The price of ignorance

As you read through the latest intergenerational report, the section on climate change stands out for the simple reason that it contains no projections. The numbers exist, just as they do for population growth and productivity, but they are not included. The Saturday Paper understands Treasury was pressured by the Morrison government to leave them out.

It is an extraordinary intervention into what is supposed to be an independent document, one that prepares for the country’s future over the next 40 years. It speaks of a government that thinks it can trick its way past expertise. Somehow, if it’s not written down it’s not true. This is the same government that thinks pressure can rewrite advice on the vaccine rollout or the Great Barrier Reef. It believes there is always some form of words that can make the illusory real.

Treasury pushed ahead with the clearest warning it could, stripped of numbers or estimates. “Climate change presents a significant challenge to the natural environment,” the report says. “Rising global temperatures and other changes to the climate will affect locations, sectors and communities in diverse ways driving both structural adjustments and corresponding innovation. Connecting innovation and investment in climate-resilient development can significantly increase the adaptive capacity of our regions, towns and cities. Such solutions will require effective action by governments, businesses and communities, to keep the economy strong now and into the future. Mitigation efforts will require a step-change in innovation and global collaboration to make new energy technologies commercial and scalable.”

A step-change is unlikely from a government that can scarcely agree climate change is happening. This week it emerged that Australia has increased subsidies for fossil fuels by 48 per cent since signing the Paris Agreement. This is more than any other country in the G20. It represents about $52 billion.

The same government argued in a court filing released this week that it is not responsible for the future of the country’s children. Appealing a decision that found Environment Minister Sussan Ley had a duty of care to young people affected by climate change, the government’s lawyers wrote: “The primary judge erred in finding that the minister owed a duty to take reasonable care ... to avoid causing personal injury or death to persons who were under 18 years of age ... arising from emissions of carbon dioxide.”

In this appeal the government is saying aloud what its actions have always quietly indicated: we don’t care about you. We don’t care about the future because we can’t imagine it. This is a government that would sooner admit its indifference than face its responsibilities. It is a government whose moral authority will be spent fighting schoolchildren in front of various judges.

At the weekend, the deputy prime minister described action on climate change as ordering from a menu without prices. “They don’t care what is the price,” Barnaby Joyce said, “and when what turns up is sautéed gherkins and sashimi tadpoles, they’ll accept anything for lunch.”

The prices are there, however. They would have been in the intergenerational report had the government not whited over them, or forced Treasury to. This fear of the truth is really a fear of the future, and it will destroy the country unless it is confronted.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 24, 2021 as "The price of ignorance".

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