisdom, today they're dissident voices in Canberra and Washington. Whereas once Liberals and Republicans were kicking against the trend, today conservatives have stolen the march in both Australia and the US. And whereas once polls showed high levels of public support for saving the planet, today public support for costly policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions is collapsing on both sides of the Pacific. What's happening? Why has the climate changed so dramatically in both nations that legislation to implement an emissions trading scheme - or, as the Americans call it, cap and trade - is doomed? Several obvious reasons exist: the Climategate and IPCC scandals, which raise more legitimate doubts about the "settled science" of global warming; the Copenhagen fiasco, which showed how the flawed UN-Kyoto process gives more states veto power over collective action to solve global problems; the freezing cold northern winters, which reflect a decade-long trend in the flat-lining of the Earth's surface temperatures; and the EU experience, which has seen carbon emissions rise, the carbon price collapse and the ETS a victim of fraudulent traders. But I suggest another explanation for the changing climate: opposition conservative politicians have had the gumption to question the Labor government in Australia and Democrat White House and Congress in the US over their proposals to legislate a flawed ETS. By making the case against the Rudd and Obama climate agendas and spelling out the costs of a big new tax when rising polluters China and India won't follow our lead to reduce their carbon footprint, several principled Liberals and Republicans have changed the political atmosphere in Canberra and Washington to such an extent they now have a decent chance of making big inroads into Labor and Democrat legislative majorities this year. Start with Australia. When the Garnaut Report was released more than 18 months ago, the accepted wisdom was that an ETS was a sure thing. It was deemed blasphemy for anyone, as my old boss Brendan Nelson quickly found out, to dare question Labor's grand ambitions. Kevin Rudd claimed that climate change was "the great moral, economic and social challenge of our time" and even indulged in conspiracy theories when he linked "climate change deniers" to "vested interests". Meanwhile, the Liberals vacillated over the right response. When they finally established a policy under Malcolm Turnbull to back Labor's scheme, the party faithful revolted and the Liberal base crumbled. Throughout the process, the Coalition was badly trailing in the polls and heading towards electoral oblivion. With Tony Abbott's rise three months ago, however, everything has changed. The new Liberal leader has not only subjected Labor's agenda to impose potentially crushing costs on business and consumers to some much needed scrutiny, he has also spelt out in the most forceful and coherent language the flaws of the ETS. Today, the Coalition's direct-action strategy is far more popular than Labor's big tax that dare not speak its name, and government ministers are running away from a climate debate faster than Tiger Woods fled last week's press conference. In early December, most commentators (not to mention Turnbull himself) predicted that Liberal opposition to the ETS would destroy the party at the next election. Today, without missing a beat, the same commentators say it is Labor that is in trouble over the ETS. On the eve of the by-elections in Bradfield and Higgins in early December, other pundits predicted big swings against a Liberal party that had just rejected Labor's climate bills. Never mind that the Liberals had smashing victories in both seats. The climate has also changed dramatically in the US. Go back to 2008. As presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to slash carbon emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. His position reflected the prevailing wisdom in Washington. Al Gore's movie had been a box office smash and his book was a best seller. Top US corporations gave strong financial and moral support to the green cause. Even Obama's Republican opponent John McCain championed a green agenda. Today, however, the circumstances are very different. A climate bill which only caps carbon emissions at four-to-five per cent of 1990 levels by 2020, and with loads of subsidies and loopholes for the so-called big polluters, is stalled in legislative limbo, and there is every reason to believe the Senate will not pass it during this mid-term election year. Wall Street is getting cold feet: late last year, the Chamber of Commerce withdrew its support for cap and trade, and this month leading corporations BP America, Conoco Phillips and Caterpillar defected from the US Climate Action Partnership, a pro-green business lobby group. The American people (and news media), moreover, rate climate change well below other pressing policy priorities, such as Afghanistan, health reform and reducing debt, deficits and double digit unemployment. Although Obama this week made a last-ditch effort to link his climate agenda to incentives for nuclear power and the coal industry, the bill is dead. The reason is clear among conservative Republicans (and even many Democrats from states heavily dependent on coal and heavy industry): an ETS is economic pain for no environmental gain, especially when China and India keep chugging along the smoky path to prosperity. It is precisely the same argument many conservatives here - Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Yours Truly -- have been making over the past 18 months. American faith in the science of man-made global warming is almost in the minority - from 71 per cent a year ago to 51 per cent today, according to Gallup. (Intriguingly, in Australia, no recent credible polling of the science exists, but in Britain, the mood is even more pessimistic: according to a Guardian/Ipso Mori poll this week, the proportion of adults who believe climate change is a reality dropped by 30 per cent over the last year, from 44 per cent to 31 per cent.) The point: like Canberra, Washington will follow the national interest as well as the electoral mood, and it won't be intimidated by the Ross Garnaut's and Al Gore's of the world. It is clear that Labor and Democrat strategists - and indeed many political commentators - naively thought climate change would transform the political landscape. People assumed that because the issue hurt John Howard in 2007, it would also hurt the Liberals in 2010 because they failed to support Labor's ETS. But politics is never fixed; it is always in a state of flux. The only certainty is that the political climate always changes. And the wind, far from blowing conservative parties off the electoral map, threatens to turn into a perfect storm for both Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama.