Prime Minister Tony Abbott is sworn in by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

18 September 2013 — Over the next three years in Australia, and indeed globally, there will be more focus on the politics of climate change.

Tony Abbott has pledged to scrap the carbon tax and, just days after he was elected, has already cut back on his climate change policy that he took to voters. But this is a trend we are seeing in the US, too. The politics of climate change is becoming more and more important.

Don’t expect politicians to repeat John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s unforgettable line, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” These days, politicians pander to our dark side and go for the best deal. It’s all about political self-interest. That’s shaped the political response to climate change. It’s all about looking after business interests.

Abbott has already instructed his department to begin drawing up the legislation to dump the carbon pricing scheme, and says Federal Parliament will resume in late October or early November to deal with it. However, the Abbott government has a big challenge getting this through the Senate. Both Labor and the Greens have indicated they will not support moves to dump the carbon pricing scheme, nor will they support the Coalition’s Direct Action scheme to address climate change. And with micro-parties likely to hold a substantial number of seats in the Senate, there’s a big question mark over whether we will see the abolition of the carbon trading scheme or tax, and implementation of Direct Action.

In the meantime, the Coalition has also reduced the amount of money it is spending on its Direct Action carbon reduction plan by more than $300 million. The original plan was worth $3.2 billion, but just days before Saturday’s election the Coalition reduced it to just under $2.9 billion. The biggest saving, $200 million, comes from halving the amount the Coalition plans to rebate consumers for installing solar panels and solar hot water systems.

What difference does that make? The Direct Action plan shies away from putting a price on carbon and seeks to cut emissions by five per cent cut from 2000 levels by 2020. The plan’s architects say it can achieve its targets by reducing pollution and offering financial incentives to companies that cut carbon emissions. Its critics are dubious of its claims.

So where does Tony Abbott stand on climate change? It’s about political expediency, no more or less. Abbott campaigned for an ETS while a cabinet minister in the Howard Government and publicly endorsed one in the 2007 election until he took the Liberal leadership in December, 2009. It was around then that he generated headlines when he told a small Victorian newspaper that “climate change is crap“. Then, just before the September 7 election, he went on the Insiders program and said climate change was not crap to host Barrie Cassidy.

“Just to make it clear, Barrie, I think that climate change is real, humanity makes a contribution. It’s important to take strong and effective action against it, and that is what our Direct Action policy does.”

For Abbott, it’s all about politics, pure and simple.

As Giles Parkinson points out, Abbott says he is quite prepared not to even make it to first base. If the budgeted $3.2 billion proved to be insufficient to reach the five per cent reduction target – as Treasury and private analysis conclude unanimously – he would not spend another dollar to ensure that it does.

“Abbott is telling the world that his climate policy will end at the beginning. He simply doesn’t believe in the science. That should not surprise anyone, because Abbott owes his position to the climate deniers that put him there to prevent Malcolm Turnbull agreeing to an emissions trading scheme. And his impending election victory will owe much to a conga line of supporters who openly ridicule the science – the talk-back radio shock jocks, the Andrew Bolts and the overwhelming majority of News Ltd columnists.”

What’s happening in Australia is also being mirrored in other parts of the world.

In the United States, President Obama and his team of senior advisers all accept the scale of the climate change problem and recognise the US’s responsibilities. That’s in stark contrast to his predecessor President Bush who refused to take any significant action for eight years. President Obama tried to bring Congress on board towards a national response to tackling climate change during his first term but that proved to be unsuccessful. So in his second term he decided to go in hard and take them on. He announced he would take whatever action he could by executive order, without requiring Congressional approval.

Still, that goes only so far and Congress remains the stumbling block. Obama’s problem is the Republican Party, which controls the House of Representatives. That means it can, and does, block any attempts to bring legislation to tackle climate change. Within the Republican Party, the climate change denying tendency is led by the Tea Party wing of the party and a handful of Congressmen and Senators.

And it’s this brand of politics that’s stopping the US from becoming a world leader in the battle against climate change.

Kylie Schultz sums up the problem in The International.

“America’s political climate is highly polarised, plagued by bureaucratic and governmental gridlock. Although Democrats currently hold an eight-seat majority in the Senate, 20 seats will be up for re-election in 2014, including three from coal and oil industry states like West Virginia. The possibility of losing control of the Senate puts Obama in a tough position. Too radical an agenda could put Democrats at risk of losing their majority, possibly halting any future possibility of policy change. Obama also has to work against rich, powerful lobbies, like Big Coal and Big Oil. In an interview with Bill McKibben, activist and founder of 350.org, it was argued that the major players to overcome in Washington were familiar names like Exxon, BP, Peabody Coal, the Koch Brothers and Chevron.”

The ones who seem to take it more seriously are the politicians in the European Union, who have set targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions progressively up to 2050. Here’s what the European Union says about climate change on its website:

“Preventing dangerous climate change is a strategic priority for the European Union. Europe is working hard to cut its greenhouse gas emissions substantially while encouraging other nations and regions to do likewise… The fight against climate change concerns is increasingly being reflected in other policy areas. To further advance this “mainstreaming” process, the European Commission has proposed that at least 20 per cent of the EU Budget for 2014-20 should be spent on climate-relevant measures.”

To an extent, it might also be shaped by business and self-interest. In the US, the fossil fuel industries – whose profit margins are directly threatened by increased greenhouse gas regulations – have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to US Congressional campaigns, most of which is going to Republican lawmakers who are, in turn, at the forefront of banning greenhouse gas emission regulations.

Similarly in Australia, the Petroleum Production and Exploration Association has launched a new $5 million advertising campaign to drum up public and political support to counteract successful pushback in farming communities, cut “green tape” and allow faster expansion of coal seam gas.

These industries are not that powerful in Europe but there is a business case there for doing something about climate change. As one research paper argues, the European Union’s advances in renewable energy technologies and promotion and in other areas of greenhouse gas reduction will increasingly give it an edge that could be used in its economic favour. That would give Europe a competitive advantage over America.

Then there is China, which has pledged to reduce coal consumption, close steel plants and control the number of cars on its roads in an effort to “gradually eliminate” heavily polluted days in as soon as a decade. But again, political self-interest is at work here. Pollution has become the top cause of social unrest in China. Concentrations of the most damaging particulate matter in Beijing soared to almost 40 times the World Health Organization’s recommended level in January, spurring calls for government action.

And as National Geographic points out, China is also doing this to make squillions. China is working on establishing a small-scale cap and trade program that will let the open market scale back greenhouse gas emissions. This will, in the process, allow some savvy innovators to make lots of money and build the Chinese economy.

Politics and climate change make uneasy bedfellows. In his book The Politics of Climate Change, Anthony Giddens sums up the problem governments around the world face. It’s simple. For many, climate change is too difficult a concept to envisage, it’s not a threat to their everyday life.

“All governments face deep dilemmas in reconciling climate change and energy policy with sustaining popular support, especially in times of economic difficulty. Public support is likely to wax and wane… In order to cope, governments will have to resort to a range of strategies while at the same time trying to foster a more wide-spread consciousness of the need for action. The habit and routines of everyday life stand in the way, but the key problem is the difficulty of getting people to accept that the risks are real and pressing.”

But there’s a common line here. Behind the politics, it’s all about looking after business interests and that’s creating the real dilemma for politicians who are nothing if not self-interested. And at this stage, it’s not clear that business has accepted that climate change is a real problem.

The global NGO CDP, which works on behalf of 722 institutional investors representing $87 trillion in invested capital, has just released its latest annual report on carbon emissions and the report has found that total direct emissions from the 500 largest listed companies in the world have not changed significantly in the past five years. And what makes it even worse, the 50 largest emitters, which primarily operate in the energy, utility and materials sectors, have actually seen an increase of 1.65 per cent to 2.54 billion tonnes since 2009.

See our article Report: cash incentives boost carbon cuts

The report says: “The biggest emitters, who have the largest impact on global emissions and so present the greatest opportunity for large-scale change, need to do more to reduce their emissions. There is a disparity between companies’ strategies, targets and the emissions reductions which are required to limit global warming to 2C.”

In other words, many companies talk about sustainability but aren’t doing anything. And the politicians will pick that up. Change business attitudes and the politics will change.