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Having outperformed the world in containing coronavirus, Australia’s lack of action on climate change will precipitate a much greater crisis. By Mike Seccombe.

Covid-19 saved Morrison, but climate is the real test

Last summer: A horse threatened by bushfires in the ACT in February.
Credit: Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

Patriotism, it appears, is the last refuge of the climate action sceptic. Witness the following example, given in response to a question from independent MP Zali Steggall on federal parliament’s last sitting day of the year.

Steggall, who won the formerly blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah from Tony Abbott by campaigning strongly on the need for Australia to do more to address climate change, asked Scott Morrison if it were true he would be denied a speaking spot at the United Nations’ Climate Ambition Summit “as a result of your government’s failure to commit to increase its ambitions”.

The correct answer was “yes”, but the prime minister did not say that. Instead, he resorted to bellicose nationalism.

“I can assure you of this: Australia’s climate and energy policy will be set here in Australia, in Australia’s national interests, not to get a speaking slot at some international summit,” Morrison said.

“… The only people I answer to in this place are the Australian people … Whatever country it may be that may seek to impose whatever position on this country, Australia’s policy will always remain sovereign within our borders and nowhere else.”

Whether he was invited to speak, he declared, was “not something that troubles me or concerns me one way or the other”.

Exactly a week earlier, the prime minister had responded to a question from Greens MP Adam Bandt, saying: “Indeed, we will be participating, and I have communicated as such to the prime minister of the United Kingdom. I look forward to participating…”

Now Morrison had been snubbed, just like the right-wing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who also sought a speaking slot and whose government’s ecocidal policies in the country’s rainforests saw him denied.

Seventy other countries, including Australia’s major trading partners and almost all the world’s developed nations, were on the list of speakers, because they had more ambitious climate goals to announce.

The fact Australia was left with only the recalcitrants for company – Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Turkey, Poland and the United States, not yet rid of Donald Trump – speaks to our increasing isolation in the world.

Some 70 per cent of Australia’s trade is now with countries that have set net zero goals. A number plan to get there before 2050.

No doubt it was in expectation of this humiliation that Morrison resorted to performative patriotism in parliament last week. But much of what he said was neither very accurate nor very new.

First, if his government were really answerable to the Australian people rather than vested interests, it already would have agreed to a more ambitious climate response. That’s what the overwhelming majority of people have long wanted, according to numerous surveys. An Essential poll from February, for example, showed 75 per cent of respondents supported a target of net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.

Second, last weekend’s climate summit did not seek to “impose” any policy position on Australia, or any other nation. All the speaker nations had upped their ambitions voluntarily, because they deemed it in their economic interest, as well as the global environmental interest, to do so.

Third, and most obviously, “sovereign borders” are irrelevant to climate change. No country can simply shut itself off from a warming climate, as Australia did in response to coronavirus and refugees.

Morrison has been advancing these arguments for a long time. He did it formally in a lecture at the Lowy Institute last October, where he decried what he called “negative globalism” that “coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community”.

“Only a national government, especially one accountable through the ballot box and the rule of law, can define its national interests,” Morrison said.

At the time of this speech, Australia was already several months into its horror summer of bushfires. Through that summer, as the fires worsened and more people raised the link between them and climate change, Morrison ran the same line in ever more aggressive terms.

It’s instructive to reflect on that time, which now seems an eternity ago given all that has happened since.

A good starting point is December 20, almost a year ago today. This was the day Morrison called through to Sydney’s 2GB, to end the confused speculation in the media, and prevarication from his staff, about his whereabouts and who was in charge of the country. On air, the prime minister confessed he was in Hawaii.

He was not at all apologetic for leaving the country ablaze and choking in the smoke of the Black Summer. Indeed, he sounded slightly irritated at demands he come home.

“I mean, if it was possible not to be where I was this week, well, maybe. But this had been arranged some time ago and that’s just how it was,” he told host John Stanley.

“… I know Australians understand this and they’ll be pleased I’m coming back, I’m sure. They know that, you know, I don’t hold a hose, mate…”

From there, things got worse for Morrison. Having returned to Australia, he toured the devastation and was filmed forcibly taking the hand of a young pregnant victim of the fires, who did not want to shake his, then walking away when she pleaded for increased government help. A firefighter also refused to shake his hand. Residents in the New South Wales town of Cobargo told him he was an “idiot” and “bloody dickhead” who “won’t be getting any votes down here”.

The prime minister denounced people who drew a causal link between the fires and climate change, including fellow Liberal Matt Kean, Environment and Energy minister in the Berejiklian government. Morrison repeatedly, belligerently defied those who called for a more ambitious policy to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching targets which are being sought,” he said during an interview on Channel Nine, two days before Christmas.

Australians proved to be far less forgiving than Morrison predicted on 2GB.

By January this year, his government was trailing Labor 51-49, according to Newspoll. The survey, taken between January 8 and 11, showed a dramatic plunge in people’s approval of Morrison’s performance. Just 37 per cent were satisfied; 59 per cent were dissatisfied. Anthony Albanese was the preferred prime minister by a margin of 43-39, an 18-point turnaround in just a month.

Australia’s fires made news around the world. The disconnect between the underlying cause – climate change – and the Morrison government’s response became a subject of international commentary. The Washington Post noted comparisons between Morrison’s intransigence and that of Donald Trump. On social media, footage of a firefighter in NSW went viral, showing the man leaning from his fire truck and angrily shouting: “Are you from the media? Tell the prime minister to go and get fucked.” The BBC ran a long piece speculating Morrison’s standing might never recover from his mishandling of the fires.

Morrison did recover, though. Coronavirus saved him. By April, he was again preferred prime minister, 53-29, and he has maintained a commanding lead ever since, although his government as a whole, beset by various scandals and issues of mismanagement through the year, has enjoyed only a narrow and fluctuating lead over the opposition.

This recounting of recent history underlines two points. The first is that political fortunes can change very fast. The second was strongly made by Niki Savva in The Australian – that “every time the story changes from COVID-19 to politics as usual, however briefly, the government flounders or falls short or character traits emerge that make people question [Morrison’s] capacity as well as his sincerity”.

There is no doubt the story is changing as the health threat recedes. A survey released this week by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute – based on a sample of 3000 people – found that while 63 per cent of respondents nominated the pandemic as the most important issue in July, the figure fell to 32 per cent in November. The focus is shifting to other issues, and no other issue is shifting faster than climate policy.

In the past few months, the denialist administration of Trump, which took the US out of the Paris Agreement, has been defeated. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has promised to re-engage with the climate accord on day one of his administration and convene a summit of leaders from the world’s major economies within his first 100 days. Biden has promised to spend $US2 trillion over four years to make buildings more energy efficient, and to invest heavily in public transport, electric vehicle manufacturing and charging infrastructure, as well as incentives for people to buy electric cars. Biden has committed to making US electricity production carbon-free by 2035 and to a national net zero emissions target by 2050.

Other nations are even more ambitious. A couple of weeks ago Britain’s Conservative government pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, relative to 1990 levels.

Britain was the first major economy to announce a target of net zero by 2050. That was last June, which shows how fast things are changing. Already the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are down to the equivalent of just under six tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita, per year. In Australia, one of the heaviest polluters in the world, the per capita figure is about 17 tonnes.

Furthermore, the British government announced its intention to remove subsidies for fossil fuel exports. Over the past four years, the government had provided support worth $A37 billion in the form of trade promotion and export finance for oil and gas exports. Before the end of 2021, that support will be scrapped. On December 11, the member states of the European Union agreed to cut net carbon emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 levels in the next decade. The deal was secured with the promise of billions of dollars in cross-subsidies to less wealthy, more fossil-fuel-dependent nations.

The EU also is working on a plan for a “border carbon adjustment” levy – that is, a tax on imports equal to any carbon tax imposed by a member state on its own industries. This would ensure countries with low or no carbon taxes – including Australia – do not enjoy a competitive advantage for their exports. It would also discourage dirty industries from trying to get around carbon taxes by moving offshore.

But the biggest threat to Australia’s fossil fuel industry and the government that seeks to protect it lies closer to home, says Richie Merzian, climate and energy director at The Australia Institute, and a former climate negotiator for Australia.

“The great majority of our coal and LNG [liquefied natural gas] go to three countries – China, South Korea and Japan,” he says. “They all now have net zero targets, and they’ve only done that in the past couple of months.”

Merzian says those targets – 2050 for Japan and South Korea and 2060 for China – send a powerful message to potential investors.

“It’s a signal. Why would anyone invest in a new coal-fired power station? That’d be crazy, right, because it has an operating life of 50 years.”

And why would anyone fund a new coal or gas project? Even before China blocked Australian coal exports, Merzian says, “we already had a glut of gas and a glut of coal”.

Oddly, considering a professed commitment to free markets, the Morrison government’s response to the reluctance of the private sector to invest in fossil fuels has been to threaten intervention.

This week, Resources Minister Keith Pitt called for a parliamentary inquiry into the “blacklisting” of fossil fuel projects by the finance sector, claiming moves by banks and insurers to reduce their exposure to the future risk posed by the move to renewables could be illegal.

This was not surprising coming from Pitt, a Queensland Nationals member and hardcore climate sceptic who has previously called for customers to boycott banks that didn’t lend for fossil fuel projects. The surprise was that Pitt was supported by the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

The proposal set off a dispute with more economically rational members of the Morrison government, including the chair of the house economics committee, Tim Wilson, and NSW senator Andrew Bragg, who both argued strongly against it.

Bragg, a former senior executive with the Financial Services Council and former executive director of the Business Council of Australia, told Sky News it was entirely legitimate for financial institutions “to measure long-term risk, including the risk of climate change” and invest accordingly.

Emma Herd, chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change, which represents members with more than $1 trillion in funds, says that if the government proceeds with the inquiry, it will face strong pushback from a “unity ticket” of big investors that are cognisant of legal obligations to manage their affairs in the best interests of shareholders.

“Whether it’s lending, banking, insurance or investment, or the financial regulators, or the advisory services or the accounting services – across the whole financial services sector, there is a broad acceptance of climate as a financial risk that needs to be managed accordingly,” Herd says.

When Covid-19 hit, she says, “the expectation was that companies might use it to pause in their climate response. That’s certainly what we saw in the wake of the GFC … a lot of corporates sort of parked their climate and environment programs for a couple of years to deal with the economic issue.”

Instead, the response to the Covid-19 economic crisis has been the “polar opposite”, she says. Rather than winding back their aspirations, the attitude has been: “When you’re taking big steps in response to big disruption, then there’s absolutely no reason to maintain an incrementalist approach to climate change.”

At the political level, too, many conservatives have reacted to this year’s pandemic by looking to a renewables-led recovery. As Richie Merzian notes, in Australia “the most ambitious states right now are Coalition states. NSW has the largest renewable energy plan. South Australia plans to get to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Tasmania intends to get to 200 per cent renewable energy by 2040.”

Indeed, the virus, in showing the benefit of fast action based on expert opinion, has bolstered advocates of a strong climate response.

The experts’ warnings are dire. The 2020 “State of the Climate” report by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology shows the Australian continent has warmed by an average 1.44 degrees since national records began to be kept in 1910. The rate of warming is increasing rapidly. Rainfall across the south-west of Australia in autumn and winter has fallen by 20 per cent since 1970, and it is down 12 per cent in the south-east since the late 1990s. The country’s north, meanwhile, is getting wetter.

There is more extreme weather to come: longer droughts, more devastating fires and bigger floods, like those seen in northern NSW this week. A warmer climate means greater evaporation. It also means the atmosphere can hold more water vapour – about 7 per cent more for every degree of warming. So, when it doesn’t rain, the land more quickly becomes parched and burns. And when it does rain, it pours, meaning devastating flooding will be a more common occurrence.

The costs of inaction – human, economic and political – was driven home to Australians by the Black Summer.

Emma Herd wishes our government would focus on the benefits of action.

“We have the resources, the technologies, the people, the capabilities, the trading relationships,” she says. “We have all the ingredients we need to be, in the next 100 years, in a net zero global economy, a winner.”

Zali Steggall finds some hope in Scott Morrison’s demonstrated propensity to sacrifice ideology for political advantage, and hopes he will ultimately join the global shift.

Because it’s in his interest – if he doesn’t want to be remembered as the bloke who was pictured fondling a lump of coal in parliament – to do something. And it is also in Australia’s interest, and the world’s.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Covid-19 saved Morrison, but climate is the real test".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.