The story of how much progress was achieved in Australia on climate change policy in the 1980s has been lost. Exactly twenty years ago, in 1989, federal cabinet first considered reducing greenhouse emissions by 20 per cent by 2005, and during the 1990 election campaign, they agreed, with some provisos, to a similar plan. At the same time, the Liberal Party was developing parallel policies, although Chris Puplick, the Liberal shadow environment minister at the time, argues that the Liberal Party was ahead of Labor on climate change, and on many other environment issues, at the 1990 election.

The current political debate in Canberra assumes that the issue has only been discovered by politicians over the past few years. Yet climate change was clearly on the public policy agenda twenty years ago. The cabinet submission that the environment minister, Graham Richardson, introduced in 1989 was based on ten years of gradually developing understanding both internationally and in Australia among scientists, environmental activists and policy makers.

It was in 1979 that the first World Climate Conference in Geneva expressed concern about a link between greenhouse gases and climate change. A year later, in 1980, the Australian Academy of Science held a conference to review twenty years of measurements showing increasing carbon dioxide levels. Although there was a growing understanding that the greenhouse effect would result in climate change, scientists were still cautious about making categorical statements based on the earliest models. The first major international statement on the issue came in 1985 at Villach in Austria, when a UN conference of scientists from twenty-nine countries assessed the growing evidence and released a statement calling for international action.

Three years later, in 1988, came one of the key dates in the unfolding debate. It was in that year that an international conference in Toronto set the first targets, calling for a 20 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions worldwide by the year 2005, with the brunt of this to be borne by developed countries using 1988 as the base year. These “Toronto targets” became important benchmarks worldwide.

In Australia, the CSIRO was at the forefront of international research. In 1987 and 1988, in partnership with the Commission for the Future, the organisation conducted two major conferences on climate change. The published papers from the first are evidence of the high-quality, cutting-edge work that was being done by Australian scientists at the time. The Commission for the Future had been established by Science Minister Barry Jones in 1985 as a forum for exploring scientific, social and economic issues outside the constraints of short-term government planning. Jones attended the 1988 conference as minister responsible for the commission, and Graham Richardson opened the conference in his capacity as environment minister. Unusually for the time, the conference was actually a series of conferences in the state and territory capitals and Cairns, involving 8000 people and linked by video for a keynote address. “The network of conferences succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the organisers,” according to Ian Lowe who was acting director of the Commission for the Future at the time.

The 1988 conference publicised climate change widely. A number of the current affairs television programs took up the issue and the Melbourne Age published a four page lift-out. “State governments established working parties or inter-departmental committees to explore the local implications,” writes Lowe, “and the Brisbane City Council showed the way to local authorities by commissioning consultants to write a report on the issues affecting the city.”

Lowe did much to communicate the issue to the public, including numerous public speaking engagements and the publication of a book, Living in the Greenhouse. Although it was aimed at a general audience, the book drew together a vast amount of data, not just on climate science but also on how Australia could change its CO2 output with minimum effect on lifestyle. The Australian Conservation Foundation employed a climate change campaigner to focus solely on the issue.

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.

The last decade of the Howard government has obliterated the memory of progressive Liberal Party policies on the environment and climate change during the late 1980s. Under shadow environment minister Chris Puplick, the Coalition had progressive environmental policies on a number of issues, challenging Labor and pushing the boundaries of the debate. Referring to these Coalition policies, Puplick has told me that:

We were at one with [Labor] on CFC control and CFC emissions. We were ahead of them on the Antarctic. I, in fact, announced that we would oppose the signing of the Antarctic Minerals Treaty at a time when Richardson was advocating that we should sign the treaty. It was our coming out and saying we would sign the treaty that caused them to go back and revise their position that they would sign the Treaty. We were ahead of them on whaling issues – that was a legacy of Fraser’s long involvement.

Importantly, he claims that the coalition was ahead of the Labor Party on global warming issues by the 1990 election, indicating that there was bipartisan interest in climate change as an issue. The reason for the bipartisanship arose out of the 1987 election, when even John Howard, the leader at the time, recognised that the Coalition had not performed well in relation to public expectations on the environment. After that election, Puplick was given relative freedom to develop policy – freedom which he exercised energetically, but which was nevertheless constrained by the party’s obsession with states’ rights.

The bipartisanship was against the backdrop of high public interest in everything environmental, which was ushered in by the Franklin Dam decision in 1983 and peaked during Graham Richardson’s period as minister from 1987 to 1990. Philip Toyne and Simon Balderstone have argued that the Hawke government did “more to protect the environment than any national government before or since,” and were able to list eleven major achievements, including stopping the Franklin Dam, saving the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland, introducing Landcare, establishing Kakadu Stages II and III, saving thousands of hectares of iconic forests such as Tasmania’s Lemonthyme, adding a vast area to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and declaring many new World Heritage areas. Environment ranked only second to the economy as a key issue at the 1990 election.

The amazing thing is how quickly government interest dissipated. Environmental issues did not figure in the 1993 election. A conjunction of factors was at work: the change of prime minister to Paul Keating, the 1990s recession, the increasing dominance of neoliberal thinking among Labor ministers and particularly the emergence of the energy and coal lobby, the so-called greenhouse mafia. The change did not come with the election of John Howard, but with the change of Labor leader when Keating defeated Hawke. Ros Kelly staffer, Judy Lambert, has documented that Keating made it clear that environment was not to be a part of any Labor re-election campaign in 1993.

On the question of climate change, Keating was called to account very soon after he became prime minister. The huge Rio Earth Summit on environmental sustainability in June 1992 was a widely publicised international event attended not just by an unprecedented number of governments, but by 2400 representatives of non-government organisations and 17,000 individuals with UN consultative status. The governments produced action on environment and development, biological diversity and forest principles and set the agenda for much of the UN’s work in the following decades. It also saw the ratification of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which later evolved into the Kyoto protocol. One hundred and seventy-two governments participated, and 108 heads of state or heads of government attended, including US president George Bush snr. Keating was notable by his absence.

Of lasting impact over the past twenty years has been the rise of the energy and carbon lobby – the self-designated greenhouse mafia, with its interweaving strands of influence affecting both major political parties. Guy Pearse has documented that relationship in forensic detail in his book, High and Dry, and in a recent Quarterly Essay and has suggested that the lobby arose during the early 1990s. To secure environment movement support at the 1990 election, the Hawke government made the decision to block the development of a gold mine at Coronation Hill in Kakadu, which produced a monumental backlash from the mining industry. The decision has previously been interpreted in the light of its contribution to the end of Hawke’s prime ministership, but I believe it may also have contributed to the formation of the carbon lobby. Guy Pearse has told me he recalls his interviewees making reference to Coronation Hill on a number of occasions. It seems likely that the threat from the two cabinet submissions proposing a reduction in greenhouse emissions, the high public interest in the environment and the Coronation Hill decision were key factors motivating the carbon lobby to organise in the early 1990s.

Twenty years later, we seem to have forgotten the history of how much progress took place in the 1980s to move Australia towards a carbon-constrained economy. The opportunity lost was significant. Is it too cynical to claim that the events are forgotten because the victors have written the history? Regardless of the reasons why the history has been suppressed, it is time we remembered what happened. Doing so puts the current debate into a different perspective.

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