Climate of unreality: time to call out the National Party

Oct 26, 2021
Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce
Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The Nationals have done a disservice to the farmers they claim to champion. They cannot be allowed to lead Australia’s response to the climate catastrophe.

As the time for real climate action arrived, it was inevitable that the denialist lobby would become ever more hysterical. But the tantrums erupting from the National Party deserve special examination.

Leader Barnaby Joyce insists he will not be forced into a corner in making any commitment to a net zero emissions by 2050 target. He demands to know the plan to get us there, more time to consider it, and certainly could not contemplate any commitment to earlier emission reductions by 2030.

All this despite the fact that he is the deputy prime minister, along with several other National Party ministers, in the cabinet of a government that is responsible for developing said plan. They are paid to act in the interests of the nation, not simply the rural and mining constituencies they claim to represent. The latter seems to be the way the Morrison cabinet in general understand their ministerial responsibilities, which is why Australian democracy is in deep trouble.

The Nationals have had three decades to get their heads around the fact that climate change is real, is accelerating, and is now causing escalating damage across Australia, particularly to their supposed constituencies. To claim they need more time, one week out from one of the most important global meeting of the century, is a complete abrogation of their fiduciary responsibilities to the Australian community.

The farmers and coal miners do deserve special consideration in making the transition to the low carbon future, but for exactly the opposite reasons the Nationals would have us believe.

To claim that farmers have been disadvantaged by climate policy such as the Kyoto Protocol, and should be compensated for their loss, is nonsense. The only reason the government can crow about the fact that it might meet its wholly inadequate 2030 emission reduction target goes right back to the negotiation of the original Kyoto deal in 1997. At the last minute, the Howard government held the rest of the world to ransom, demanding that Australia be allowed to increase its emissions in the 2008-12 initial Kyoto commitment period by 8 per cent compared to the 1990 baseline, when virtually every other country agreed to a reduction.

Second, Australia’s land use emissions were included in the calculations of total greenhouse gas emissions. This became the notorious Australia Clause, an even greater free kick for the government, which was well aware that land clearing had peaked in 1990 and subsequently dropped sharply to 1997. This allowed Australia to increase its fossil fuel emissions by 28 per cent to 2012 and still meet its Kyoto target. It removed any incentive for Australian business to initiate climate action, inter alia triggering the migration of much of our embryonic renewables manufacturing industry to China. One of the most stupid strategic decisions Australia ever made.

That land clearing, apparently the basis for the Nationals’ claim for compensation, all occurred prior to the signature of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and had nothing to do with climate policy; hence no basis for compensation. A similar, but lower, land clearing peak occurred in 2005, the subsequent drop disguising the rise in our other emissions until Covid hit in 2020, giving the lie to Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor’s continual harangue that “we are beating the world in emission reductions”.

What the Nationals ignore is that the world is now facing not just climate change, but an equally serious biodiversity crisis, with Australia again one of the worst performers. The latter has been caused largely by inappropriate development and agricultural practices, going back way before Federation. The combined effect of these two crises on land degradation in recent decades has been dramatic, with increasing parts of Australia becoming marginally productive. Fortunately, farmers themselves have realised that practices must change and have been adopting regenerative farming techniques which are also an essential part of sensible climate policy.

While some good outcomes have occurred in Australia to address both crises, it is in spite of, not because of, government policy. Continual government climate denial, particularly from the Nationals, and their failure to implement realistic climate and biodiversity policies has already cost the agricultural community dearly, and worse is locked in. Rather than Orwellian claims for compensation, the Nationals should be demanding rapid emission reductions by 2030 to prevent climate impacts escalating further.

Coal-mining communities are rightly concerned about the implications of climate change. Here again, there has been no attempt by the Nationals to foster any sensible discussion around that future. Quite the reverse. Backbencher Matt Canavan has been insistent that there should be no such discussion because, in his view, coal is going to be with us ad infinitum.

The reality, from any credible source globally, is that coal use is on the way out. It will not disappear instantly. Thermal coal will exit first, with coking coal taking longer until alternative technologies are available. There may well be short-term fluctuations in demand as countries grapple with their individual emission reduction challenges, but the trend is clear. It is also clear that alternative jobs are rapidly becoming available in regional areas that suit the skills of coal miners.

The climate denialist hype from the likes of Taylor and Canavan, is grossly irresponsible, as coal communities are being left totally unprepared for changes which are now inevitable. Many people will be badly hurt unless sensible and fair transition planning is implemented rapidly.  Again, the Nationals are a large part of the problem, rather than climate policy

Indeed, one wonders why the Nationals are making such a fuss about committing to net zero emissions by 2050 when Taylor has already set up faux climate policies which would give them everything they want in terms of expanding coal and gas use.

Ministers David Littleproud and Keith Pitt urge city dwellers to understand the implications of new climate policy for rural communities and the coal miners. But they carefully avoid any reference to the fact that the entire Australian community is now under threat from escalating climate impacts, made far worse by the intransigence of the Nationals in accepting and acting upon the realities of climate change.

As senators Bridget McKenzie and Canavan put it so delicately, “it will be ugly” if the Nats wishes are ignored. Things got ugly long ago for many people already living out the realities of climate-related bushfires and floods.

Time for the government to call out the Nationals and commit to the net zero emission reduction by 2030 of at least 60 per cent that we really require. But that means leadership, of which there is none in sight. Instead we have a bunch of market fundamentalists transfixed in the headlights, scared to face the future hurtling down the track because their ideology no longer works.

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