Australian leader's stance on climate change scrutinized as he makes 1st White House visit

The Associated Press

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio hosts a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Wednesday, June 11, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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By MATTHEW PENNINGTON, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has few closer allies than Australia, but as Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits the United States climate change remains a touchy subtext between the two nations.

Abbott, who was elected in September, met with President Barack Obama Thursday for about an hour at the White House, just days after Obama announced bold plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by nearly a third by 2030 from 2005 levels.

Abbott has described those as sensible steps but has made clear that he doesn't view the fight against global warming as a top priority and is set against action that could crimp Australian business. He plans to scrap Australia's carbon tax on polluters.

In remarks following their meeting Thursday, neither leader mentioned the subject of climate change. Instead, Obama thanked Australia for its security cooperation with the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama said he and Abbott are improving the military relationship between the two countries that is giving the United States "additional reach throughout this very important part of the world," and he noted that under Abbott, the Australian government has increased its defense budget.

Abbott thanked Obama for the deeper engagement by the U.S. in the Asia Pacific region and said Australia will be "an utterly dependable ally of the United States."

White House spokesman Jay Carney, however, said the two leaders did discuss climate change in their private session and that Obama emphasized the need for countries to adopt "ambitious domestic climate policies as the basis of a strong international response." He said Obama believes climate change should be discussed in November's meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries. Australia, which currently chairs the group, will host the meeting.

Australian media have reported that Abbott is seeking to forge an alliance among right-leaning governments such as Britain and Canada — where he visited before arriving in the U.S. — and push against global moves to introduce carbon pricing.

In remarks to reporters Tuesday after visiting the New York Stock Exchange, Abbott said: "Is it (climate change) the most important issue the world faces right now? I don't believe so. It is one of a number of significant issues that the world faces, and we will do our bit."

Otherwise, there are plenty of shared interests between the two leaders. Abbott is an unabashed cheerleader for the strong historical ties between the U.S. and Australia, epitomized by close security cooperation, and is a strong supporter of U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. On Tuesday, Abbott declared that "America has no better friend" than Australia.

Australia is hosting a new deployment of U.S. Marines — a concrete outcome of the Obama administration's so-called Asia pivot to counter the rise of an increasingly assertive China. Australia is also one of the 12 nations negotiating a U.S.-backed trans-Pacific free trade pact whose members would account for 40 percent of global economic output.

Abbott, whose official gift for Obama will be a 9-foot-long surfboard bearing the U.S. presidential seal, has heaped personal praise on the president this week. He has expressed regret for comments he made last year when he was opposition leader and described Obama as leading the most left-wing U.S. administration in at least half a century.

But it is Abbott's stance on climate change that may be watched most closely during his Washington visit. One Australian bookmaker has even billed it as a "climate clash" and is taking bets on how many times each leader will mention the issue.