Fact-checking Morrison on climate change
On his first official trip as prime minister Scott Morrison set off on a “drought tour” of south-western Queensland, where for five years communities have been devastated by dry conditions. With Coalition MPs David Littleproud, Michael McCormack and Bridget McKenzie in tow, the prime minister visited the Tully family outside Quilpie – fifth-generation farmers who are struggling to raise their five kids. Asked by reporters about climate change and the long-running drought, Morrison acknowledged “the climate is changing” – a step forward in comparison with some of his predecessors – but dodged any potential link between that fact and his tinder dry surrounds.
“I don’t think people out here care one way or the other,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the issue … I know what you’re trying to ask, okay? I don’t think that’s part of this debate. That’s my point. If people want to have a debate about that, fine … It’s not a debate I’ve participated a lot in, in the past, because I’m practically interested in the policies that will address what is going on here, right now. I’m interested in getting people’s electricity prices down, and I’m not terribly interested in engaging in those sorts of debates at this point.”
A few days later, speaking at a Menzies Research Centre forum in Albury, New South Wales, Morrison suggested praying for rain. “I pray for that rain everywhere else around the country,” he said. “And I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain and to pray for our farmers. Please do that.”
This year is shaping up as the driest on record in NSW. Last Friday, the Department of the Environment and Energy released its latest emissions report, which confirmed that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising rather than falling. In the year to March 2018, Australia’s emissions were up 1.3 per cent, driven largely by gas production. This contradicts Morrison’s assertion that Australia is on track to hit its relatively unambitious 2030 target of cutting emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels.
When asked on the ABC’s Insiders program last weekend about Australia’s efforts to meet its Paris climate agreement targets, Morrison replied: “We’re going to meet those in a canter.” Yet even the government’s own modelling has us on track for a mere 5 per cent reduction by 2030. Perhaps Craig Kelly, a prominent Liberal backbencher, offered a more honest summary of his party’s stance on climate change when he said, “The climate was always dangerous. We didn’t make it dangerous, [and] it’s fossil fuels that protect us from that climate.”
The truth is that our emissions are increasing rather than decreasing, and there is no federal policy in place that seems capable of altering that. The Morrison government’s climate policy, or lack thereof, is stranding Australia as a global laggard. The Paris agreement on climate change takes a bottom-up approach in which nations pledge action, then increase their ambitions in subsequent negotiations. As things stand, the total impact of the existing pledges, if they are met, will see average global temperatures rise by about 3.3 degrees by 2100. This is far beyond the agreed target of 2 degrees or less, creating a world in which human life is severely threatened.
Almost everyone understands that without increased ambition we are headed towards catastrophe, which is why most economies are striving to deepen their emissions cuts. California, for example, has recently pledged to make its entire economy carbon neutral by 2045.
When asked further on Insiders about his climate policies, the prime minister pointed to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), which has been operating since 2012. He mentioned the Emissions Reduction Fund, Greg Hunt’s old “Direct Action” program, and the renewable energy target (RET), which John Howard introduced in 2001. All have long been in existence, or are about to end, or both. Some, particularly the CEFC and the RET, have achieved great things, but if they alone had the potential to turn things around, we would have seen the evidence by now. The truth is that since the repeal of the Gillard government’s carbon price, Australia’s emissions from burning fossil fuels have only increased.
Morrison boasted that “emissions per capita are at the lowest level in 28 years”, which is true. However, Australia’s emissions per capita remain among the highest on the planet. This drop has come about because Australia’s population has grown even more strongly than our emissions.
Despite Morrison’s attempts to cast climate change as a future problem, we are already seeing its effects. Global hunger has increased three years running – after previous sustained declines – because of extreme weather. Australians are becoming ever more aware of the impacts of climate change. Anyone who has dived on the Great Barrier Reef north of Townsville recently is likely to have seen the result of the first year-on-year coral bleaching events recorded: nearly 30 per cent of corals on the reef died as a result of the 2016 event, the worst the reef has ever experienced, and the bleaching event was at least 175 times more likely to occur due to intensifying climate change.
Polls show that most Australians want action on climate change, and many Australian industries want to clean up their act. Even the majority of politicians at council, state and federal levels seem to want more effective action on climate change. Many states and territories now have more ambitious targets than the federal government, including South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT (which is aiming for 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020). At the local level, more than 100 councils are now part of the Cities Power Partnership, a network of local governments and communities helping one another transition to clean power. Every farmer who hosts a wind turbine on their property receives about $10,000 of guaranteed income, regardless of drought, flood or fair season. And regional employment is being created by wind and solar farms.
But the truth is that we are acting very late in the day if we hope to avoid the worst of the looming climate impacts. The only way we can now avoid 1.5 degrees of warming, which on current trends will be felt by about 2040, is if we act immediately to develop means of sucking many gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. There are several ambitious initiatives in their early stages, including carbon engineering and ocean permaculture. Avoiding even 2 degrees of warming looks unlikely without these yet-to-be-scaled-up technologies. And, of course, we must ruthlessly cut emissions – the carbon dioxide we’re emitting today will reach its full warming potential in a few decades, and half of it will linger in the atmosphere for a century, while a quarter will be there until geological processes remove it over many millennia.
Australia has long relied on dodgy accounting in its reports on emissions under global agreements. Under the Kyoto Protocol, we argued that a slowing in land clearing justified the ongoing burning of fossil fuels, and we continue to conflate tree-planting with cutting fossil fuel use. In order to have Australia in the tent, our fellow Kyoto signatories accepted this. But fossil fuels have been held securely underground for tens of millions of years and would have stayed there had we not dug them up, while the carbon in vegetation was recently in the air and will revert to the atmosphere when the vegetation dies.
To make matters worse, unlike buried fossil fuels, carbon stored on land is vulnerable to being returned to the atmosphere, for example through bushfires, insect plagues and changes in land-clearing policies. For these reasons, we should account for fossil fuel use separately from land use and focus on fossil fuel use reduction as the priority.
We don’t have to look far into the future to see how truly bleak things could become unless we change course. The greenhouse gas that will make the 2020s a decade of more severe impacts, and that will turn the 2030s into a decade of increasing climate crisis, is already in the air and oceans.
This week, representatives from 135 countries met in the South Korean capital of Seoul for the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel considered a special report, three years in the making, about the impacts and challenges of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees in the next century. “This is one of the most important meetings in the IPCC’s history,” said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee. In a video message that opened the session, South Korean president Moon Jae-in said climate change posed a threat to the world and the global community needs to act. We have had no statement from Scott Morrison about the IPCC or the 1.5 degree report, which is set to be released next week.
Between now and 2050 we’ll need to transform our carbon-emitting economy into a carbon-absorbing one. That will require enormous investments in innovation across a wide array of technologies and sectors, from clean energy to seaweed aquaculture and carbon fibre production. With Morrison at the helm, we are headed towards a world where food security is diminishing, where drought is the new normal and where our basic requirements of shelter from the elements, water and food security increasingly hang in the balance. Time is now so very short to act that, if the rest of the world was performing as poorly as Australia is in reducing its emissions, all hope would already be lost.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Flannery: Checking Morrison on climate change ". Subscribe here.