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Cabinet papers reveal John Howard took strong action on climate change and the US Kyoto failings

The 2021 federal election is set to be dominated by a battle of climate change policies, with Australians asked to decide who they wish to entrust the future of the planet to.

The 2001 cabinet papers, released by the National Archives of Australia on Saturday, reveal climate change and energy policy have been a fixture of cabinet discussions and international relations for decades.

Former prime minister John Howard, whose cabinet held “serious” concerns about climate change, maintains that his government’s policies were “sensible”.

“I am still a bit of an agnostic when it comes to climate change, and I think the balance has always been difficult,” Mr Howard said.

“I thought what we did was sensible at the time. A lot has changed since then.”

Historian Christine Wallace said the Howard government had a “far more nuanced view” on climate change and its significance than any Coalition government since.

“We can see (in 2001) a Coalition cabinet not yet captured by resource sector interests, expressly constraining its resources minister from the untrammelled promotion of those interests,” Dr Wallace said.

“This is of immense contemporary significance. It shows that the federal Liberal Party historically has harboured some environmentally concerned members, and that their views were not summarily dismissed.”

Aust politician Prime Minister John Howard  during Question Time in Parliament 28 May 2001.
Camera IconFormer prime minister John Howard, pictured in May 2001, and his government had a ‘nuanced view’ on climate change. Credit: News Limited

In 2021, the Coalition was divided over what agreement it would take to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, with moderate Liberals pushing for more drastic action than the 2030 projections tabled at Paris in 2015, while Nationals MPs wanted more protections in place for rural and regional Australia.

Back in 2001, cabinet documents show the Howard government was able to work together.

Making reference to the difficulty current Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced in getting support from the Nationals to table a plan, Mr Howard said he considered the collaboration of his Coalition as one of his greatest successes.

“I remember having a discussion with (former prime minister Malcolm) Turnbull when he was the leader of the opposition. I said to him your first responsibility is to hold the Coalition together,” Mr Howard said.

“In my government there was a range of opinions – some had concerns of the long-term consequences, there were those who thought it was all malarkey, and those in various degrees who felt we shouldn’t sacrifice our industries.”

Howard Library Opened
Camera IconFormer prime minister John Howard and his contemporary successor Scott Morrison share similar experiences in an internal battle over climate change. Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

On a global scale, Australia’s position on climate change threatened relations with the United States after the Howard government considered suspending engagements with the US over former president George Bush’s reluctance to act on the Kyoto Agreement.

In 2001, shortly after taking office, Mr Bush announced the US would not implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming. Mr Bush was concerned the deal would hurt the US economy.

Cabinet papers reveal ministers were asked to consider “whether it’s in Australia’s interests to engage with the United States in the near future”.

OCTOBER 20, 2001 : PM John Howard & US President George Bush at the APEC feaders summit meeting at Shanghai, China, 20/10/01. pic John Feder.
Camera IconNot long after George Bush Jr became president of the United States, he backflipped on an earlier decision to agree to the Kyoto Protocol. Prime Minister John Howard urged him to reconsider. John Feder Credit: News Corp Australia

Earlier in the year, Mr Howard had written to Mr Bush to outline Australia’s approach and to tell Mr Bush that his country’s leadership was essential if the world was going to combat climate change.

A cabinet memorandum from June 4 notes: “The letter suggested that an effective global framework to address climate change needed to include commitments from all major emitters; unrestricted market-based mechanisms, including emissions trading, an approach to carbon sinks that captures both economic and environmental opportunities, and a facilitative, rather than punitive, compliance system”.

Twenty years on, the roles seem to have reversed, with President Joe Biden’s administration, as well as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other prominent world leaders, repeatedly calling on Mr Morrison to take stronger action on climate change.

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