OPINION: SEEN from the other side of the world, the stance of Tony Abbott's government on climate change is incomprehensible.
For a country visibly and increasingly exposed to impacts of climate change, Abbott's decision to increase climate risks by becoming the first leader in the world to abolish a carbon price mystified many.
Cutting Australia's renewable energy target was also bewildering, for a country blessed with almost unlimited renewable resources, the more so from a supposedly pro-business government. Meanwhile, the giant new coal mining and coal exporting operations on which Abbott appears to be betting Australia's financial health look increasingly risky investments, with bank after bank refusing to back them and demand from China, the world's biggest coal-burning nation, falling.
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Most of all, Abbott's dismissal of climate science and his belief that Australia must choose between economic growth and tackling climate change speak to a distorted vision of what it means to be a conservative.
True conservative values include distaste for over-regulation and enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism. But they also include a respect for sound science and economics, a belief in protecting the natural world and a responsibility to do the best for the biggest possible number of one's citizens.
The first leader of any major nation to call for a United Nations treaty on climate change was Margaret Thatcher – Britain's greatest postwar Prime Minister and a standard bearer for the political right.
As a scientist, she saw the threat posed by climate change. But she also believed in a vision of economic growth that went beyond the immediate interests of major corporations: "We must have continued economic growth in order to generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment. But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow."
Thatcher believed, as do I, that combatting climate change is compatible with capitalism, and will boost growth if governments adopt smart policies.
Fast-forward to today, and another British Conservative leader, David Cameron, is proving the point with his commitment to dealing with climate change at the same time as pursuing economic growth. His last government set up a pioneering Green Investment Bank, trebled renewable energy generation and committed to a building program for new nuclear reactors. Our carbon emissions are falling, but our economy keeps growing.
Cameron sees Britain as competing in a "global race" and that the economies that will prosper are those that are the "greenest and the most energy-efficient". Britain's green economy was worth £122 billion ($250 billion) in 2013, equivalent to twice the turnover of our car-manufacturing industry, and is growing at seven per cent a year.
In short, British Conservatives have a long history of valuing climate science and finding market-driven solutions that enable our continued prosperity whilst addressing the biggest environmental challenge of our times.
During my time as environment minister, I drove through measures to protect our coastal marine environment, to support fisheries, tourism and nature. Given Australia's richer marine environment, it is ironic to see Abbott's government preparing to do the opposite of protection, by allowing construction of a massive terminal to export coal through the Great Barrier Reef. Not only does it risk directly damaging the reef, the additional carbon emissions caused by burning the exported coal would contribute heavily to climate change and ocean acidification, threatening reefs on a global basis.
To run against the prevailing wind is to risk alienation, and those who like Abbott persist in regarding climate change as a left-wing conspiracy based on speculative science are in a rapidly dwindling minority. Opinion surveys show that 80 per cent of people across the world want politicians to cut carbon emissions. Doctors, business leaders and economists are calling for emission cuts. Most notably, the Pope has recently condemned those "who possess more resources and economic or political power (but) seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms".
As a committed Catholic, is Abbott not perturbed by the fact that the Pope could have been talking about him? Is he not concerned that his policies contradict the Pope's call for governments to urgently implement measures "so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced (by), for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy"?
There is no contradiction between conservatism and environmental protection. In Britain, Sir Anthony Eden's government passed the Clean Air Act. In the US, Richard Nixon set up the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan signed up to the Montreal Protocol and George W. Bush created the biggest network of marine reserves in history.
All did so for the same reason: science indicated a problem that threatened human and economic wellbeing, and citizens deserved an adequate response. Economies have thrived, not died, as a result of their decisions. For conservatives and for Christians, stewardship of our planet and the life on it should be a central principle of our lives; that it usually makes good economic sense is a welcome bonus.
This is where we now stand on climate change. Abbott's continuing determination to ignore the science and the will of the people, to pursue policies diametrically opposed to the leader of his church and instead tie the future of his wonderful country to the interests of the increasingly risky coal industry is illogical, isolating and most profoundly un-conservative.
Richard Benyon is Conservative member of the British Parliament for Newbury, and a former British environment minister.