GEORGE BROWNING. Australia’s two personalities-pandemic and climate change

May 30, 2020

In recent domestic policy and international engagement Australia is demonstrating two contrasting personalities. One is demonstrated through our response to COVID 19 and the other through our troubled inability to form responsible climate and energy policy. Why do we have two personalities?

Australia rightly deserves praise for its handling of the COVID 19 crisis. The creation of a national cabinet across political ideology, was a brilliant strategy. Ensuring that national response was driven by scientific advice was critical. Linking economic revival to success on the health front has been vital to stem populist right wing views that the economy must come first. (The result of this false dichotomy is all too tragically clear in the US where both the nation’s health and economy are pitiable).

The role of PM, Health Ministers, Premiers, Medical officers has been praise-worthy. This combined leadership has saved Australia’s frontline health workers from what would otherwise have been a catastrophic situation. Sure, we were not as prepared as we should have been, essential personal protection equipment was frighteningly scarce, but strong leadership has enabled good fortune.

Transporting this domestic good work into the international arena has seen Australia take a major lead in the establishment of an independent investigation into the origins and management of the pandemic. Marise Payne has come into strong criticism for acting pre-emptively, and causing grief to Australia’s China export market. But surely China’s response has justified the action. China is a bully. Its domestic human rights record is shameful. Are we to endure a world in which China treats the rest of the global population as suppliants, with hands outstretched in gratitude to receive meagre gifts? The language and threats emanating from the Chinese ambassador to Australia were outrageous, and indefensible. No, the behaviour of bullies should not be tolerated.

Clearly Australia played a major role in achieving a resolution, ultimately signed by China, which asks for this investigation to occur as soon as possible. It is not independent of the WHO, as Australia may have originally liked, but having 145 nations co-sponsor, has been a remarkable achievement. In light of failed leadership from the US and China, middle powers have stood up and achieved an outcome in the best interests of the globe. (Is this a hopeful sign of the future, given the chaos of the US and China’s belligerence)? There needs to be an investigation, not to apportion blame, or punish, but to learn and hopefully prevent such a pandemic repeating itself in the future. Not to have had an investigation would have been utterly irresponsible.

In the pandemic context Australia has stepped up and taken a leading role. In the context of the globe’s even more serious crisis, global warming, Australia has not only failed to lead, but has done its best to be a wrecker of global consensus. Australia is consistently ranked as one of the worst performers in terms of Climate Change policy, 56th out of 61 countries. Last year Australia was linked with Brazil and the US as one of the three nations who have probably caused the door to be closed on a hoped-for restriction on global warming to 1.5 degrees. Our actions will prove to have been a major contributor to this failure and the cost that will be borne by future generations. Given all the opportunities we have on this continent to move away from fossil fuels, with the concomitant chance to grow a more vibrant, regionally based, technologically diverse economy, our behaviour can only be described as grossly irresponsible.

Unlike our response to COVID 19, we have refused to follow scientific advice. A mockery has been made of modelling, the very technique that has enabled us to respond so well in face of the pandemic. Those who watched Four Corners on Monday night, 18 May, will have observed the pain and dismay of senior scientists and bureaucrats who lived through the wasted decades of Australia’s political infighting on this matter. Australia’s lack of energy policy must rank as the worst and most costly policy disaster of our lifetime. That any doubt may still linger that this malaise was driven by ideological absurdity, not by rationality, science, or even the hoped for good of the nation, we need simply to be reminded that Tony Abbot called talk of environmental responsibility – socialism.

And now we have been offered Angus Taylor’s “technological road map”. Yes, coal is missing and, at last, there appears to be an assumption that science is right. So what is the problem?

The problem lies with the objective. The objective with the COVID 19 response was to immediately ‘flatten the curve’. What should the objective be here? It should be similar, to flatten the curve of global warming and the emissions that underlie it, as quickly as possible. Is that objective clear? On the contrary. We have still refused to rule out the use of our so called ‘Kyoto credits’. We are still refusing to lift our 26 percent reduction target by 2030. Science makes it clear that zero by 2050 will be too late, there will already be too much carbon in the atmosphere. We are setting ourselves an impossible task of meeting our obligations. Taylor’s objective remains to further Australia’s business interests without setting those interests into the context of emission reduction urgency.

Angus Taylor is not surrounding himself with the best scientists, but with captains of industry, especially the mining industry.

Angus Taylor, nothing less will suffice than setting emission targets toward net zero by the 2040’s and encouraging the flourishing of Australia’s business interests in that context. If this is done, we will not be transitioning through uncertain decades of attempted carbon sequestration from gas. Hydrogen may well be the go-to energy of the future , but it must be extracted using renewable energy sources. Because there has been no cogent climate policy, we no longer have the luxury of transition periods. Had we adopted a policy guided by science when John Howard first came to power in 1996 it would be a different matter.

Business has consistently made it clear that they can live with targets. As long as they are consistent, investment can be made on their basis. It is therefore infuriating that government still refuses to regulate a platform upon which this can become a reality. Science has not failed us. Independent public servants with the good of the country at heart have not failed us. Politics and politicians have failed us.

Facing the COVID 19 pandemic politicians across party-lines have stood up and done what politicians are paid to do, lead, and regulate. Why is this so difficult in climate and energy policy?

Energy and climate policy require the same: politicians who will stand up, lead, and regulate. A pathway festooned with already known technologies into an indefinite and undefined future is not enough. We know what we need to do, and the timeframe in which we must do it. Earn your pay and lead with this objective in mind.

George Browning is a retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. His doctorate explores Christian faith in the context of environmental responsibility.

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