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Net Zero: Australia’s Scott Morrison and His Climate Change Balancing Act



MELBOURNE, Australia — 

Freak storms, catastrophic bushfires, debilitating drought. Australia knows about extreme weather.

But when hailstones recently struck northern Queensland, just as the government’s junior party was debating a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions, it seemed like a sign from above. The 6-inch chunks of ice pounded cars and shattered windshields.

Days later, the government, with historic support from the junior National Party, endorsed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s goal of achieving net zero emissions in 2050. Morrison could be a leading voice to replace the world’s reliance on fossil fuels such as oil and gas with cleaner alternatives such as solar or hydrogen.

Instead, he’s headed to the United Nations Climate Change Conference that begins Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, with a policy light on detail and soundly criticized by many Australians, from scientists to politicians, as leaving other countries to do the heavy lifting as greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures keep rising.

Australia won’t shut down coal or gas production or exports and there will be no job losses in farming, mining or gas as a result of the international push to address climate change, Morrison told reporters while presenting the plan.

“It’s an energy, trade and economic plan, not just an environmental plan,” he said. “It is not a revolution, but a careful evolution to take advantage of changes in our markets.”

Australian coal not only contributes to the emissions produced domestically, but its fossil fuel export industry — one of the largest in the world — contributes to emissions produced by other countries. It ranks last of 31 wealthy developed countries for its emission performance, according to the research group Climate Council.

Net zero refers to balancing the greenhouse gas emissions going into and coming out of the atmosphere.

Australia’s current 2030 target aims to cut emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels, a target that climate experts and other countries say is too low. Morrison said his country is on track to beat the target and reduce emissions by 30% to 35%. That’s considerably short of the 50%-52% target  announced by President Biden in April for U.S. emissions by 2030.

While Australia is a big exporter of carbon-rich fossil fuels, it is also a big and growing exporter of low-carbon new-energy metals needed to replace fossil fuels. It is well placed to benefit from growing demand for metals such as nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt.

Government subsidies for solar energy have led to Australians adopting rooftop solar panels so enthusiastically that the grid operator has had to bring forward plans to upgrade the grid to prevent blackouts.

But adoption of electric vehicles, which can lead to lower carbon emissions, trails other developed nations even though Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of the lithium used in the batteries of vehicles.

When he left for Glasgow on Thursday, Morrison fended off a suggestion from the UK hosts of the conference, known as COP26, that Australia make a more ambitious contribution to the 2030 target.

“We’ve got a plan for Australia. They’ve got a plan for the UK,” Morrison said.

Morrison has been seen as a supporter of the fossil fuel industry at least since February 2017, when, as treasurer, he brandished a lump of coal in Parliament and told lawmakers how the mineral had made Australia one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The former marketing executive – derisively called “Scotty from marketing” by his critics – won leadership of the conservative Liberal Party and the government when Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull was deposed in a party room battle in 2018. Morrison led the party to a narrow victory in 2019, in part on a promise to take a cautious approach to climate change policies.

“What is important is that I act consistent with the mandate I had from the Australian people,” he told reporters. “They rejected a 45% target at the last election. They endorsed a meet-and-beat target of 26 to 28%, which is what we’ve done.”

In the run up to the climate change conference, politicians, comedians and princes have urged Australia to do more. Comedian Dan Ilic crowdfunded a campaign to take out advertisements in Times Square, mocking Australia’s track record; Prince Charles diplomatically urged Morrison to attend COP26.

The net zero plan Morrison is taking to Glasgow will not look impressive among the 38 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, said Jeremy Moss, a professor of political philosophy at the University of New South Wales.

This “last-minute commitment to net zero will leave Australia more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia than the U.S. and Europe,” Moss said, referring to the Middle Eastern country that is the world’s biggest oil exporter. Saudi Arabia has said it will reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2060 although it doesn’t plan to stop producing oil.

“Australia has lost an opportunity to show how a wealthy democratic country can transition away from dependence on fossil fuel exports,” Moss said.

Apart from not shutting down coal and gas, Morrison’s plan pledges $20 billion in technology investments expected to unlock at least $80 billion of private and public investment in clean hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and energy storage.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, the Australian U.S.-based billionaire and co-founder of software company Atlassian, said Australia’s plan paled in comparison to the UK proposal, which details pathways for every sector to 2037.

Morrison’s plan is meaningless without strong action this decade, Simon Bradshaw, the head of research at the Climate Council, said in an email. The organization favors Australia reducing its emissions by 75% by 2030.

When Morrison says his strategy is about “technology, not taxes,” it’s a reference to the legacy of the impact of climate change policies on Australian politics. Policies to reduce emissions — like a carbon emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax — have been seen by lawmakers to be a threat to jobs and incomes that could cost them votes in elections.

Morrison became prime minister after Turnbull’s plan for an energy and climate change policy made Turnbull unpopular within his party.

National Party support, stemming from the vast Australian countryside where mining and farming are strongholds, is crucial for Morrison if he is to win an election due in the next 12 months. The partnership between the Liberal Party Morrison now leads and the Nationals has lasted 75 years.

The opposition Labor Party led Morrison’s Coalition 54%-46% in a poll published in the Australian newspaper in late October.

Representatives of Australia’s most popular European car, Volkswagen, say it is becoming the biggest seller of affordable EVs everywhere but in Australia because of the government’s failure to adopt tighter restrictions on vehicle emissions such as those required in Europe.

Australia is “an automotive dumping ground for auto engines that our competitors cannot sell in other markets,” said Volkswagen Australia’s Managing Director Michael Barstch. The continued lack of federal leadership on EVs and its aversion to setting emissions targets means “Australia languishes in the automotive third world,” he said.

The Australian government’s climate approach, even after the National Party’s endorsement of Morrison’s plan, means it risks being left behind, particularly as other regions act more resolutely and investment increasingly seeks “green” criteria, some observers say.

“The advantage of adopting meaningful 2030 emission reduction targets now is that the economy won’t be littered with stranded fossil fuel assets in the future,” Moss said.

Petrakis is a special correspondent.

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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