The pathetic and the fallacious

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia is required by February 2025 to set a target for emissions reduction over the following decade. This government is wrestling its way towards a number that won’t alarm anyone and it clearly won’t be pressured into anything radical by the opposition – the “climate inactivists and cookers”, in Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen’s terms, whose strategy in the climate wars has shifted from denial to belligerent obstruction.

This is the pathetic fallacy of the current climate debate, as the political tumult plays out amid the extreme rains and flooding across parts of Australia’s east coast, some of which are still recovering from the last disaster.

Dutton won’t commit to a 2035 target for the next election and a survey of Liberal MPs touted in The Australian shows most are “privately opposed … or questioned the need to put a number to the Australian people”. A “smaller rump” wants to drop the target for net zero by 2050 altogether. National Party leader David Littleproud declared that, in any case, “we’ve got plenty of time on that”, while exploring the still-fanciful option of nuclear power.

Meanwhile, three months’ worth of rain fell on the Victorian town of Heathcote in 24 hours. In Queensland’s flooded streets, emergency response teams waded through water in night-vision goggles to check on homes. At least 10 people have died due to extreme weather conditions since Christmas Day.

While the climate sceptics the Coalition wants to mobilise are reading about the Bureau of Meteorology’s “dud El Niño drought call” in The Daily Telegraph, the CSIRO’s Jaci Brown warns of “compounding events” of extreme weather, pointing to the heatwaves, bushfires and floods in different parts of the country over recent weeks.

We are tired of the statistics, but last year was the hottest in recorded history. Exhausted scientists are again explaining that more heat means more water evaporates from the oceans, more of which can be carried in warmer air, and the interactions of these phenomena with others – such as the melting of the ice caps and breakdown of ocean currents – are impossible to predict. As Joëlle Gergis wrote recently in The Monthly: “If we are struggling to cope with the major disruption to society caused by the 1.2ºC of global warming we have experienced so far, then what will warming of 1.5 degrees, or 2 degrees, or 3 degrees or beyond bring?”

For a political partnership forged in the image of a tight budget and brawny defence, the Coalition has been ludicrously slow to recognise global heating for the existential threat that it is – and not only to this government. It’s not just this year’s budget that will bear the costs of repeated devastation, and climate-related disasters are exerting pressure on the Australian Defence Force that have “negatively affected force preparedness, readiness and combat effectiveness”, according to last year’s Defence Strategic Review.

And if Labor needs moral courage on climate policy, it might also consider the electoral value of the recent decline in inflation – a critical piece of its strategy to secure a second term. Research by the European Central Bank suggests rising temperatures could boost inflation worldwide by as much as 1 percentage point every year until 2035. Better to err on the side of ambition for that target.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "The pathetic and the fallacious".

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