Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM’s clouded judgement on climate

On a day when thick, acrid smoke made Australia’s largest city virtually uninhabitable, the prime minister claimed climate policy success. Scott Morrison told a news conference – which had been called not to respond to the crisis but to discuss the freedom of religions to discriminate – that “our actions on climate change are getting the results they’re intended to get”. No one could miss the irony.

Not so sanguine was the New South Wales Environment minister, Matt Kean. He told the National Smart Energy Summit in Sydney, “This is not normal and doing nothing is not a solution.” The Sydney smoke was so “not normal” it made headlines around the world.

And it’s little wonder. The smoke degraded the city’s air quality to more than 11 times hazardous levels – worse than Beijing or Delhi. It was Sydney’s worst day on record for smoke haze. Thousands of workers were forced to abandon construction sites. Schools were closed; excursions and sporting events were cancelled. Harbour ferry services were halted because poor visibility made them unsafe. The NSW Rural Fire Service’s headquarters in Sydney, like dozens of other buildings, were evacuated when their fire alarms were activated. The city has had more days of health-hazardous pollution in the past month than in any previous six-month period.

Kean said no one could deny that climate change is to blame for the dense haze choking Sydney and the mega-bushfires across the state. These conditions were “exactly what the scientists have warned us would happen … Longer drier periods, resulting in more drought and bushfire.” He said, “If this is not a catalyst for change, then I don’t know what is.” One Labor insider says the message from voters – including the Liberal base – must have been pretty bad for the state minister from the Liberal Berejiklian government to be so upfront.

Kean made no pretence that we are doing enough to ameliorate the situation. Unlike his federal Liberal counterparts, he spoke of the need to take “urgent action” and to have a “meaningful discussion about the causes and what we need to do to fix it”. That discussion cannot allow “ideology and politics” to get in the way, he said. “We need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately, and we need to adapt our practices to deal with this kind of weather becoming the new normal.”

He certainly hit a raw nerve. The prime minister’s office went into damage control, pointing out to journalists that Morrison had also previously highlighted the link between bushfires and climate change. But their evidence for this only highlighted how reluctant Morrison is to actually put the words “climate change” and “bushfires” in the same sentence. When asked about it on ABC Radio’s AM last month he said, “In February I acknowledged the contribution of those factors to what was happening in Australia, amongst many other issues.” Back in February, at the National Press Club, he had said, “I acknowledge it’s a factor, of course it is. Australians do – the vast majority of Australians.”

Kean is a member of the Liberals’ dominant moderate faction in NSW, as is former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. They were singing off the same song sheet this week, dramatically exposing the failure of their Canberra colleagues to show the sort of national leadership the country so desperately needs. Turnbull said Australia’s emergency response structure was no longer fit for purpose. On Monday’s episode of Q&A he said that Australia’s emergency management needs to be restructured because the threat is a “national security issue”.

Morrison doesn’t agree at all. He simply refuses to acknowledge that the nation is in the grip of catastrophic fires exacerbated by climate change – or that urgent action is needed over and above what is already in place. He is still refusing to meet 22 former senior emergency service leaders who have a very different appraisal of the situation. On Tuesday, he brushed aside reports that a majority of the 2700 firefighters in the field were volunteers, forgoing income for weeks and crowdfunding for food and water on the ground. It’s a state government problem, the prime minister said, and the states haven’t asked for help. Besides, said Morrison, the volunteers “want to be there” protecting their communities.

Maybe it’s Morrison’s idea of stable and sensible government, but it didn’t impress economist Richard Denniss. In a terse tweet, he summed up the prime minister’s default reaction, saying his denial of the need to do more for bushfires was “consistent with his denial of the need to stimulate the economy, reduce emissions or fight corruption in Canberra. His government isn’t just post-truth, it’s post-governing.”

A no less scathing assessment was visited upon Australia’s performance on climate through the latest Climate Change Performance Index. In the area of climate policy, Australia is now ranked last in the world, with a score of 0.0. The authors of the index wrote, “Australia receives the lowest rating in this year’s climate policy rating as experts observe that the newly elected government has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels.”

The index was released this week as Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor claimed at the United Nations climate conference in Madrid, COP25, that Australia is leading the world, especially in renewables investment. Labor says this claim is based on dodgy numbers and manipulated time frames. Taylor, though, is not so confident Australia can reach its 2030 emissions reduction target of 26-28 per cent without fiddling with the books. At COP25, he is arguing for the use of so-called carryover credits, earned for overshooting our extremely modest Kyoto commitment of a 5 per cent reduction in emissions from 2000 to 2020.

You don’t have to look far to find why this emperor has no clothes. The government’s own emissions reduction projections, released late last Friday by the Department of the Environment and Energy, show a projected cut in emissions of just 4 per cent over the entire decade of the 2020s. The latest quarterly update shows we have reduced our national emissions for the year to June 2019 by 0.1 per cent. The shadow minister for Climate Change and Energy, Mark Butler, says, “At this annual rate, it will take 217 years for the government to reach its 2030 emission reduction target.”

Taylor told the Madrid conference, “The world needs action to reduce emissions and Australia believes technology is central to achieving this. We can only reduce emissions as fast as the deployment of commercially viable technology allows. This means we need to get the right technology to the marketplace when and where it is needed.” It’s an admission that there are still many taboos in Australia: a price on carbon; tackling vehicle emissions, which account for almost 20 per cent of our emissions; and other greenhouse gases, for example in car refrigerants.

Taylor, of course, is widely identified with the group in the Liberals and Nationals that Turnbull says denies the reality of climate change. Though Taylor and Morrison now have to pretend otherwise, their failure to take significant action betrays how roiled the government is on the issue. This policy paralysis will be a political death wish if it isn’t resolved before the next election. The confluence of events seen in the lead-up to the Coalition’s 2007 election loss is back with a vengeance. This time the severe drought and the unprecedented size and intensity of the fires have seared the reality of climate change into public opinion.

The challenge is no less urgent for Labor, and no less fraught. Anthony Albanese has embarked on the risky task of reshaping the debate. He spent the week in Queensland attempting to win back the minds and hearts of traditional Labor voters who deserted the party in droves, especially in seats that rely on coalmining. While Bill Shorten, according to the Australian National University’s election study, did well on the environment, he didn’t have enough credibility with a significant swath of his hitherto blue-collar base. He couldn’t assure them he could deliver their economic security.

Albanese knows he can’t remedy this doubt by capitulating on climate change action. So instead he is arguing he can have policies that will look after the coal sector – predominantly an export industry – while also having strong ambitions for domestic emissions reduction.

Queensland senator Murray Watt was the Labor leader’s sidekick on what looked like mission impossible. Watt told the ABC’s RN Breakfast that Labor’s position is to show “support for strong international agreements to reduce carbon pollution globally and also to deliver much lower emissions domestically”. He said the export of coal at the same time is not contradictory because it is up to each country to decide how it will reach its emissions reduction targets. So, Australia exporting coal is similar to Japan exporting cars that run on fossil fuels. Our trade partners are held responsible for the emissions the coal produces, just as Australia is responsible for its imported vehicle emissions.

Labor accepts the only hope for the planet’s survival is the Paris Climate Conference target of net zero emissions by 2050. Zealots often miss the word “net”, and Labor could be attacked from the right and the Green left for being half-baked. Even so, to get to global net zero, our foreign coal customers – just like us – will have to work much harder on transitioning away from such heavy fossil fuel reliance.

If not, the smoky scenes from Sydney on Tuesday will be but a taste of a very grim future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Smoke exposes PM’s clouded judgement". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.