Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott(L) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper laugh as they address the media during a joint press conference in Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canda on June 9, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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The world's worst climate change villains? Step forward, prime ministers of Australia and Canada

These two world leaders are laughing while the world burns up - and they don't look like stopping any time soon.

Canada once had a shot at being the world's leader on climate change. Back in 2002, America's northern neighbours had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the world's first treaty that required nations to cut their emissions or face penalties. In 2005, the country hosted an international climate change conference in Montreal, where then-prime minister Paul Martin singled out America for its indifference. "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say this: There is such a thing as a global conscience," Martin said.

Australia, too, was briefly a success story. The government ratified Kyoto in 2007 and delivered on promises to pass a tax on carbon by 2011. The prime minister that year, Julia Gillard, noted her administration's priorities to set "Australia on the path to a high-skill, low-carbon future or [leave] our economy to decay into a rusting, industrial museum".

Today, the two countries are outliers again - for all the wrong reasons.

According to a 2014 Climate Change Performance Index from European groups Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch, Canada and Australia occupy the bottom two spots among all 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Among the 20 countries with the largest economies (G20), only Saudi Arabia ranked lower than them. Canada and Australia's records on climate change have gotten so bad, they've become the go-to examples for Republicans, like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who don't think climate change exists.

How did these two nations go from leading the fight against climate change to denying that it even exists?

On the way to his first trip in the US, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott stopped for a full day of talks with Canada prime minister Stephen Harper in June. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Abbott was in Canada's capital with the intention of building a "conservative alliance among 'like-minded' countries" to try to dismantle global efforts on climate change. At a press conference that day, Harper applauded Abbott's efforts to gut Australia's carbon tax. "You’ve used this international platform to encourage our counterparts in the major economies and beyond to boost economic growth, to lower taxes when possible and to eliminate harmful ones, most notably the job-killing carbon tax," Harper said. He added that "we shouldn't clobber the economy" by pursuing an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax. 

This is how Canada and Australia's top leaders frame global warming. The two stress that they will always choose short-term economic gain first, disregarding scientific findings and even the interests of their political allies in the process.The countries' abrupt shift on climate track conservatives' rise to a majority in Canada in 2011 and in Australia last year. 

In just a few years, conservatives have delivered blow after blow to the nations' environmental progress. Canada withdrew from Kyoto in 2011 to avoid paying expensive penalties for failing to meet its promise to cut carbon 6 percent over 1990 levels (Canada's emissions had risen by nearly 30 per cent). Harper offered a less ambitious target instead, one that mirrored the US's commitment cut 17 per cent of carbon pollution by 2020. But Canada will miss that target by a long shot, according to environmental groups who point to the aggressive development of the Alberta tar sands oil and expired clean energy subsidies. The commissioner of the Department of Environment and Sustainable Development noted in a recent report that Canada "does not have answers" to most of its environmental concerns. Australia, meanwhile, had the world's highest emissions per capita in 2012 - topping even America's. The government's mediocre ambition of cutting emissions 5 per cent by 2020 won't happen either: it projects emissions to grow 2 per cent a year, according to Inside Climate News.

The hostility toward environmental interests goes even deeper than energy policy. Harper has battled his own scientists, independent journalists, and environmental groups at odds with his views. 

Climate scientists have reported that they are unable to speak to press about their own findings, feeling effectively "muzzled" by agencies that want to script talking points for them. In June, a government spokesperson explained that federal meteorologists must speak only "to their area of expertise," which does not include climate change, according to a government spokesperson. Journalists sometimes face bullying, too. Environmental author Andrew Nikiforuk told ThinkProgress that "a government of thugs" slandered him and shut him out of events. But environmentalists may fare the worst. Seven environmental nonprofits in Canada have accused the Canada Revenue Agency of unfairly targeting them for audits. According to internal documents obtained by the Guardian, Canada's police and Security Intelligence Service identified nonviolent environmental protests - like people who oppose hydrofracking and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline - as "forms of attack" fitting the "number of cases where we think people might be inclined to acts of terrorism".

Australia, for its part, has downplayed scientific findings. Abbott, along with his environment minister Greg Hunt, have rejected any link between extreme weather and global warming. Abbott, who once called the science of climate change "absolute crap", said last year that UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres was "talking out of her hat" when saying that rising temperatures were driving more intense and frequent brushfires. "Climate change is real as I have often said and we should take strong action against it but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change," he argued. Hunt defended his boss, citing Wikipedia as his proof. "I looked up what Wikipedia says for example, just to see what the rest of the world thought, and it opens up with the fact that bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year. Large areas of land are ravaged every year by bushfires. That’s the Australian experience." He could have referred to his Department of Environment's website instead, had it not earlier removed explicit references connecting climate change, heatwaves, and fires.

As the host of the G20 this November, Australia is in an awkward position. Australians have staged protests, while the US and European leaders have pressured Abbott to put climate change on the agenda. He has refused. There's no room for climate, he says, because the summit is about "economic security" and "the importance of private sector-led growth."

What's even more baffling about the rise of climate denial in both countries is that it's apparently not the popular view in either country. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Australians and Canadians say climate change is a major threat - as opposed to 40 per cent of Americans who say the same. 

Of course, the US has reversed itself recently, too. President Barack Obama is making climate change a second-term priority, and has taken steps to cap carbon pollution from power plants. Such initiatives have put the US on track to meet its pledge in Copenhagen in 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent by 2020. At the same time, China, which faces internal pressure over air pollution, is looking a lot more serious about slowing down pollution; it will begin a national cap-and-trade program in 2016. Even India is redoubling efforts on clean energy, to meet the power needs of its growing population. Half the world plans to put a price on carbon

It's true that neither Canada nor Australia has much responsibility for the amount of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. The United States, China, and India made up a combined 49 per cent of the world's carbon emissions in 2013. Canada and Australia, by comparison, emit 3.5 per cent of total carbon emissions combined. But the critical requirement for an international climate change agreement - which negotiatiors will try to hammer out in Paris next year - is that every country big and small make a commitment to greenhouse gas targets. Fortunately, the negligence of two smaller, industrialized countries won't be the fatal blow to negotiations in Paris. Still, by ducking their own responsibility, Australia and Canada are ignoring their "global conscience" - to borrow a former prime minister's words. 

A decade ago, America's close allies due north and across the Pacific rightly shamed us on our poor response to climate change. Now, they've lost the moral high ground. At the September United Nations Climate Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders yet on the issue, both Abbott and Harper were no-shows. The ministers sent in their place also arrived empty-handed; Australia's foreign minister suggested that only larger countries should be responsible for more ambitious climate action. Canada environment minister Leona Aglukkaq repeated an already-public commitment that Canada would copy Obama's fuel economy regulations requiring 35.5 miles per gallon. Afterward, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, Aglukkaq spoke of the unfairness of a global treaty. "It’s not up to one country to solve the global greenhouse-gas emissions. I mean, seriously now, it’s just not fair. We all have to do our part, big or small countries.”

That's true. If only her small country would do its part, too.

This piece originally appeared in the New Republic.

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Has Brexit burst the British housing bubble?

The fall in value of the pound is having a negative impact on property prices.

The high cost of housing in the UK has almost nothing to do with supply and demand. What matters is political control. Rents are high because landlords have gained the upper hand politically. The consequences are vividly illustrated in Ken Loach’s new film focusing on inequality in Britain, I’ Daniel Blake.  As a student in the 1980s I paid £9 a week to rent a room in a shared house in Newcastle upon Tyne. Private rent was low because for decades before then rents had been regulated. It was the lifting of that regulation that meant rents could rise so that now students have to borrow vast sums of money just to have a place to live. Today’s students pay many multiples more in rent than I ever did, and millions of families with children are also struggling because they have to rent privately.

Because rents have been allowed to rise as high as landlords can get away with, the landlords have been encouraged to buy up more and more properties that were once social housing or lived in by a family, who had bought the property with a mortgage. The number of people renting privately doubled between the last two censuses of 2001 and 2011. That has never happened before. It was the end result of years of deregulation and the withdrawal of our government from representing our interests in housing. Well-regulated private renting is a benefit, but without rent regulation it becomes a social evil.

Housing prices are not determined by supply and demand because you do not have a choice about needing to be housed. Allow an unregulated market to develop when social housing is also being cut and there is no choice not to buy what is on offer, other than sleeping on the streets. Prices will go sky-high. The purchase prices for mortgage borrowers also rise to astronomical levels as first-time buyers are competing with landlords to buy properties, and so have to be able to secure a mortgage equal to the amount a landlords can wring out of people desperate for a home.

In the first blog in this series on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty, Stephen Hill, director of C2O Futureplanners, explained: “There are over one million less affordable homes than there were in 1980. The population has grown by nearly nine million people. Incomes at the median level are flat, and secure employment is increasingly scarce.” He is correct, but the situation is even worse than that — it is not lack of housing that is the problem. Each annual census in the UK records the amount of housing that exists at each point in time. It does this by recording the number of rooms in homes over a certain size. The number of rooms per person has risen at every census since 1981.

The 2011 census was the first to count bedrooms and found that in England and Wales there were 66 million for a population of 55 million (21 million of whom were married or in a civil partnership). So even if we make the ludicrous assumption that only married people share a bed and no children use bunk-beds, there were at least 22 million bedrooms empty on census night 2011. We have not been building a huge number of new houses or flats in recent years, but we have been adding extensions on to our existing homes and so we now have more housing than we have ever had before, per person and per family. We just share it out more unfairly than we have ever done before.

If housing prices were about supply and demand then our surplus of bedrooms would result in falling prices, but this is not a free market. You are not free to buy a flat that has been left empty in London to appreciate in value by its owner. They do not want to sell, or sometimes even rent it out, and you almost certainly would not have the money even if they did.

It is in the housing market that the majority of investments are made in the UK, housing is where most wealth is held. As we become more and more economically unequal it is through housing that we most clearly see that most of us are losers while just a few (who own multiple properties) are winners. Recent UK governments have been allowing wealth and income inequalities to rise and rise.

As Fred Harrison explained in the second blog in this series, government has not only withdrawn from regulating housing rents and profits to avoid this winner-takes-all-economics — it is now even prepared to provide £2bn to buy properties that home builders can’t sell so that they don’t need to lower prices even if landlords and first-time buyers will not buy their properties. The government sees renting-seeking as a social good, and believes that the market in housing should be regulated less and less with each year that passes, other than intervening to keep prices high and rising. Meanwhile, street homelessness rises, evictions rise, the debt of mortgage holders rises, housing prices rise and a small minority of the population become richer. So how will it end?

You might have thought that prices would stop rising when landlords stopped buying properties because the return on their investments in terms of rent would not making it worth their while paying, say, one million pounds for a three-bed house in a part of London near a tube station. Suppose that the most a family could pay was £20,000 a year in rent. The landlord’s “return” on their investment would only be two per cent a year, ignoring wear-and tear and anything else that they might be able to off-set against paying tax. If the forces that were actually at play were “supply and demand” then surely prices have to stop rising when people can no longer afford the rents?

However, landlords have another return: the escalating value of the property itself. If the property is rising by five per cent a year in value then they are making a seven per cent return when they rent it out, even if annual rents are just two per cent of its value. The rise of five per cent a year is due to speculation which is itself partly fed by a belief that the government of the day will do all it can to protect their investments, but it will only do that up to a certain point.

Because it needs to raise taxes a little given the state of the national finances, the UK government is now withdrawing its support of reckless profit taking by smaller landlords. In October 2016 a group of buy-to-let landlords lost their appeal in the courts to try to continue to be able to claim their mortgage interest payments as a business expense. From 2017 only the largest of landlords who set up companies to rent out their properties will be able to continue to do that.

The government knows that the housing market is in trouble. That is why Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor, announced that their “Help to Buy” scheme (which was aimed at the very best-off of potential first time buyers) will end in December 2016. The government knows that with the risk of falling house prices in future it cannot afford the guarantees that “Help to Buy” created. “Help to Buy” schemes were the previous Chancellor, George Osborne’s biggest spending commitment. They were designed to help inflate the housing market and keep prices rising, but eventually every speculative bubble has to burst.

On 21 September the first reports of a stalling market were released under headlines that included: “Q2 UK house sales at an all-time quarterly low says Land Registry”. UK Land Registry figures now show housing prices to have fallen in London by 7% so far in 2016, with the number of sales roughly halving. Investors have stopped buying; if a recent investor wants to sell they have to do so at a loss. Nationally prices fell by 4.5%.

So what happened to the magic-money-tree? In short the pound fell in value and it has been continuing to fall ever since the UK voted to leave the EU. There was always going to be “the event” that triggered the end of speculation and it is looking more and more likely as if Brexit was that event. Once the pound begins to fall in value then any overseas investor knows that if they buy property in the UK, even if its value in pounds does not fall, it will be worth less to them in future.

Suddenly UK housing is not a safe asset. Suddenly prospective landlords actually have to try to rely on their tenants’ rent to pay back their borrowings. Suddenly housing prices change despite no great alteration in supply or demand. Suddenly the whole edifice looks unsafe, not just for the majority of young and almost all poor people in Britain, but for the large majority of the population.

It was never “supply and demand” that determined our housing costs and profits. Relying on that belief did not result in greatly improved cheaper housing for most people, but it was easy to claim that somehow tomorrow would be better if we just left it to the market — until we left it to the ever more unregulated market for too long. Housing costs, prices and supply are determined by governments, including those that shirk their responsibilities and have too much concern for the economic fortunes of the affluent few.


This is part of a series of blogs on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty. You can read others in the series on their website or sign up to attend their seminar in Parliament on the 16th November here: