Prime Minister Scott Morrison has appeared to downplay the importance of major international climate change agreements in a speech to the National Press Club, that further flags his intention to focus on treating the symptoms of climate change, rather than addressing the cause.
Morrison used his speech to outline how his government will respond to the ongoing bushfire crisis and renewed calls for the government to increase action on climate change by focusing on resilience and adaptation.
“This summer is the latest chapter in the often harsh realities of living in this amazing continent. Building our national resilience means building our ability to resist, absorb, accommodate, recover, and transform in the face of such events,” Morrison said.
“And this includes the effects of longer, hotter, drier summers. Practical action on mitigation through reduced emissions needs to go hand in hand with practical action on climate resilience and adaptation.”
Despite dedicating a substantial portion of his speech speaking about the Coalition government’s need to work to adapt and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change, Morrison offered no new commitments from the governments in terms of policy or funding.
The speech further signals an intention to focus attention on the responses to the impacts and symptoms of climate change, rather than taking preventative action by accelerating reductions in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging other countries to do the same.
“Even under the most ambitious global emissions reductions targets, mitigation and adaptation both contribute to resilience. Mitigation reduces the risk and adaptation is how we prepare for the climate risk we cannot reduce.”
“We have to give them the room to adjust and not cut off response options like in gas exploration and development that help them move forward. The answer is not more taxes, and increased global bureaucracy,” Morrison added.
While Morrison is adopting a new rhetoric, with a seemingly greater focus on building resilience to climate change fuelled disasters like bushfires and drought, the Coalition government has a long track record of cutting funding to climate change adaptation bodies.
The Coalition ceased funding to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility in 2017, a dedicated body established to examine how Australia can adapt to climate change. The Coalition also significantly cut funding to the CSIRO, leading to the science body cutting back its climate adaptation and resilience research.
A 2017 report from Deloitte Access Economics estimated that the average annual cost of natural disasters to the Australian economy in the decade to 2016 was $18.2 billion per year, or the equivalent to 1.2% of average gross domestic product. Deloitte expects the economic cost to grow to $39 billion per year on average by 2050, as the impacts of climate change continue to grow.
Despite this, in his speech Morrison suggested it was potentially futile for Australia to try and force other countries to reduce their emissions, and promoted the often repeated message of the coal lobby that Australia is doing the world a service by selling its coal to other countries.
“Of course, we know that Australia on its own cannot control the world’s climate as Australia accounts for just 1.3 per cent of global emissions. We also know that no fire event can be attributed to the actions of any one country on emissions reduction,” Morrison said.
“You will not reduce the number of coal-fired power stations in the world by forcing the shutdown of Australian coal mines in Australia and jobs that go with them,” Morrison added. “Other countries will just buy the coal from somewhere else, often poor quality with greater environmental and climate impacts.”
The National Press Club speech was Morrison’s first major speech of 2020, and the Prime Minister will hope it will help set the agenda before federal Parliament resumes in early February, after his leadership attracted immense scrutiny over a challenging summer for much of Australia.
It was a speech that was quickly slammed by environmental groups, who see the shift in focus from the Morrison government as being intended as a tactic to distract from the need to phase-out Australia’s coal industry.
“We know that climate change has exacerbated Australia’s current bushfire crisis, and yet the Prime Minister is now calling to add more fossil fuels to the fire,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s Dr Nikola Casule said.
“This is yet another move in a string of logic-defying false solutions to the climate crisis proposed by the Prime Minister, instead of meaningfully committing to reduce Australia’s emissions, which are driven by burning coal, oil and gas.”
“No amount of resilience building or adaptation will prepare Australia for the full brunt of global warming of 3 degrees or more – which is the trajectory we are on,” Australian Conservation Foundation’s climate change campaigner Suzanne Harter added.
Morrison appeared to question the value of global climate change agreements, like the Paris Agreement, reached in 2016, by suggesting they were too soft on some countries, and therefore it wasn’t worth Australia attempting to any additional heavy lifting to reduce global emissions.
“Agreements globally actually endorse massive increases in emissions, some from some of the world’s largest and growing economies. So understandably, this test the patience of people in countries like Australia, particularly in regional areas who asked the question, ‘why does their job have to be exported and their incomes exported to other countries?’, Morrison said.
“While global emissions under those arrangements are allowed to rise for so many, these contradictions and limitations need to be acknowledged.”
Underlining this, Morrison went on to praise the United States for the emissions reductions it has achieved, largely driven by a move towards gas away from coal, despite the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
“It’s worth noting that the United States has achieved higher rights of emissions reduction than many of the nations that are signatories to the Paris Agreement,” Morrison said.
“All of this is the climate action we need now, building dams, developing new crop varieties, improving planning for natural disasters is climate action now, the science tells us the effects of emissions already in the atmosphere will continue to be filled in coming decades,” Morrison told the National Press Club.
Morrison was greeted at the National Press Club by protesters from the Canberra University Students for Climate Justice, who called on the Prime Minister to ramp up the federal government’s efforts on climate change and clean energy.
“We need an immediate and rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Firefighting services and the cost of the recovery, including compensation for victims, should be paid for by the fossil fuel companies that caused this catastrophe,” coordinator Grace Hill said.