Defence Minister Christopher Pyne recently gave us the benefit of his wisdom on the parlous state of Australian politics, doubting that it is any longer capable of acting for the long-term good of the nation. Prime Minister Morrison confirmed the truth of Pyne’s observation in his 11 February 2019 National Press Club speech on “Keeping Australians Safe and Secure”. A masterpiece of obfuscation and scaremongering.
The real security of the people should be the first priority of any government, but Morrison’s harangue on the dangers and national security threats confronting us was crude politics designed to instil a sense of dread in the voter, supposedly boosting the Coalition’s electoral prospects. His final punch line said it all: “We have embraced tough calls rather than seeking to buy weak compromises for the purposes of politics. It is why we are trusted.”
That is exactly what Federal governments of both persuasions for decades have not done, and why they are not trusted.
The speech was replete with references to the unprecedented weather disasters unfolding across the country this summer, paralleling similar events globally, but not a single mention of their cause: human-induced climate change.
Other dangers on Morrison’s list, such as terrorism, domestic violence, drugs and border protection are important, but pale into insignificance compared to climate change, which is by far the greatest threat to the security of Australians, and of humanity.
Despite repeated warnings, three decades of failed leadership and imagination by governments from John Howard onwards, at the dictat of the fossil fuel lobby, have created the frying pan which southern Australia is fast becoming, and the floods inundating the north.
Extreme events intensify, millions of fish die, scarce water disappears, cattle stocks are decimated and farmers wonder how they will survive. Many Australians have already lost their livelihood, and some their lives, as a result of the criminal negligence of our leaders in refusing to face up to the implications of climate change.
The science and evidence is crystal clear, as it has been for years. Climate change is now an immediate existential threat to humanity; a threat which will be irreversible, resulting in major population reduction, economic and social chaos unless carbon emissions are reduced on an emergency basis. The consequences have been seriously underestimated, for the end-point of our current emissions trajectory is the eradication of humanity as we know it, possibly within this century given the non-linear characteristics of climate impact.
The threat is immediate in that it is being locked in today by our insistence globally on expanding the use of fossil fuels when the carbon budget to stay below sensible temperature increase limits is already exhausted and emissions continue to grow.
Australia is particularly culpable in contributing to this suicidal rush to oblivion. While our domestic emissions are only 1.3 per cent of the global total, Australia is the world’s sixth largest carbon polluter when our exports are included, as they must be given the climate risks we now face; shortly to become the fourth largest polluter as our LNG exports increase.
We pride ourselves in punching above our weight in global affairs. But today, rather than the statesmanship of old, that translates, for the government, into grabbing as much of the fossil fuel market as we can for short-term economic, and electoral, advantage before the shutters come down on fossil fuel for good. In the process, by accelerating warming, Australia contributes to sacrificing the lives and futures of millions globally and at home. Other countries certainly have to do more, but the conservative rhetoric that we are an insignificant player in the global emission stakes, is utter nonsense. What Australia does seriously impacts the global climate.
The parallel with pre-WW2 Britain is uncanny. As Churchill put it:
“Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”
The emergency is now here, demands for action are gaining momentum and the steps are clear, but what does implementation require? Akin to wartime, it means the suspension of ‘business-as-usual’ – politically and corporately – to do whatever it takes to resolve the climate crisis.
It certainly does not mean developing new fossil fuel projects such as Adani in the Galilee Basin, Wandoan coal in Queensland, Bylong and Watermark coal in NSW, CSG and LNG expansion, NT and WA fracking, the list goes on.
It does mean massive societal and cultural change, and fundamental reframing of virtually every policy arena; climate, energy, foreign affairs, defence, health, immigration, agriculture to name but a few. The upside is that Australia has far greater potential to prosper in the low-carbon future than in the high-carbon past. But realizing that potential requires an all-encompassing commitment to a low-carbon emergency transition. Certainly there will be costs, but the costs of ignoring climate change and continuing our current denialist stance will be far greater.
This requires vastly different leadership from that currently on offer.
The Coalition is clearly incapable of changing. To propose in 2019 a re-badged and wholly inadequate Emission Reduction Fund, to meet similarly inadequate emission reduction targets, in the face of the disastrous climate events here and overseas in recent years, is utterly irresponsible.
Yet the ALP is not a realistic alternative. It sits on the fence over coal expansion such as Adani, preferring to offer a minimal target over climate policy to maximise its electoral prospects.
The days of such two-party adversarial game-playing are gone. In the face of existential climate risk, we need leaders prepared to honestly articulate those risks, and the path ahead without fear or favour to vested interests or political factions. People prepared to really embrace the toughest call of all, and to regain community trust.
This will require a government of national unity, incorporating the best politicians, administrators, community and corporate leaders from across the spectrum of Australian society. Something never seen before in this country – but that discussion needs to start now.
Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is co-author of What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk, and of the Club of Rome’s Climate Emergency Plan.