|Scott Morrison has a problem with climate change which reflects his style of governing.
He sees it as a political matter to be managed politically, not as an actual problem with the potential to cause severe problems in Australia in the relatively near term.
He does not view climate change as a reality that must be dealt with now and with strong, far-reaching measures. Rather, it is something to be managed by the application of least-perturbation decision making aimed at short-term electoral success.
This leaves him looking like a minimalist and not a leader in the face of a potential climate crisis brought on by rising temperatures, rising sea levels and greater extremes of weather. That Australians accept that climate change is real and problematic is not in doubt, and Morrison’s lagging of their world view has become apparent from public opinion polls. He is behind, following timidly. But he seeks to convince the electorate that he is up to speed with the rest of the world.
Morrison continues with the tired, indeed ludicrous trope that wind and solar generation are flawed when “the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”: in a big country, with many contrasting weather systems active at the same time, wind always abounds somewhere. Sunshine, meanwhile, is never more than hours away, and cloudiness does not persist indefinitely. The National Electricity Market’s grid covers half the country with a reticulation system connecting generation and consumption over great distances covering transitory weather systems. Moreover, batteries are increasingly being used to store electricity generated by power companies and roof-top solar systems. They provide backstops against lack of wind, cloudiness and night.
Morrison’s incantation of the line that the developing world must do more to reduce its emissions, while seemingly denying that wealthy nations like Australia (its per capita emissions already more than three times the global average) have more capacity for reductions, is deaf to a reality that the electorate has come to understand. We have room for improvement; that is less true of third world countries seeking living standards to match those in the wealthier nations. The problem is global, but the first world must lead in the response ─ which requires leadership from the first world. Australia’s Prime Minister, it seems, will not be part of this leadership.
Morrison has been known to mock climate change, as when he brought a lump of coal to Parliament with the exhortation that MPs not be fearful of it. His government backs dozens of proposals for new or expanded coal mines and gas-extracting initiatives and subsidises them generously, and it harbours climate change deniers and enthusiasts for coal-powered electricity generation who decry the subsidies provided to renewables. It steadfastly ignores organisations, like the New South Wales Independent Planning Commission and the same state’s Land and Environment Court, whose judgements have sought to curtail the further development of fossil fuel extraction.
Morrison’s performance at Glasgow 2021, having dragged his National Party coalition partners to a reluctant acceptance of the goal of ‘net zero by 2050’ (which already looks too little and too late) was embarrassing. He also finds himself increasingly sidelined when companies advise that they will close coal-fired power stations ahead of schedule, and he is wedged by his own rhetoric when a “can-do capitalist” like Mike Cannon-Brookes seeks to buy out such a station (Eraring, on the New South Wales Central Coast) and replace it with renewable generation. He lags behind business as well as public opinion.
The Prime Minister is deaf, too, to the warnings that climate change underlain by increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is producing greater extremes of weather and leading to more severe bush fires and floods. This is a complex matter, given the difficulty of measuring impacts accurately and consistently over time. Nevertheless fire seasons are clearly becoming longer in both hemispheres. Worldwide, property losses to wildfires are growing alarmingly.
The Australian problem with floods is born of the legacy of past development on floodplains, going back to the nineteenth century and added to by continuing development in flood-liable locations especially in Brisbane and Sydney. Climate change is an intensifier of the problems of exposure to flooding that we are still creating. This too has been noted in other countries.
As to causation, it is clear and well understood that the atmosphere is warming. Ice sheets and glaciers in both the Arctic and the Antarctic are melting, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour which is available to be triggered as rain ─ leading to greater concentrations of falls in events of high intensity. The rate of sea level rise is increasing, which cannot do other than intensify coastal flooding and erosion.
None of this is ‘fringe’: it is all well demonstrated empirically. Worse yet, the trends ─ including the trend towards higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere ─ have momentum. They are not about to cease or be reversed.
In mid-March, an organisation known as Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), comprising a large number of former fire and emergency chiefs from all the Australian states and territories, called a media conference in Brisbane. Widely reported, ELCA excoriated the Morrison government for its tardiness on climate action and its failure to react to forecasts of disastrous fire seasons and severe floods likely exacerbated by climate change.
Morrison, in reply, dismissively called ELCA “misinformed”. Yet he had called for a briefing by Emergency Management Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology that warned his cabinet in November 2021 about the likelihood of severe floods during the summer now past. These floods duly occurred in Queensland and New South Wales.
It looked almost as though the briefing he had sought was in his mind the action needed. He had not connected the warnings he had been given to the emissions contributing to climate change and needing to be radically reduced. To excuse the inaction, he used the fact that nobody involved in the briefing to Cabinet had predicted “one-in-500-year” floods. This was a complete non sequitur.
Morrison’s was the small picture not the big one, the minimalist reaction not one that suggested a recognition of the problem of climate change. In his more than three years as Prime Minister, he has done little to act on the climate change ELCA was concerned about. The same organisation had sought to warn Morrison in advance of the disastrous bush fire season of 2019-20. His response was to ignore ELCA’s entreaties and refuse to meet an ELCA delegation.
The time may be coming when the world insists that the major coal-producing nations, of which Australia is one, steadily reduce the amount of coal they mine and gradually phase it out as a significant element in power generation and industry. The world could require, on pain of sanctions and carbon tariffs at borders, verifiable targets to be set and met. Bold, hard government decisions would be needed, but they are too hard, too long-term, and too far beyond the electoral cycle for Morrison to deem them worthy of his attention. Indeed, his government seems to be encouraging as much mining of our coal as possible before international pressure makes it problematic.
Morrison ignores the public, business leaders, scientific experts and emergency managers. He and his government do not take climate change seriously. Now he is about to face an electorate which ‘gets’ the big picture. Is this his Achilles heel?
Chas Keys is a former academic and emergency management practitioner who was the Deputy Director General of the New South Wales State Emergency Service from 1997 to 2004. He is a member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.