Vale Bob Hawke, Former Prime Minister and MP for Wills, an early champion of climate action

May 17, 2019 at 3:08 am Leave a comment

Bob Hawke. Photo by Eva Rinaldi (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bob Hawke has died, at the age of 89, just two days before the climate election this year. He was Brunswick and Coburg’s MP for the seat of Wills from 18 October 1980 – 20 February 1992.

There will be many highlighting his role as a union leader and Secretary of the ACTU, as Prime Minister in restructuring the Australian Economy, but he was also important for environmental action through the term of his Prime Ministership. This started with his pre-election commitment to stop the construction of the Franklin Dam, for the Franklin River to flow free.

It also included initial moves in assessing the problem of Australian greenhouse gas emissions and setting targets on climate action.

Former Greens leader and senator from Tasmania Bob Brown lauded the Labor leader in a phone call to the ABC:

“We’ve lost a great PM, who notched up the best environmental record of any PM since federation.

He began with the saving of the Franklin River. He went to the election in 1983 saying that he would stop the dam if elected … And after a battle through the High Court he did just that.

Then he went on of course to have a brace of other great places from Uluru to the Daintree, Shark Bay and more, inscribed in the World Heritage list. He added more of Kakadu and forests in northern New South Wales. And then took a role with Paul Keating in leading the protection of Antarctica through the Madrid Protocol in 1997.

“He took on Joh Bjelke-Petersen over the Daintree Rainforests in North Queensland and using the World Heritage power, he protected the rainforests which were about to be ripped to bits by real estate exploitation and so on…And Hawke empowered [environment minister] Graeme Richardson in a way we’ve never seen before or since to protect Australia’s environment. And I think that will be an enormous legacy for which Australians will be thanking him as PM for centuries to come.”” said Brown.

On assessing greenhouse gas emissions and committing to early climate action Bob Hawke’s cabinet had set targets and had bipartisan support.

Here is an excerpt from Australia and Greenhouse Policy- A Chronology, Background Paper 4 1997-98, by Paul Kay
Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Group – 29 September 1997 (Australian Parliamentary Library)

27-30 June 1988   
     The World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere; 
     Implications for Climate Change was held in Toronto, 
     Canada. The Toronto Agreement aimed to cut CO2 emission 
     levels by 20 per cent by the year 2005, using 1988 as a
     base level. The Australian government adopted this
     target, as an Interim Planning Target in 1990. Forecasts
     at that time were predicting a 3C rise in global 
     temperatures by 2030 due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas
     emissions.              

October 1988       
     The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was
     jointly established by WMO and UNEP. The IPCC comprised
     three Working Groups, I - Scientific Analysis, II -
     Impacts and III - Response Strategies.   

>11 March 1989      
     The Declaration of the Hague called for a Convention on
     Climate Change. Australia along with 23 other countries
     signed the Declaration which pledges that the countries
     will work through the United Nations to take measures to
     control global climate change.

July 1989          
     Prime Minister Bob Hawke appointed Sir Ninian Stephen
     Australia's first Ambassador for the Environment.

November 1989      
     Fifteen island nations met at Male in the Maldives and
     made the Male Declaration on Global Warming and Sea 
     Level Rise, which called upon industrialised nations to
     control greenhouse gas emissions.
     The Noordwijk, Netherlands, Ministerial Conference on
     Atmospheric Pollution and Climate Change was attended by
     the representatives of 67 countries, 11 international
     organisations and the Commission of the European 
     Community. The Noordwijk Declaration on Atmospheric 
     Pollution urged industrialised countries to support 
     investigations into limiting CO2 emissions.

22 December 1989   
     The United Nations decided to convene a two week long
     United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
     (UNCED) in Brazil to coincide with World Environment
     Day, 5 June 1992 (Resolution 44/228).  

9 June 1990        
     The first assessment report of the IPCC Working Group I
     was released including predictions of global warming and
     climatic impacts (a supplement was added in 1992). The
     best estimates from Working Group I (scientific  
     analysis) were a 3C rise in global temperature and a  
     0.65m sea level rise by 2100. Australian scientist Dr 
     Greg Tegart was a Co-Vice-Chairman on the Climate
     Change, The IPCC Impacts Assessment report from Working
     Group II. Consensus was also reached at the Response 
     Strategies Working Group of the IPCC, Working Group III.
     The Scientific and Impact Assessment reports concluded
     that emissions from human activities were increasing 
     atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which
     was likely to enhance the natural greenhouse effect
     resulting in global warming. 

August 1990        
     Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced the creation of nine
     Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) Working
     Groups.
     The 4th session of IPCC was held in Sundsvall, Sweden.

11 October 1990    
     The Australian Government adopted an Interim Planning 
     Target to stabilise greenhouse gas emission at 1988 
     levels by 2000 and to reduce emissions by 20 per cent by
     the year 2005 based on 1988 levels (known as the Toronto
     target). An important caveat was included in this
     target. This stated that measures which would have net
     adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia's 
     trade competitiveness would not be implemented in the
     absence of similar action by major greenhouse gas 
     producing nations. Actions would be taken if benefits
     were realised in addition to the greenhouse gas emission
     reduction benefits, for example energy conservation.
     This became known as the 'no regrets' strategy.

Marc Hudson, writing in The Conversation in October 2015: 25 years ago the Australian government promised deep emissions cuts, and yet here we still are

Climate change emerged on the world’s political agenda in 1988, following a three-year build-up from a scientific meeting in Villach, Austria. Australian politicians had already been bluntly warned about its impacts by CSIRO, at a 1986 briefing of the Australian Environment Council. In 1987 the Commission for the Future and CSIRO launched The Greenhouse Project, which briefed the business community, and held a scientific conference later that year.

In June 1988 Australian scientists were among those who attended an international summit in Toronto on the security implications of global warming. (It was shortly before this conference that NASA’s James Hansen gave his famous testimony to a US Senate hearing.) From it emerged the proposal that developed countries should commit to stabilising their emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, and reduce them by 20% by 2005. This, rightly or wrongly, became a litmus test for politicians’ sincerity on the climate issue.

Back home, Australia was going through one of its periods of favouring green policies. Labor’s “small-g green” approach was widely credited with helping Hawke to squeak home in the 1987 federal election, although the real wake-up call that voters cared about the environment came in May 1989, when the Tasmanian Greens polled 15% in the state election.

Despite this, when Labor’s Graham Richardson tried the following month to get cabinet to accept the Toronto target, his attempt was crushed by the treasurer, Paul Keating. The Liberals ended up fighting the March 1990 election with a stronger climate target than Labor (as hard as that might be to believe today).

Joan Staples echos the assessment of Marc Hudson in this APO commentary article from 2009 on Our Lost climate history:

The international calls for action by scientists and the UN were intensifying, with Australian scientists playing a leading role. The environment was being given a higher priority by the public, and the need for positive action on climate change had been taken up by the shadow environment minister, Chris Puplick. In the midst of this mounting interest, in 1989, Richardson quietly took a submission to federal cabinet proposing a reduction in greenhouse emissions by 20 per cent of 1988 levels by 2005 – the Toronto Target. Although Richardson’s initiative was rejected by the economic and resource ministers, 1989 did see a greenhouse statement, and research funding, from the prime minister. Later in the year, in the lead-up to a federal election, the government released a major environment statement, Our Country, Our Future, covering many traditional “green” issues but giving prominence to climate change. It supported international action, promised to look for ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – including cooperating with the states on transport use – and provided $350,000 for public awareness and education.

Significantly, after the 1990 election the Hawke cabinet did agree to a climate change submission similar to that sponsored by Richardson. It was in the context of an inducement to the environment movement to remain in negotiations known as the Ecologically Sustainable Development process. The environment movement was planning to withdraw from the process after the resource industries were granted significant changes; to encourage them to stay, the government proposed the Toronto targets on greenhouse emissions for a 20 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions by the year 2005. The proposal was brought to cabinet by the new environment minister, Ros Kelly, and it was passed with a proviso that reduction of emissions would not be at the expense of the economy. With the succession of Keating to the position of prime minister the issue was allowed to lapse with no enabling legislation produced. But the historic and symbolic importance of the decision needs to be acknowledged.

Read the April 1989 cabinet papers 55-page submission on an “Australian response to the greenhouse effect and related climate change” at the National Archives of Australia.

Also inciteful is Graham Readfearn’s 2015 article: Australia was ready to act on climate 25 years ago, so what happened next?.

We have hardly progressed since then.

What was once supported in a bipartisan way has become an ideological divide that has fuelled the climate wars of the last 12 years. We need the next Australian Government to step up action and implement rapid transformations that have been called for by the IPCC Special report on 1.5C global warming.

Entry filed under: Labors Climate Record, news. Tags: , , .

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