Over the past 650,000 years there were seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the last ice age around 20,000 years ago. Most of these changes in climate were attributable to small variations in the Earth’s orbit, which changed the amount of solar radiation our planet received.
Over a period of around 10,000 years following the last ice age, average global temperatures changed by around 5 degrees Celsius.
For many thousands of years, Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels never rose above 300 parts per million.
Human activity has caused unprecedented levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and this is driving warming at a rate roughly 10 times faster than the ice age recovery warming.
1824: French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier publishes his explanation of why the Earth is warmer than would be expected solely from the effects of incoming solar radiation. ‘The temperature [of the planet] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.’
1859: Acclaimed Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrates that the gases in the atmosphere absorb heat, providing the connection between carbon dioxide and what is now known at the greenhouse effect.
1879: Arctic-exploring USS Jeanette is surrounded by ice floes and frozen in place. Imprisoned at sea for almost two years, the 33-person crew make regular observations of the weather — winds, clouds, air pressure, temperature – creating detailed meteorological records where none existed. Little do the explorers know, scientists will use these records 140 years later to help unlock the patterns of climate change.
1882: Electric power pioneer Thomas Edison switches on his Pearl Street generating station’s electrical power generation distribution system, which provides 110 volt DC to 59 customers in lower Manhattan, NYC. He has previously said, ‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles’.
The 20th century
1908: In his book Worlds in the Making (original title Världarnas utveckling, 1907), Swedish Nobel Laureate Svante Arrhenius describes the ‘hot house’ theory of the atmosphere, in which human emission of CO₂ would be strong enough to prevent the world from entering a new ice age. A warmer earth, he speculates, would be needed to feed the rapidly increasing population.
1912: New Zealand newspaper, Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata, contains a short article on how burning coal might produce future warming by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
1931: Thomas Edison dies. To his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, who had been his retirement neighbours in Florida, he had confided his concerns about the environment and the energy cycle:
We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind, and tide.
I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
1950s: Scientists predict warming of the Earth by several degrees from the burning of fossil fuels.
1958: American scientist Charles David Keeling commences production of the ‘Keeling curve’, which shows the accumulation of anthropogenic CO₂ in the atmosphere based on measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
1972: The United Nations Environment Programme is established and the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (‘Stockholm Declaration’) is adopted (16 June). The Stockholm Declaration emphasises the relationship between humans and our environment; through the Declaration, the world acknowledges that, ‘In the industrialized countries, environmental problems are generally related to industrialization and technological development.’
John Sawyer, head of the UK Meteorological Office, writes a controversial article in Nature predicting warming of around 0.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the 20th century.
1976: The Australian Academy of Science reports that human activities are likely to contribute to warming. However, the report concludes that ‘there is no evidence that the world is now on the brink of a major climatic change’.
1977: According to Scientific American, Senior Exxon scientist James Black delivers ‘a remarkable message’ to his bosses that ‘doubling CO₂ gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees — a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today’.
1979: First international conference on climate change. At the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) World Climate Conference in Geneva, international experts discuss, for the first time, the link between human activities and climate (as opposed to our environmental impact in general).
The Charney Report. Ten distinguished climate scientists, led by Jule Charney, gather for a meeting at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and clearly lay out the likely effects of increasing carbon dioxide on the climate. Later to be proved remarkably prescient, they estimate ‘the most probable warming for a doubling of CO₂ to be near 3℃ with a probable error of ± 1.5oC.
The golden years of climate change bipartisanship
1988: First meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international working group of experts tasked with reviewing and synthesising peer-reviewed research publications on climate change.
First global emissions reduction targets (the ‘Toronto Targets’) of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2005 on 1988 levels is proposed.
Republican George H. W. Bush (soon to become 41st president of the US), says in a campaign speech:
Our land, water and soil support a remarkable range of human activities, but they can only take so much and we must remember to treat them not as a given but as a gift. These issues know no ideology, no political boundaries. It’s not a liberal or conservative thing we’re talking about.
The Australian Financial Review reports, under the headline ‘Government officials start to feel the climate of change’:
yesterday, Queensland’s [Country Party] Water Resources Minister, Mr Don Neal, was at the forefront of the discussion. He pointed out the possible economic impact on Governments from increased flooding, more severe droughts, the effect on agricultural and pastoral industries and the need to redefine engineering design codes for roads, bridges, railways, dams and even housing … ‘There is no longer any serious doubt that climate will change more rapidly over the next 50 years than ever before in natural history’.
1989: Professor Martin Green and his team at the University of NSW produce solar cells with remarkable conversion efficiency, which leads to revolutionary change in the cost of bulk clean energy supply across the globe. Yet another example of Australian ingenuity being shipped overseas for commercialisation.
Nov 1989: Conservative British PM Margaret Thatcher delivers a speech to the United Nations General Assembly (Global Environment):
Mr President, the environmental challenge which confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out.
We should work through this great organisation [the United Nations] and its agencies to secure world-wide agreements on ways to cope with the effects of climate change, the thinning of the Ozone layer, and the loss of precious species.
We need a realistic programme of action and an equally realistic timetable.
Each country has to contribute, and those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.
The work ahead will be long and exacting. We should embark on it hopeful of success, not fearful of failure.
Victoria, NSW and Western Australia adopt Toronto Target (20% reduction on 1988 greenhouse gas levels by 2005) as an interim objective.
1990: The Australian government adopts Hawke minister Graham Richardson’s ‘Toronto Targets’, with a catch: the 20% target is an ‘Interim Planning Target’, with the proviso that the reduction will not be at the expense of the economy (enter the ‘no regrets’ policy).
1991: The Koch Brothers enter the climate debate in US. ‘Koch Industries…spent millions of dollars to support the idea that there was an “alternative” view about climate change.’ (Kochland by Christopher Leonard)
July 1991: Special Premiers Conference (a predecessor to what we now call COAG, and a precursor to Paul Keating defeating Bob Hawke to become PM) in Sydney establishes the National Grid Management Council (NGMC) to coordinate the interstate grid. The council is required (among other things) to encourage economical and environmentally sound development of the electricity supply in eastern and southern Australia. This was an era of what was coined ‘co-operative federalism’. The words ‘environmentally sound’ and ‘climate change’ would not appear in the objectives of the successor to the NGMC, i.e. the National Energy Objective.
1992: Australia ratifies the UNFCCC, the ninth country in the world to do so.
1997: Prime Minister John Howard introduces ‘Safeguarding the future: Australia’s response to climate change’, which includes a target of an additional 2% of electricity to be sourced from renewable sources by 2010. The first Australian Renewable Energy Target is set.
December 1997: The third UNFCCC COP is held in Kyoto. The Kyoto Protocol is adopted and Australia secures a special deal (the Australia clause) to include land-use change and forestry as part of the net emissions in the 1990 baseline year. John Howard praises the work of minister Robert Hill and says, ‘For the first time we have an agreement amongst the developed countries to bring about a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.’
This favourable deal for Australia will remain a bone of contention and debate in Australia for decades to come. Not until 2007 will Australia (under PM Rudd) ratify the Kyoto Protocol. ‘Carry over’ credits from the Kyoto targets are still a point of contention today.
2000: The 12 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1980. The hottest was 1998. Climate alarm bells are ringing.
Winds of change
2001: President George W Bush (Jnr) walks out on Kyoto and his administration opposes any real effort to reduce emissions.
The Howard government resolves not to ratify Kyoto. The government introduces the Commonwealth Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET), possibly the most important and effective climate policy in Australian history.
2003: A bill proposed by senators John McCain (Republican) and Joe Lieberman (Democrat) to use a free-market model is defeated, despite its support by 41 other senators.
2004: American science fiction disaster film (light on the science part) The Day After Tomorrow, starring Dennis Quaid, depicts catastrophic climatic effects following the disruption of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation, that leads to a new ice age. The film is the sixth-highest-grossing Hollywood production of 2004.
Russia ratifies the Kyoto Protocol, fulfilling the trigger that developed countries with a combined total of 55% of global emissions (at 1990 levels) have approved the protocol. Australia still refuses to ratify.
2006: An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about former US Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming, is released. The film grosses $26 million at the international box office and is a global talking point. Al Gore arrives at 1 Treasury Place, Victoria to meet Steve Bracks during the state election campaign.
August: The National Emissions Trading Taskforce, with the backing of all states and territories, releases a discussion paper on a ‘Possible Design for a National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme’. Labor is in power across the country (except in the big house), and uses the opportunity to put Howard under real pressure by threatening to go it alone, without the Commonwealth government.
December: Prime Minister Howard establishes the Prime Ministerial Task Group (chaired by senior bureaucrat Peter Shergold) on Emissions Trading. Kevin Rudd successfully challenges Kim Beazley to become Leader of the Labor Party and thus Leader of the Opposition. The ‘Kevin07’ phenomenon begins.
May 2007: The ‘Shergold Report’ is released. It recommends Australia develop an emissions trading scheme.
July: Prime Minister Howard commits to an emissions trading scheme. Addressing the Melbourne Press Club at the Hyatt, he says:
Being among the first movers on carbon trading in this region will bring new opportunities and we intend to grasp them. The Government will examine how to ensure that Australia becomes a carbon trading hub in the Asia-Pacific region. Of course, an emissions trading scheme is only one part of a comprehensive long-term climate change policy framework. There is no magic green bullet. Low-carbon technologies remain the key to an effective response that minimises the costs of limiting emissions.
John Howard makes his official YouTube debut with a video announcement of the emissions trading scheme. Labor rebuts it with a climate ad showing a bald man with bushy eyebrows failing to get up when his alarm clock repeatedly goes off. On the bedside table there is a cheeky picture of Howard and US president George W Bush.
August: Opposition leader Kevin Rudd hosts a National Climate Change Summit in Parliament House, ‘Forging a national consensus’, and says ‘Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation’ — words that will haunt him when he backs away from action three years later. He also says, ‘We should be at a stage in this country where climate change is beyond politics’ — words which perhaps mark the beginning of ‘The Climate Wars’ in Australia.
October: Prime Minister John Howard promises an ETS, starting no later than 2012 if he is re-elected.
December: Newly elected PM Rudd ratifies the Kyoto Protocol.
2008: The first Garnaut Report recommends Australia push internationally for CO2 concentrations of 450 ppm, which would commit the country to reductions of 25% on 2000 levels by 2020, and 90% by 2050.
2009: The US House of Representatives passes the Waxman-Markey Bill, the first major bill regulating carbon emissions to address the threat of climate change. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former speaker, Republican Newt Gingrich, appear together in a TV advertisement (on a sofa in front of the Capitol Building):
Pelosi: We don’t always see eye to eye, do we Newt?
Gingrich: No. But we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.
May: The first Australian ETS legislation, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009, is introduced in the House of Representatives.
The climate war years
2009: In the US, the Koch brothers invest in the Tea Party. ‘Americans for Prosperity’ campaign for solutions to climate change to be solved by ‘market forces’ — but paradoxically against cap and trade approaches — in a low tax, less regulated economy. The Waxman-Markey Bill is dead.
August: The Australian senate rejects the CPRS, 42 votes to 30. The Greens side with the Coalition to defeat the bill.
After an arduous debate through the year, there is finally bipartisan support to increase the MRET to 20%.
September: Aspiring Liberal leader Tony Abbott says ‘The climate change argument is absolute crap’.
November: At a crucial party room meeting, federal Liberal minister Andrew Robb speaks strongly and unexpectedly against the CPRS.
December: A reintroduced CPRS is voted on a second time in Senate and is narrowly defeated. Two Liberals cross the floor to vote with the government, meaning the CPRS could have passed if the Greens were on board.
Tony Abbott becomes opposition leader after defeating Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote. The CPRS losses bipartisan support.
Feb 2010: The Australian ETS legislation is introduced a third time. Malcolm Turnbull crosses the floor to support the Bill. The second reading includes amendments agreed to by the Coalition and says:
Australia’s emissions challenge is clear and it has bipartisan support, as we understand it.
Even the current Leader of the Opposition in his 2009 book Battlelines acknowledged that: The Howard Government — in 2007 — proposed an emissions trading scheme because this seemed the best way to obtain the highest emission reduction at the lowest cost. That appears at page 171 of the book of the member for Warringah called Battlelines.
April: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd folds. The CPRS is delayed until the end of 2012, the end of the Kyoto commitment period.
June: Julia Gillard becomes PM.
September: ‘The Australian Greens & The ALP — Agreement’. PM Julia Gillard signs a deal with the Greens (and subsequently with three independent members) requiring a carbon price, to establish the basis for stable and effective government.
Mar 2011: A low point in Australian politics. Then opposition leader Tony Abbott addresses a rally of 3000 vitriolic anti-carbon tax protestors on the Parliament House lawns. Former trade minister Craig Emerson says he ‘felt like vomiting when I saw the signs. “Ditch the Witch” is bad enough but, “Ju-liar”, “Bob Browns bitch” is so deeply and utterly offensive.’
November: The Australian parliament passes the ETS legislation.
In the US, Newt Gingrich says his advertisement about climate change with Nancy Pelosi was ‘the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years’.
2012: Gillard’s price on carbon comes into effect. It is an economically mild, market-based instrument, but the Liberals successfully characterise it as a heavy-handed ‘carbon tax’. This political tactic will set back the environmental policy debate for years.
June 2013: Another PM exits. Kevin Rudd becomes PM again.
September: Another leader down. Tony Abbott becomes PM. He axes the mandarins and the ‘carbon tax’.
Jul 2014: The carbon price mechanism is repealed. Australia becomes the first nation in the world to reverse action on climate change.
October: Enter Clive Palmer and the PUPs. In a remarkable series of events, Palmer stands on a podium with Al Gore and then does a deal with Greg Hunt to give his support to a Direct Action policy in return for saving the Climate Change Authority and an ‘investigation’ into an emissions trading scheme.
November: Coalition Industry minister Ian McFarlane and Environment minister Greg Hunt accuse Labor of shattering bipartisanship by walking away from the RET.
December: Insisting he believes climate change is real, Prime Minister Tony Abbott commits Australia to reducing emissions by at least 26% from 2005 levels by 2030.
Sep 2015: Another leader falls. Malcolm Turnbull becomes PM.
October: Minister Hunt announces the government is committed to ‘keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius’.
2017: The Turnbull government announces the controversial National Energy Guarantee (NEG) to ‘lower electricity prices, make the system more reliable, encourage the right investment and reduce emissions’.
2018: The past five years (from 2014 to 2018) were the warmest ever recorded, and 2018 was the fourth hottest ever recorded in the 139 years that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has tracked global heat. It seems as though we are inside the painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ and the climate alarm clocks are melting.
A new wave of hope
Aug 2018: Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg holds up a sign, ‘SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET’ (‘School strike for climate’), which starts a global phenomenon; a grassroots push for stronger action on climate change.
Peter Dutton challenges Malcolm Turnbull for the prime ministership. Another leader bites the dust. Scott Morrison becomes PM.
October: Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten declares support for NEG. ‘We’ve got to end the climate change war. Unfortunately, it’s not going to end with bipartisanship — it will come if and when we are elected.’
November: Labor, cross-benchers and former Foreign minister Julie Bishop say they want to revive the NEG.
December: Sir David Attenborough addresses world leaders at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Poland.
Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.
Australia cements its position as a world leader with over 2 million households now having solar PV panels.
May 2019: Theresa May resigns as UK PM off the back of the BREXIT saga, but says something remarkably relevant to the climate wars in Australia:
Today, an inability to combine principles with pragmatism, and make a compromise when required, seems to have driven our whole political discourse down the wrong path. …Or that mobilising your own faction is more important than bringing others with you.
UK’s new net-zero target passes the Commons without a single opposing vote. Former PM Malcolm Turnbull tweets, ‘The UK’s political challenges are not enviable, but at least there is longstanding bipartisan support for tackling climate change and moving to net-zero emissions and, in particular, away from burning fossil fuels.’
July: City of Melbourne joins an international movement involving 800 councils around the world, including 27 in Australia, declaring a climate emergency and calling for urgent action on climate change.
September: Pope Francis sends a video message (via CNS, aka ‘YouTube for Catholics’) from the Vatican to the U.N. Climate Action Summit in NYC, saying despite climate change being ‘one of the most serious and worrying phenomena of our time…the window of opportunity is still open’.
All Australian states and territories, regardless of the party in power, have effectively committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. WA Energy minister Bill Johnston says that, while not legislated, his state would maintain an ‘aspirational’ goal of being emissions-free by 2050.
November: The Zero Carbon Bill passes the NZ Parliament with almost unanimous support.
It’s not just the New Zealand All Blacks who lead Australia, it seems. Not since the 1980s and 90s have we had bipartisanship on climate change. Yet there has been a consistent desire over the past decades for consensus on climate change, and importantly on carbon emissions — in 2007, in 2009 and in again 2018 with the NEG.
A few well-placed spoilers, backed by vested interests, have thrown stones and kept good policy off the table. But there is a growing wave of public support for action. And at the end of the day, all pollies need that support to get re-elected. There is hope.