Cabinet documents 2001: Climate 'agnostic' John Howard listened to science before Bush, 9/11 changed all

Treasurer Peter Costello, Prime Minister John Howard and Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson during a break in a Cabinet meeting, April 2001. Picture: National Archives of Australia
Treasurer Peter Costello, Prime Minister John Howard and Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson during a break in a Cabinet meeting, April 2001. Picture: National Archives of Australia

Climate change advice to the Howard government in 2001 was still "sensible and science-informed" despite the former prime minister admitting he was "agnostic" on the issue decades later.

Environmental and climate scientists had sounded warning bells in the nineties about the effect greenhouse gas emissions were having on the planet's temperature and weather systems.

Then-environment minister Robert Hill had led the country to becoming one of the first to sign up for the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Mr Hill's work in bringing Australia in on the treaty received a standing ovation from cabinet.

Roger Beale, the environment department's secretary for seven years during consecutive Howard governments, also recalled being thanked by Mr Howard in a personal letter.

But by mid-2001, the tide was changing and momentum on environment action began to recede as US President George Bush took the reins.

Bush presidency marks changing tides on climate action

The Howard government was given a number of options to deal with the changing of hands within the US government, which presented repercussions for reaching international agreement on Kyoto.

As revealed in cabinet documents from 2001 released on Saturday, the Howard government was warned about the implications of the Bush administration's looming climate change policy shift.

In a department executive summary to cabinet in May 2001, agencies warned a US shift away from the Kyoto principles would be looked upon as a weak climate response and would result in international pressure on Australia to reconsider its support for the world superpower.

The cursory treatment of climate change and other environmental issues is not proportionate with their significance for energy policy.

The Environment Department

John Howard had written to Mr Bush in the month prior outlining shared concerns about the need for cost-effective action on climate change with commitments from developing countries, including China and India.

He reminded the newly-elected president that US leadership was crucial to an effective global response to the issue and that market-based mechanisms, including an emissions trading scheme, would be a good course of action.

Former prime minister John Howard at the National Archives of Australia for the release of 2001 cabinet documents. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Former prime minister John Howard at the National Archives of Australia for the release of 2001 cabinet documents. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Agency advice to cabinet offered four options for the government - take no action, have Mr Howard write another letter to President Bush, push for ministerial engagement between the countries or organise an official visit to Washington DC.

Associate Professor Chris Wallace, the National Archives cabinet historian, said the frank advice provided by agency and department heads at the time was sensible and science-informed.

"There was a really informed set of coordination comments from departments on the government's approach to energy and climate policy issues that was informed by the science," she said.

"[It's] incredibly encouraging."

The economic impact didn't 'totally overwhelm' the climate debate

Nationals senator Minchin proposed a plan to provide reliable and cost-effective energy for regional Australia but his submission held little consideration for the climate and environmental impacts it would cause.

Mr Hill's environment department slammed the proposal for the glaring omission in its response.

"The cursory treatment of climate change and other environmental issues is not proportionate with their significance for energy policy and for key stakeholders in this sector," the department's response said.

"Given that energy market reform has (unwittingly) contributed to rapid and significant emissions growth in what is Australia's single largest emissions source, we request that the terms of the inquiry encompass options for reducing the greenhouse and adverse environmental impacts of the reform process."

The ears were listening but they weren't agreeing with me.

Roger Beale, former environment department secretary

Professor Wallace said the papers showed the 2001 Coalition government was able to effectively harbour ministers and members from opposing sides without the chaos seen in later years.

It was a "functioning cabinet" that listened to the expert, and science-informed, advice provided by the bureaucracy, she said.

"Other points of view were heard but the economic argument didn't totally overwhelm other views on the sides," she said.

"It's to Howard's credit that he didn't stamp it out."

Former prime minister John Howard. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Former prime minister John Howard. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

As history would show, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and would join COP 6 talks in Bonn in an observer role.

Mr Howard reflected on that time 20 years later, recalling the pressure Europe, and even the UK, put on Australia to do better on climate change.

During Question Time in the following year, Mr Howard said Australia would also not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in what David Kemp, who replaced Mr Hill as environment minister, described as a "captain's call".

READ MORE:

The former prime minister said he believed it was the pragmatic approach at the time.

"There's something of the climate change agnostic still in me," he said in December at the documents' release.

"We are a net exporter of energies.

"That's not to say we shouldn't change - I recognise the force of the arguments - but we just have to understand what's involved."

'A constant battle' against climate sceptics

Mr Beale, who served as the department's head between 1997 and 2004, said the September 11 attacks were another blow to Australia's response to climate change.

The catastrophic event marked a major shift in the Howard government's mindset to securitisation. The threat of terrorism also resulted in the strengthening of defence ties between Australia and the US.

Roger Beale, the former environment secretary during consecutive Howard governments, now spends his retirement as an artist. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Roger Beale, the former environment secretary during consecutive Howard governments, now spends his retirement as an artist. Picture: Jamila Toderas

While Mr Beale and Mr Hill were once celebrated for their achievements in Kyoto, they were sidelined by the national security threat that dominated the last third of 2001.

"Environment had declined as an issue relative to security," Mr Beale said.

"So I think the government felt, the Prime Minister felt, relaxed about the issue from a political point of view, whereas he would have felt it was an important political issue during earlier times."

For the next few years, climate denialism became the major roadblock for effective policy.

Mr Beale and his executive colleagues wanted to see a price on carbon but it was met with resistance.

"There was a constant battle to try to persuade the government to enter into the most rational and effective way of actually meeting the targets that they had agreed to - well, first of all, sustaining their belief in the targets and then meeting them," Mr Beale said.

"The ears were listening but they weren't agreeing with me.

"That is, of course, the privilege of ministers and prime ministers. Ours is to propose, theirs is to dispose."

An emissions trading scheme was promised by Mr Howard at the 2007 federal election but the Coalition lost to Labor's Kevin Rudd.

And the rest is history.

READ MORE STORIES FROM THE 2001 CABINET DOCUMENTS:

This story Climate 'agnostic' Howard listened to the science before Bush, 9/11 changed it all first appeared on The Canberra Times.