As the Liberals rest on their climate laurels, Labor must bite the coal bullet

Jan 24, 2020

As the smoke from our bushfires circles the Earth and other developed countries admonish our indolence on climate change, we are deluding ourselves if we hope for government action on emissions.

Australians are now frightened and anxious, and minds have moved significantly to recognise our dismal future bestowed by government intransigence and denial.

The appalling bushfires and the preceding drought parented by a one-degree rise in temperature should have been a clarion call for the scientific certainty that now predicts two to four degrees if we and others don’t act.

It is not clutching at straws to ask what the opposition Labor Party can do to fill the two-year yawning gap till the next election – by then two of 10 vital years for fossil fuel reduction will have been wasted.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to limit the world temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, we need a coal phase out in economically developed countries (OECD) by 2030 and overall world total emissions need reducing by a daunting 9 per cent per annum.

To do this, world coal production must be reduced drastically.

There is now a general recognition that our current form of democracy is increasingly incapable of addressing the fast-moving and complex progress of the climate change emergency fast train.

We are helpless passengers on the slow train.

The overarching mantra of current parliamentary behaviour is the maintenance of party unity to ensure their power. Lives, wellbeing and health are often left behind in this quest.

The current role of opposition is to oppose and to expose the malfeasance of ministers on emission data, sporting grants etc, thereby positioning themselves for power by dragging down government credibility.

Should the opposition be playing a different more constructive role in this crisis?

Yes, it should, and it is possible under the present democratic system.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese expects to announce later this year a policy of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but must do much more about addressing the chastening task for 2030.

Labor has the brains and wordsmiths to educate the public, industry and a few receptive Coalition members on this deepening crisis.

This will enable many sectors to do what they can, recognising the task will become harder with every month that passes and some of these pressures will build for government action.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s mind is fossilised on coal and there will be no change in emissions reduction policy.

He said: “I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries.”

The Labor position on coal is also untenable and must change.

On domestic coal, pressure from other countries and trading partners will increase with the UK now coal-free and the German government’s plan to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2038, with $45 billion compensation.

Australia is the biggest exporter of coal worldwide; its annual coal exports total about $US47 billion.

The position of both parties on the export of coal is unconscionable.

It is the drug dealer’s position: ‘If I don’t supply it, someone else will, and our drug is cheaper and purer’.

Labor must sit down with scientists and economists, not just the coal industry.

They will find that other nations will supply at increased cost, and that coal and gas exports are delaying the vital transition to clean energy technology in some countries.

No time for denial

Labor has to accept coal is a health hazard nationally and internationally, and health costs and suffering cannot be ignored.

In adopting a similar position on coal, both parties are admitting that in our wealthy, advanced technological country they don’t have the will or ability to transition jobs.

There should be three proactive educative issues for Labor over the next 12 months; they are interrelated issues and deeply concerning to the public.

Firstly, for the next year, Labor’s small step must be to educate the public why their initial policy setting will be no new coal or gas mining;-

It will rescind its support for further gas mines in the Surat Basin and lower Bowen Basin where agricultural land and environmental sustainability is under threat.

It is difficult to accept that Labor also supports the expansion of such damaging industries in the Carmichael Basin and other regions.

Jobs not yet created are not jobs lost.

Secondly, Labor must address the abysmal standing of politicians for this will increasingly impair the future functioning of democracy.

The Australian National University study indicated only 25 per cent of the public trust the government. A stricter code of conduct must be developed akin to some professional organisations.

Honesty in presenting facts and transparency on all links and meetings of all politicians with representatives of the fossil fuel industries should be the starting point.

It is vital we know how much the prodigious infiltration of government by the fossil fuel industries extends to Labor.

Thirdly, a Commonwealth Integrity Commission is essential for the function of democracy.

Labor has not decided on its proposed format but it should be as defined by the National Integrity Commission.

This needs to be explained to the public repeatedly to begin the process of rehabilitation of democracy and the standing of politicians.

Labor must do much more to address the anguish and despair over government inaction by taking a few initial relevant steps to correct its harmful policies.

Dr David Shearman AM PhD FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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