Coal! Coal! Coal! for Australia, as bushfires and denial greet Olympic year


So much for the great Australian summer holidays. The apocalyptic vision and impacts of the brutal bushfires that have devastated large swathes of the country, and covered much of the rest in choking smoke, is accompanied by an unwanted record.

Australia begins the Olympic year of 2020 with the dispiriting discovery that the country is heating far more quickly than most of the rest of the planet.

In 2019, according to the Bureau of of Meteorology, the average temperature was 1.52°C above the average since 1910, outstripping the global average increase of around 1.0°C from pre-industrial levels. The average maximum temperature was 2.1°C higher. The average rainfall was nearly 10 below the previous record low.

This is putting Australia at the forefront, and on the podium, in experiencing what it means to live in a warming world. It’s bitterly ironic, because few other countries have profited as much – on a per capita basis – from the championing and burning of fossil fuels. Now it’s discovering the cost.

It should be an opportunity, many people hope, for the country to re-think its position its position on climate policy, and break the stranglehold of the climate deniers and the coal lobby. Don’t bet on it, not with this government.

“I used to believe that only catastrophes manifestly caused by climate change would break through the psychological walls of denial,” writes Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and a former board member of the Climate Change Authority.

“But I was mistaken. It’s now clear that the deniers would sooner see the whole country destroyed than admit they have been wrong.”

As Hamilton notes, the hope was that the bushfires that have dominated the lives of so many Australians, and captured the attention of the world, could mark a “turning point” in the debate.

But positions have been hardened rather than softened. Those who have been wanting action on climate change are dismayed that the impacts have arrived so powerfully, and so soon. On the other side, the denial that marked the rejection of climate science, the attacks on renewable energy and battery storage, has now deepened and shifted to the scale and cause of the bushfires themselves.

How else to explain prime minister Scott Morrison’s reluctance to link climate and bushfires in a meaningful way in the same sentence. As Morrison told radio 2GB late last week, he is “disappointed” that the bushfires had even been linked to climate change and climate policy.

Instead, he and the right wing media, prefer to focus on “hazard reduction” and “arson”. The NSW and Victoria fire authorities have downplayed both factors, and an ABC investigation found that just 1 per cent of the land mass burned in the recent bushfires could be attributed to arsonists.

Never mind, the right wing media and the fossil fuel industry are fond of the “one percent-ers”. It’s why they give such prominent billing to the tiny minority of nay-sayers and climate and technology deniers. It fits with both their ideology and their business models. And it explains the extraordinary efforts to misinform.

It is in the name of so-called “balance” that the Coalition and their backers would like to frame their climate policy. We need to balance the two extremes, they insist. We don’t want to listen to “fanatics”, says former PM John Howard.

And what are these two “extremes?”

On one side, the right wing nutters – encouraged and financed in many cases by the coal and oil lobbies – who claim climate change is a hoax. On the other side, the so-called “fanatics” are the overwhelming majority of scientists who say we must act now, and decisively, to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

In the face of scientific evidence, Australia’s pursuit of balance is not just lousy marketing spin, it is breathtakingly stupid.

Imagine driving a car at around 100kmh and being told there is a cliff ahead. Most people would take the advice and slow down, and come to a stop as quickly as they can. In climate policy, the Australian government is choosing instead to heed the conspiracy theorists who claim there is no cliff, and that it’s all just a hoax.

So they’ve chosen to take their foot off the accelerator and slow down only slightly, in the interests of “balance” and wanting to be seen to do something. In the case of a car driver, it is sheer madness. In the case of a government, whose decisions affect all, it is criminally insane.

But this is where Australia is headed. Morrison and his backers seek to justify this by insisting that they “are doing what they said we would do” before their recent election win. That does not excuse stupidity and ignorance.

Morrison insists Australia is doing more than most others because it is “beating” its targets. This ignores the fact that Australia’s targets are so low it has barely reduced emissions at all.

Many of the Kyoto credits it wants to use to meet its Paris commitments come from the first period of the Kyoto Protocol when Australia was allowed to increase emissions rather than cut them.

And even ignoring this accounting fraud, the question that I haven’t seen asked of Morrison or his Coalition ministers is that the experts say current policy settings will lock in average global warming of more than 3°C. How is that acceptable? Just how good will Australia’s way of life be under those circumstances, and why doesn’t the government seek to do better.

Yet Morrison ploughs on. “We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia,” he told 2GB.

What could be more job-destroying, and economy-wrecking – for agriculture, for tourism, and so many other industries, than 3°C of global warming. Morrison and his team have used the same language to describe Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target for 2030, but has now quietly embraced it to meet what little emissions reductions they will achieve over the next decade.

And Australia will reach 50 per cent renewables by 2030 with little or no additional effort. Or cost. It will likely save money, because that is the driving factor in the uptake of renewables by households, business and governments.

Australia is perfectly positioned to do so much more, which compounds the stupidity of its decision to do nothing. The Australian Energy Market Operator is outlining plans to show how the country can reach 90 per cent renewables by 2040. It can likely be achieved more quickly. The South Australia state Liberal government intends to reach “net 100 per cent” renewables as early as 2040.

Other policies hitherto described as “job and economy destroying” could also be readily adopted – the 50 per cent share of electric vehicles in new cars sales could be reached by encouraging fleet buyers, as Labor suggested.

Energy efficiency measures – in homes and buildings and vehicles – could save billions and deliver emissions reductions. So too, could a smarter approach to agriculture. But the government is too scared of the troglodytes in the Murdoch media to act.

Australia has an environmental interest in leading the world on emissions reductions, and arguing that other countries to follow, and an overwhelming economic one.

Just how many times must the likes of chief scientist Alan Finkel, economist Ross Garnaut, billionaires Mike Cannon-Brookes, Sanjeev Gupta, and even Andrew Forrest extol the huge economic benefits of huge solar arrays and the hydrogen economy before it dawns on the government that this is the future?

Will the bushfire crisis end up being a trigger point? Morrison’s plunge in the polls, thanks largely to his inept and tin-eared response to the crisis, and his lies about everything from his Hawaii holiday, to his emissions efforts and his conversations with bushfire victims, might prod him into action.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that the man that brought a lump of coal into parliament, hired the country’s two most senior coal lobbyists to his inner sanctum of advisors, made idiotic remarks about the Tesla big battery, and relies on Pentecostal teachings would be minded to change his tune, or even would be allowed to do so. So far, he has learned as little from scientists as he reportedly has from empathy coaches.

As futurist Damon Gameau, the producer and director of the film 2040, told me recently, it must have been just as dispiriting for those involved in the anti-slavery and suffragette movements. The same arguments of economic ruin were deployed then, and seemed insurmountable, but they won anyway. We just have to hope that the climate argument can be won too. We can’t afford not to.

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