Why do climate deniers hold sway in Australia

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Aussie scientists were among the first to warn about global warming. Back in 1988, they printed off posters showing the fin-shaped roof of the Sydney Opera House poking out of a blue sea.

But Australia also has a history of climate denial. Twelve years ago at the Kyoto climate negotiations, other rich nations promised cuts in carbon emissions. But Australia won permission to increase its emissions by 8%. And even that wasn’t good enough for the prime minister John Howard, who eventually pulled out of the Kyoto protocol with George W Bush.

Recently, the Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd rejoined Kyoto. But the sceptics are unrepentant. The Aussie geologist Ian Plimer is the latest international pin-up among climate sceptics.

Why do the deniers hold such sway? For one thing, Australians have the highest per capita carbon emissions of any major developed country thanks to its sprawling suburbs and heavy coal use. According to figures submitted by Canberra to the UN, Australia’s emissions from burning fossil fuel have risen by 30% from 1990 to 2007 – more even than the US.

Also, Australia is by some way the world’s largest exporter of coal, the world’s dirtiest fuel. They are the boys with the black stuff. Giant ports like Gladstone and Newcastle export ship out enough coal each year to put more than half a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air. When the Chinese coal mines can’t keep up with domestic demand, they phone Digger.

Australia’s industrialists have lobbied loudly against any limits on their carbon emissions. Last year, the Business Council of Australia called Rudd’s cap-and-trade climate plan a “company killer”, and declared war on the policy. Now they have seen off the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, because he backed the Rudd plan.

They will be pleased with themselves. But whatever happens in Copenhagen this month, Australia’s climate policy will still be in a mess. Either the world adopts tough emissions cuts – in which case demand for Australian coal will shrink and the country will face painful economic reforms to cut its soaring domestic emissions. Or the world fails to come up with tough emissions cuts – in which case, say its scientists, there is a real risk of the entire nation becoming uninhabitable.