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This deep dive into the geopolitics of global climate policy brings lessons for Australia

Introduction by Croakey: Global climate policy experts have been considering the implications for climate action of elections in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States and elsewhere.

Their assessments are mixed, reports Marie McInerney, and underscore the importance of tackling the political influence of the fossil fuels industry and resisting right wing parties that are arguing against climate action, weaponising climate denial and promoting nationalism to win votes.

“We can only hope that voters in Australia, like those in the UK and France, recognise the malign influence of the coal and gas lobby on the political discourse, and reflect that in the ballot box,” said one prominent doctor.


Marie McInerney writes:

Just 72 hours after being sworn in following its landslide election win, the United Kingdom’s new Labour Government lifted a ban on onshore wind farms, a move that surprised many with its speed.

It was a sign, former UK Conservative Minister Chris Skidmore told a webinar this week, that Labour seems “determined to move extremely fast” on climate action, with its commitment to a zero-carbon electricity system by 2030.

Skidmore was not trying to manufacture alarm, as Australians are used to from conservative political parties on climate issues.

Five years ago, as the UK Conservative Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, he signed into law the UK’s net zero targets, making it the first G7 nation to sign its net zero commitment into law and still a beacon of bipartisanship on climate issues.

But earlier this year he resigned as an MP in protest at his party’s decision to row back on core parts of the government’s climate strategy, including net zero, and to issue new oil and gas licences. He accused it of abandoning a huge economic opportunity to instead join “corrosive culture war politics”.

Skidmore now feels vindicated in the wake of last week’s UK election, which saw many seats won by the centrist Liberal Democrats, particularly in the south of England, “where the Tories threw away their reputation on climate”, he said.

While advising the new Labour Government to make sure UK households can “see and feel” climate action as “something that’s going to make a difference in their lives”, either through cheaper energy bills or improving local community life, Skidmore sees strong electoral support for action.

His message for his former colleagues was – “you want to win back seats, you want to hold power for the future, you have to ensure that, as part of your coalition building, you involve climate policy”.

But he warned that elements of the UK media were looking to “potentially destabilise or undermine” climate action, saying GB News, the “equivalent” of Fox News, is creating content that is “deliberately focused on undermining the energy transition”, while the Daily Telegraph was using ‘net zero’ as “clickbait”.

Skidmore was speaking this week at a webinar hosted by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, held just days after critical elections in the UK and France.

Titled ‘Elections 2024: New routes to climate resilience?’, it asked: What do recent and forthcoming election results in the UK, Europe, United States and emerging markets like India, South Africa and Mexico mean for global climate policies?

Optimism and alarm

The verdict from the expert panel was a mix of optimism and alarm, with hope about the UK, measured relief that “the centre has held” for now in Europe, though with worrying trends, and interest in how economies like India and Mexico, where the new Prime Minister Claudia Sheinbaum is a climate scientist, will balance growing economic and fossil fuel industry tensions.

But all eyes are on the United States, where Trump 2.0 would likely see the US walk away from any leadership on climate, the webinar heard.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) president Dr Kate Wylie agrees on the stakes, saying a second Trump presidency would be “a global catastrophe for climate action”.

“He has a flagrant disregard for climate science and the scientific method as evidenced by statements like ‘I don’t think science knows’, his energy policy which is summed up as ‘Drill, baby Drill’ and his promise to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (again) if elected,” she told Croakey.

But Wylie is hopeful that the Labour landslide in the UK was a clear signal from voters that they want climate action, delivering a “climate vote of confidence” to Prime Minister Keir Starmer and seeming to have punished Sunak for backtracking on the UKs climate ambitions.

“There are lessons here for Australia – in the US, the UK and France we have the right wing parties arguing against climate action, weaponising climate denial and promoting nationalism to win votes,” she said. “Arguing against climate action is not only politically risky but also ethically unsound.”

Watch the clip with Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Ed Miliband: https://x.com/Ed_Miliband/status/1810310967378522375

New records broken

The imperative for renewed climate leadership grows evermore pressing.

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service this week announced yet another crisis milestone: that June 2024 was the hottest June on record globally and marks the 12th month in a row of global temperatures reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported widespread and prolonged heatwaves in many countries, and warned that record sea surface temperatures are of great concern to vital marine ecosystems and “also provide energy to super-charge tropical cyclones”, as seen with Hurricane Beryl which last week wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, killing 11 people.

Tens of millions of Americans are currently baking through a massive and extended record-breaking heatwave. Las Vegas set a new record on Wednesday as it marked a fifth consecutive day over 115F(46C), while Japanese authorities this week issued a heatstroke alert for more than half of its 47 prefectures, urging people not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.

The Oxford webinar noted that London Mayor Sadiq Khan had ordered the Operation Helios exercise last month, testing the city’s ability to manage an extreme heat scenario that scientists warn could come by 2027. It followed record-breaking temperatures seen in the UK in summer 2022 that brought unprecedented numbers of heat-related deaths, wildfires and significant infrastructure disruption.

In that context, the new Labour Government has made energy security and climate action as one of its “five missions”.

Alongside the net zero power target, it has promised a new state-owned energy company called GB Energy, an industry decarbonisation fund, national home insulation program, and to put an end to issuing new oil and gas exploration licences, the first G7 country to do so.

Not all are convinced of Labour’s ambitions, particularly given the party’s “wobble” earlier this year. For example, Manchester University academics are concerned that Labour’s approach to climate action is “framed as an exciting economic opportunity”, that “worryingly indicates that the climate crisis will be managed, not tackled under Labour’s new government”.

Continuity or paralysis in Europe?

Following the surprise defeat of the far right in France, Thomas Hale, Professor of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, was cautiously optimistic for the future of the European Green Deal, saying “we haven’t seen…a huge mandate for governments to go back on their climate targets”.

He saw analogies in the results in France and the rise of support for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats in the UK, as “a real vote out there for not just continuity on climate action, but actually greater investment in making the world safe for us all”, he said.

However, echoing Skidmore’s advice to Labour, Hale said his “big takeaway” is that governments have to be serious about ensuring climate action delivered “tangible benefits that people feel in their pocketbooks from day one or they’re not going to be successful”.

That points to the real need for a just transition approach to climate action (which is at the heart of the 2015 Paris Agreement), that is, meeting climate goals by ensuring the whole of society – all communities, all workers, all social groups – are brought along, he said.

Rachel Kyte, Professor of Practice in Climate Policy at Blavatnikm and former special representative of the UN secretary-general, the World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, also saw nuanced results in European elections, describing populism on both the far right and far left as “protest movements – against the state, against the status quo, against the elite capture”, which has also become the issue with climate.

But she said, the Netherlands and Portugal had shown in the recent European Parliament elections, that “when the far right goes into government, its vote kind of collapses”. A similar swing the other way had occurred among young voters in Germany, where the Greens have been part of a so-called “traffic light” (red, yellow green) Federal Government coalition, shifting from Greens to far right.

That’s something for centre left, centre right and Greens to think about, she said, agreeing with Hale’s advocacy for just transition approaches. She has previously warned that ignoring the social impacts of climate action risks a backlash that can be co-opted by politicians and others on the “populist right” who are portraying clean air and cheaper energy bills as “the fantasies of an out-of-touch liberal elite”.

“You’ve got to govern in a way that good policies for the environment, for climate and for nature are affordable policies that improve your prosperity and make you safer,“ she told the webinar.

Unbridled Trump

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the panel’s discussion on the impending US presidential election was that they did not even consider what a second Biden presidency might mean for climate action.

Kyte shook her head at the suggestion that – because a certain amount of climate resilience is now built into the US energy system, for example Texas, a Republican state which now has 25 percent wind power – a second Trump presidency might be less detrimental on climate than the first one.

“Trump 2.0, if it comes to pass…is unbridled ability to use the instruments of state in the pursuit of an agenda, with a Supreme Court that has, in recent weeks, unpicked the ability of the federal government to say what’s safe for people when it comes to environmental regulations, a Supreme Court that can undermine democracy in terms of who gets a vote, who gets to have a say…” she said.

There are huge international climate implications from a Trump-led US that “dallies around” with its membership of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), with the Paris Agreement, and engagements in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, she said.

Kyte highlighted concerns about the Project 2025 presidential transition project, described as “a sweeping battle plan to dismantle federal agencies and public health standards, including vital environmental protections”, asking webinar participants to try to imagine the kinds of cooperation that would be needed globally “if the US takes its ball and goes home again”.

“But my real worry is for ordinary Americans who, if Trump wins, will be less resilient, not more, to the impacts of climate change that they’re already feeling,” she said.

“It’s a dangerous place to be,” she said, referring to the current US heatwave and observing that extreme heat is how most people are experiencing climate impacts globally.

This will be “front of mind” for hospital administrators and departments of health, ensuring that people, food and medicine are able to stay cool, she said.

Hale agreed that Trump 2.0 would be “more unleashed” on climate than the first four years, although he had some hope for Biden’s signature climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, given it has brought popular funding and jobs in solar, wind and battery manufacturing to Republican districts.

“I think the biggest danger is where the federal government has discretionary authority, for example, on EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulation of power plants or car standards – that will go very quickly, and many of the inflation Reduction Act provisions actually require implementation by different executive agencies, for example, the Internal Revenue Service, the tax authority, so there’ll be a lot of damage there.”

“A United States federal government that’s not working on World Bank reform, that’s not working to shift the trading system to be more climate friendly, that’s not shifting to unlock the power of the IMF to direct things, is going to make it much harder for the world to get there.”

Climate is everything

Dr Sugandha Srivastav, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, said this is also a “very interesting moment for emerging markets” like India, South Africa, and Mexico that have state owned enterprises that are highly engaged in fossil fuels, yet at the same time, the economic levers are “very, very clear” of the benefits of renewable energy.

“In India, solar is two rupees per unit, while coal based electricity is six rupees per unit, so there is a pressure cooker environment that’s building, and the result of that has been policy inconsistency.”

India has the fourth largest base of installed solar capacity in the world, yet the populist BJP government “is not committing to any language around phasing out coal, although if you do the maths on their renewable energy target, that is what it would amount to,” she said, concluding that the narrative is “very sensitive”.

Geopolitical shifts are also in play, with emerging markets like India diverging from developing countries in terms of their per capita emissions, political influence and economic positions in the global arena.

“Already, India’s per capita emissions are twice as high as the African average and seven times higher than the average of low income countries,” she said, predicting that the poorest countries may soon not only say the West should pay for their climate action but emerging markets need to “foot some of that bill as well”

Kyte believes some of the most important challenges for global climate action over the next year are around reform of international financial institutions, “the discussion on whether or not we will deal with the indebtedness, debt distress and liquidity problems that are facing many countries that have to make massive investments in their energy transition”.

“I think that climate has become everything, and everything is about climate,” she said.

This observation resonates with a recent comment by Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People, Justin Mohamed, a Gooreng Gooreng man. In an interview with NITV, he highlighted the significance of climate change to his work, especially in the Pacific.

“Climate’s going to be an ongoing with every conversation we have. I think we can’t avoid it. It’s going to be part of everything that we do,” he said.

Lessons for Australia

Reflecting on the elections, Wylie said the French result reinforces a “left vs right volatility”, where the far right National Rally argued against climate action “under a narrative of ‘punitive ecology’, a progressive left recognising ecocide as a crime and a centrist middle trying to appease both sides without success”.

“The concern is that this will mean no climate action as the [French] Parliament will be too unwieldy for any policy to get through,” she told Croakey, adding that it is a tragedy in so many countries, including Australia, that “the unequivocal nature of climate science is being wilfully opposed by right wing politics”.

Wylie sees the UK Labour landslide as “a clear signal from voters there that they want climate action”, in response to the pledges on net zero by 2030, to end new oil and gas licences, allow on-shore wind and the appointment of the nation’s first ‘Green Chancellor’.

Most people are worried about climate change and in every country more people support climate action than oppose it, she said. “n Australia almost two thirds of us (63 percent) recognise that climate change is the greatest health threat facing humanity and 84 percent (five out of six of us) have been directly affected by at least one climate fuelled disaster since 2019, she said.

Wylie warned that, despite the evidence, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton “seems hell-bent” on taking Australia down a nuclear pathway, “which will perpetuate fossil fuel use and delay the transition to renewables” while Labor has sound domestic targets but continues to open new coal mines and expand gas exports.

“The global grid-lock on climate is reflected in Australia. It is being used as a political weapon rather than a scientific fact,” she said.

“Greenwashing, delay tactics and distraction are being used to stymie the renewable transition and prop up the dangerous unhealthy but powerful fossil fuel industry.”

But Wylie is confident that Australian voters want climate action and progressive humanist policy, evidenced by the greatest number of Greens and independents elected to the House of Representatives in 2022.

As a GP, she said she frequently talks with people about their climate concerns, hearing from people of all ages and backgrounds that they are worried about climate inaction and fed up with the climate wars and the obvious influence of the fossil fuel industry on politics.

“We can only hope that voters in Australia, like those in the UK and France, recognise the malign influence of the coal and gas lobby on the political discourse and reflect that in the ballot box,” she said.

Prominent GP Dr Tim Senior, a Croakey contributor who is currently investigating health inequity in the UK courtesy of a Churchill Fellowship, is cautiously optimistic about UK Labour’s climate action plan, having first worried it would have a minimal ambition like the Albanese Labor Government here.

Its initial actions have been “much more promising” though, he said, highlighting the appointment of former Labour leader Ed Miliband as a heavyweight Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero – a title “which may or may not give cause for optimism” – and that it has promised to reverse the previous government’s ban on the Bank of England considering climate change in its decisions.

These promising moves are tempered by the fact that while there will be no new oil licenses for the North Sea, those already granted can go ahead, and that there is only one mention of the 2015 Paris Agreement in mandating UK financial institutions to “develop and implement credible transition plans that align with the 1.5°C goal”.

“So I’m very cautiously optimistic,” said Senior. “However, overall, while the UK Net Zero target is acceptable, policies to reach it are rated, as are Australia’s, as insufficient.”


See Croakey’s archive of articles on the climate crisis and health

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