How good is Australia’s climate leadership?
In short, appalling, as the recent disputes on the linkage between climate change, drought, water availability and bushfires confirm only too well.
No single weather event can be exclusively attributed to human-induced climate change. However it is patently obvious, from the basic science and evidence, that climate change is intensifying extreme weather events around the world. There is no doubt that it is contributing, directly or indirectly, to the extreme events that are currently impacting Australia.
From the unprecedented drought and bushfires, to the Townsville floods earlier this year, and the recent severe Sydney storm. To claim otherwise, whether as Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister or conservative media cheer-leader, demonstrates profound scientific and economic ignorance.
For three decades, attempts to use science, evidence and rational debate to gain political and corporate commitment to urgent action have failed abysmally in the face of massed fossil fuel interests, supposed “conservatism” and political self-interest – determined to preserve our high-carbon “status quo” whatever the cost to the community. Leaders have been repeatedly warned of the risks, but deliberately chosen to ignore them. We are now paying the price, with the Australian taxpayer and society picking up the bill for conservative ideological indulgence. Lives and livelihoods are being lost and impacts will get much worse, absent emergency action.
The Prime Minister continues the Coalition’s climate denialist mindset, and masterly inaction, initiated by John Howard in the late 1990s. He refused to attend the critical UN Climate Summit last September, subsequently lecturing the UN that “Australia is doing its bit on climate change”. He cannot bring himself to admit the linkage with extreme weather events.
Minister Taylor assures us that Australia has “a track record on climate of which all Australians can be proud”. In reality, the Australian government for years has deliberately set out to prevent any serious global climate agreement being reached. He tells us Australia will meet it wholly inadequate Paris emission reduction commitments “at a canter”, when it is patently obvious it will not, even including unused Kyoto carryover credits. The very fact that the government attempts to justify the use of these credits at the current UN Madrid COP25 climate meeting underlines its brazen denialism. John Howard extorted these credits, via the Australia Clause, by holding the world to ransom at the last minute in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations – unjustified then and absolutely unjustified now in the face of a climate emergency.
Emissions, we are told, are falling when they are going up. Minister Hawke insists the Australian government is doing “more than anyone else” on climate change. Minister Littleproud, in charge of drought and natural disasters, cannot make his mind up if climate change is even relevant to his responsibilities. Minister Canavan claims that expanding coal and gas use would be a sensible response to climate change, and refuses to plan for a transition away from fossil fuels. Minister Birmingham considers France’s push for Australia to adopt more realistic climate change targets, as part of an EU trade deal, as “unprecedented”, implying it would be contrary to the national interest.
So the propaganda ramps up, worthy of any totalitarian regime, completely ignoring reality, highlighting the absence of any credible climate and energy policy as ministers shoot from the hip for short-term electoral advantage.
Australia, on any objective measure, with its 26-28% emissions reduction target by 2030, in practice more than halved if unused Kyoto credits are applied, is abjectly failing to contribute its fair share to global climate action, as it has done consistently since the 1990s. Not just failing, but now adding fuel to the fire by attempting to massively expand coal and gas use when emissions must fall dramatically if even worse catastrophes are to be avoid than those already happening. We are not “just an inconsequential 1.3% of global emissions” as Ministers insist; if the government has its way, we will shortly be the third largest carbon polluter in the world, exports included which is the only realistic way of assessing our climate impact.
The Prime Minister’s knee-jerk response to mounting pressure for climate action is to invoke the perennial defence of national sovereignty to stop dastardly “global institutions” from interfering in our affairs. But climate change is a global problem, requiring unprecedented collective action. Without it, and without leaders capable of understanding that reality, we are headed for global and national collapse. Nobody is seeking to “elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states”. It is the nation states that are failing their communities.
The Opposition are little better, having made contradictory bets during the May election by claiming strong climate change credentials, yet simultaneously supporting development of Adani and other coal mine projects. Their post-election reversion to a pro-fossil fuel stance does not suggest strong climate leadership potential. Anthony Albanese’s latest support for the continuation of coal exports demonstrates profound ignorance of climate science, risk and energy markets, in the process doing nothing for the future prospects of coal miners.
But perhaps the best indicators of political leadership failure on climate change, are the recent antics of the National Party. Not content with the Prime Minister and Barnaby Joyce throwing a lump of coal around in parliament last year, at an executive dinner following their September 2019 Federal conference, a lump of coal in a glass jar, and a “Start Adani” tee shirt worn by self-proclaimed “Minister for Coal” Matt Canavan and Queensland Coal, were auctioned by Barnaby Joyce, no less. Great hilarity all around, just confirming the utter contempt in which this Government hold the Australian people as they grapple with the threat of climate change.
At the State level, the understanding of a climate emergency has yet to penetrate the fossil fuel States. NSW and Queensland are intent on massively expanding coal and CSG, likewise with LNG in WA. Environmental regulators in NSW and WA have exercised their independent mandates to stop some new coal mine development, and seek greater transparency in the handling Scope 3 (exported) emissions, partly in regard to climate change concerns given the absence of any realistic federal climate and energy policy. In both cases the State Government has moved to defuse these initiatives by proposing legal changes allowing unfettered fossil fuel expansion, confirming their ignorance of climate realities, and their subservience to fossil fuel interests.
Business attitudes toward climate change until recently, with a few notable exceptions, have followed, and frequently dictated, the Federal Government’s denialist stance. The resource sector in particular has done everything possible, for years, to prevent or slow the introduction of sensible climate policy, via lowest common denominator industry bodies such as the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the Institute of Public Affairs and so on.
The exceptions are companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto, who have taken far stronger climate action, but even they have yet to accept the reality of a climate emergency.
Attitudes are beginning to change. First, the legal implications, and liabilities, of ignoring climate risk are better understood, as emphasised by Kenneth Hayne. Second, investors are increasingly nervous about their exposure to carbon risk as the climate science and evidence evolves, and are moving away from fossil fuels. Third, Australian financial regulators, in common with their colleagues globally, are calling for far greater transparency on climate risk to avoid potential financial market collapse. Companies are increasingly complying with the voluntary recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Risk Disclosure, albeit at present most are reactive, rather than proactive, responses. Fourth, the competitiveness of low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels has vastly improved, bringing a range of new players into the arena, diluting the strangehold on government policy previously enjoyed by the resource industries, and spurring the transformation to a low-carbon world.
Perhaps most important, it is gradually dawning on corporate leaders that unless climate change is addressed urgently, social collapse will destroy the markets they rely upon for their prosperity.
All of which may result in more enlightened business leadership emerging, albeit not evident as yet. The resource sector continue to pursue rapid fossil fuel expansion, even though it is now clearly contrary to their own best interests, and to those of their shareholders.
Since the advent of the Howard government, the senior levels of the Australian Public Service have been progressively politicised and are now generally unwilling to offer free and frank advice, or to carry out work, that is contrary to the government’s desires. As a consequence, thinking that would have once been done about eventualities that may face the government is not being done well, especially in regard to climate change.
Hence the government has been caught off-guard, unprepared and playing catchup on key climate-related issues which will henceforth dominate the political agenda, including drought, bushfire risk and the Pacific.
Initiating work on climate change that is not specifically mandated by ministers is in general not occurring. Where it does happen, a key task is to ensure that it is not overtly identified as climate focussed. This is a particularly stark expression of the government’s denial on climate risks and how it has neutered public policy advice.
Likewise the security and intelligence community have not been on the front foot in regard to the implications of climate change for national security.
Department of the Environment Deputy Secretary Jo Evans demonstrated in a recent Senate Estimates hearing, in response to a question as to whether the climate situation was getting worse, the excruciating contortions which senior public servants are forced into by the government’s climate denial agenda.
The conservative media, notably the Murdoch press, have for years played a major climate denial role, which is becoming ever more hysterical as the prospect of serious climate action nears. The preparedness of newspapers such as The Australian to continually distort, obfuscate and undermine the climate science is completely at odds with any notion of responsible journalism. Which is complemented by the statement by Chairman Rupert Murdoch, in response to a question at the recent News Corp New York AGM, that “there are no climate deniers here”. From a corporate governance perspective, one of the most misleading and deceptive statements ever made by a listed company chairman.
Other media groups have taken a far more balanced approach, notably the ABC, The Guardian, Crikey and Fairfax prior to the Nine takeover. The Australian Financial Review on the other hand tends more to the Murdoch denialist line.
However, apart from The Guardian, they have yet to fully embrace the need for emergency action.
To conclude, it is patently obvious that the Australian political system, as represented by the two main parties, has left the country totally unprepared to face the impact of climate change. It does not have leaders who can be trusted to, or are capable of, managing the climate emergency domestically, let alone having the statesmanship required to contribute to global collective action. There is little chance of such leadership emerging, given the short-termist, adversarial nature of current politics.
On the other hand, the bureaucracy has many capable people who are currently constrained from addressing the climate emergency. They need to be freed up to do so
Business has been sitting on the fence re climate change for far too long. That is beginning to change, but not fast enough. Fossil fuel industry denialism and disruption of sensible climate policy must stop.
Strong media understanding of, and support for, emergency action is essential if it is to be successful. Not least to counter the malevolent influence of the Murdoch press.
Governance for the Climate Emergency
The first responsibility of any government, and opposition, is the security of the people they represent. Recent commentary by senior Coalition politicians from the Prime Minister down indicates that either they have absolutely no idea of the implications of the climate science, or they are deliberately ignoring those implications, prepared to put the immediate security of the Australian people, and their future prosperity, at grave risk.
If the former, they are in breach of their fiduciary responsibility to the community to understand the risks facing the country and to act honestly to address those risks. They have access to the best possible scientific advice; it is criminally irresponsible to ignore that advice, hiding behind denialist ideology, pretending the problem does not exist.
If the latter, they are morally and ethically bankrupt, prepared to sacrifice Australian lives and livelihoods in the interests of short-term political advantage, pressured by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and media. Given the increasingly hysterical political push-back from these interests as the time for emergency action arrives, this is the most likely explanation.
Having dug themselves a massive climate denialist hole, and lacking the honesty and integrity to climb out, they are now doubling down, determined to drag the rest of the community in with them. They assume that climate change is just another item on the political agenda which can be handled with the time-honoured process of wheeling and dealing for political advantage, which it patently cannot.
In confronting the greatest threat this country will ever experience, the unfortunate reality is that those managing the affairs of this nation have absolutely no interest in addressing that threat, or the capability to do so even if they chose. Further, investors and business, using current approaches, are not going to effectively contribute to managing the climate challenge in the limited time now available.
Most importantly in the climate context, an emergency implies acting early rather than later, otherwise mitigation becomes secondary to adaptation, as incumbencies throw their resources at managing symptoms, the climate impacts, rather than paying adequate attention to the underlying climate change cause . This would lead into a “death spiral” toward social collapse, as climate impacts escalate unconstrained. The beginnings of this can already be seen in responses around the world in the last few weeks as drought and bushfires enter uncharted territory. Australia and California, for example, are totally unprepared for the ferocity of the fires now being experienced.
The only way climate change can be addressed, domestically and globally, with any realistic chance of avoiding the worst impacts, is akin to a wartime response. In wartime:
- An over-riding issue is identified, a threat to national and/or human security, which has to be the absolute focus of national, and in this case, global activity. There is nothing more important.
- Climate change is now such an issue.
- To address it, the best possible expertise must be brought together in:
- A governance structure, possibly a government of national unity, comprising the best leadership from politics, business, finance, academia and community.
- A technical support framework, to identify and act upon the optimal solutions to the climate challenge
Obviously such changes are far from anything being contemplated officially. However, the existential, immediate nature of climate risk provides the catalyst to break through established denialist barriers, creating a new framework for action.
The government claims a mandate from the electorate for its supposed climate change policies as set out at the May 2019 election. In reality the government deliberately refused to articulate to the community the real implications of climate change. These were spelt out in numerous reports from the government’s own risk advisors, along with scientific advice, most recently in the various reports relating to the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework published in 2018/19. To quote, inter alia:
“The cost of disasters to society and the economy are growing and it is becoming increasingly apparent we need to urgently do more than change at the margin”
“Natural hazards intersecting with societies are not only possible, but are highly plausible, and their effect will likely exceed the capacity of the nation. The consequential damage, loss and suffering would be immense and enduring”.
The government ignored the advice; the costs to the community from this misleading and deceptive conduct are now in plain view as drought and bushfires escalate. The opposition likewise refused to articulate the real implications of climate change, whilst supporting the opening up of the Galilee Basin coal deposits which will heap further damage on the community.
Neither party has a mandate to destroy the future of Australian society, which is the implication of their current policies. Both have deliberately misled the people, and failed in their primary responsibility to ensure the security of the nation. For which there is no excuse.
When parliamentarians act in this irresponsible manner, they have no right to remain in office, even more so when the issue is the greatest threat facing the nation.
Accordingly, the Australian people must now demand that the responsibility for handling all matters relating to climate change be vested in a wartime governance structure as above. Constitutional advice on the mechanism for establishing such a structure would be required from the Governor General and other experts. Given the all-encompassing nature of climate action, this may mean both Government and Opposition stand aside in the interests of national security.
During their Christmas break, parliamentarians might contemplate why the best interests of constituents are now served by them stepping aside.
On Australian climate change leadership, Donald Horne is still right “—— most of its leaders so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. Indeed, but perhaps that might now change.
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”.