The world is burning

The same year Peter Costello delivered the first intergenerational report, the Howard government decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This is the story of Australian politics, of a country stepping on a rake, over and over again, forever.

Costello’s report mentioned climate change only twice, jumbled in with coastal land management and water quality. There were no details of its risk to the country’s future. In one glib line, the report said degradation of the environment “need not translate into more Commonwealth spending on the environment”.

Two months later, the Howard government agreed to ignore the Kyoto Protocol. A cabinet minute from July 2002 contains the argument that has defined Australia’s lost decades on climate action: reducing carbon had “risks for Australia in burdening its emission-intensive trade-exposed industries with costs not faced by competitors, and that it is not in Australia’s interest to ratify the Protocol”.

This week’s intergenerational report warns climate change will take as much as $423 billion out of the Australian economy. Productivity will drop. Crops will fail. Rising sea levels and natural disasters will hollow out the tourism industry.

Finally, the report is honest about the scale of the crisis. The government says it is listening. It mouths the same responses: climate change is our single greatest challenge, we take our responsibilities seriously, we are taking strong action, there is a moral imperative to confront the emergency.

Yet the government is still approving new coalmines and gas projects. Its safeguard mechanism is a pea and thimble trick. It indulges the bunkum of carbon capture and storage. Its legislated target is too modest and too imprecisely measured.

The world is already boiling. More than a thousand people are missing after fires in Maui. Unburnable forests are ablaze. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is breaking up. Heat itself is killing us.

In Australia, another drought is likely. The Murray-Darling may dry up. Forecasts are for a hot and dry spring. The Australasian Fire Authorities Council has put most of the eastern seaboard on high alert. On its map it looks as if the country has two black eyes.

The intergenerational report exists to drag politicians beyond the limit of election cycles. It is a horizon line. Its warnings on climate change should increase the government’s ambition. It should help end the farce of coal and gas, the pretence that it will cost too much to transition now. In reality, it will cost much more not to.

The clearer the warnings become on global heating, the less time there is to take heed. Urgency is everything. The country can’t keep standing on a rake labelled “future” and waiting to see if it gets a laugh.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "The world is burning".

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