The current bushfires are unprecedented in terms of their extent, intensity, fire season length, economic and social impact. They are, without doubt, intensified by human-induced climate change.
However, they are not unexpected; this is what the climate science has been telling us for years. Likewise with the drought. The fact that these warnings have been ignored by government has left the country totally unprepared to handle these disasters.
Once the initial shock at the size and speed of the fires passed, emergency action kicked-in, providing late but welcome assistance to the volunteers who have been battling fires since September. This is what Australia does well, once the decision is made, and it must be an absolute priority.
But the equally important debate around the linkage between drought, bushfires and climate change has sunk back into the swamp of government denial and diversionary tactics which created this disaster in the first place. The overwhelming evidence is that these issues are all linked. Weasel words from the Prime Minister that the links had always been obvious, were immediately negated by his underwhelming commitment to “evolve” his inadequate climate policy. In short, nothing will change, hopefully concerns will ease as the summer progresses, then politics-as-usual can resume.
But it will not, because the real implications are still ignored. Climate change is now an immediate existential threat to human civilisation and the greatest threat facing this country. Our drought and bushfires are a foretaste of the accelerating climate emergency which, after three decades of inaction, is locked-in for years to come. They are early signs that irreversible climatic tipping points, which have concerned scientists for years, are starting to manifest themselves locally.
To avert escalating disasters, we must reduce carbon emissions rapidly, way beyond current policy, greater than 50% by 2030, and encourage the same action globally. In particular, all fossil fuel expansion must stop; coal, oil, gas: Adani, NW Shelf LNG, Great Australian Bight oil, fracking, the long list of NSW and Queensland coal projects, etc. To do otherwise is simply suicidal. Australia is already more than 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, the lower temperature limit of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and will probably hit 2oC by 2030 or earlier, the upper Paris limit, levels which will create far greater social and economic chaos than we are already seeing.
And we must act early, otherwise tipping points will trigger, moving climate change irreversibly beyond human influence. The longer action is delayed, the faster events move beyond our control. Which means we must talk about climate change right now, particularly about mitigating its impact, not just adapting to events we can no longer avoid.
Which begs the question, do we have a government fit-for-purpose, capable of facing up to this threat honestly, and managing the transformation it implies?
In short, no.
The Prime Minister, in recent comments, culminating in his National Press Club address, demonstrates that he does not understand climate risk and its implications. Further, he shows no inclination to do so with the continual harping back to, and misrepresentation of, totally inadequate mitigation policies and a concentration on important, but secondary, emergency response and adaptation issues.
Why secondary? Because current global policies, and ours are amongst the worst, are leading to temperature increases of 3-5oC, way beyond the Paris limits, and to the triggering of climate tipping points. It is not possible for humanity to adapt to such conditions; civilisation as we know it will collapse. Unless we start to cut emissions immediately, those outcomes will become locked-in; emergency responses and adaptation are then irrelevant. Far more stringent global mitigation measures must be taken now, but particularly here as Australia is one of the countries most exposed to climate risk, as we are already seeing, and the fourth largest global emitter if you include exports, which is the only sensible measure in emergency circumstances .
The Coalition, with its dominance of climate deniers, dismisses such analysis out of hand. Furthermore, successive Coalition governments have created systemic barriers to climate action, not least by continually winding back Australia’s climate change research capacity by emasculating the CSIRO, disbanding the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and much more, just when we need it most.
In particular, the Australian Public Service for years has been deliberately politicised by both main political parties, hence Scott Morrison’s edict last August that politicians decide policy and the public service just deliver as they are told.
The results speak for themselves.
The Prime Minister’s office is effectively run as a branch of the Minerals Council and other conservative interests, climate denialists to the core.
Senator Bridget McKenzie and her political advisers take it upon themselves to allocate sports grants to gain electoral advantage, irrespective of public service recommendations, apparently because everything was “within the rules”. Blatant pork-barrelling in a moral and ethical vacuum.
Then there is Angus Taylor and his letter to Clover Moore with falsified travel expenditure, questions around water misallocation, Defence procurement, former ministers’ potential conflict-of-interest with private sector employment, such as Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop and now Brendan Nelson, the list goes on.
The Prime Minister, Matt Canavan, Josh Frydenberg, Angus Taylor and others irresponsibly promote massive fossil fuel development when they have been clearly told by scientific, risk, economic, health and many other experts in both public and private sectors of the risks that represents to the country, the economy and the communities they are supposed to represent, now witnessed by the evidence all around us.
The “frank and fearless advice” which the public service historically provided to counteract such political excess has long since evaporated.
The government’s weak Statement of Ministerial Standards is a poor substitute. It states that the government must: “act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve. —- at all times to the highest standards of probity.” Further: “This Statement is principles-based and is not a complete list of rules.”
- act with integrity.
- observe fairness in making official decisions, that is to act honestly and reasonably – taking proper account of the merits of the decision.
- accept accountability for the exercise of power, and ensure conduct, representation and decisions are open to public scrutiny and explanation
- take decisions in terms of advancing the public interest, based on their best judgement of what will advance the common good of the people.
Despite this soaring rhetoric, it is then left to the Prime Minister to judge whether any ministerial action is reasonable in meeting these obligations. And of course his big stay-out-of-jail card is that: “ministers take decisions based on their best judgement of what will advance the common good”. Not surprising, if you are a climate denier, that your “best judgement” would include a large dose of fossil fuel expansion, despite the suicidal implications for the common good of the Australian and global communities.
These Standards represent a massive conflict of interest, as jurists have pointed out, with the foxes firmly in charge of the hen-house. Little wonder the government violently opposes any effective national integrity commission which might interfere with their entitlement to plunder the public purse.
Senator McKenzie’s actions contradict these principles at every level, particularly the mantra that “no rules were broken” . She and others would resign of their own volition if they had a modicum of commitment to the public interest, but clearly that will not happen, nor will they be dismissed by a weak Prime Minister. Many commentators seem to think this is acceptable, and that her misdemeanours are just of passing interest, typical of the way politics is played these days. Not so. Sports rorting is certainly a minor issue in the wide panoply of political decision-making, but the principles involved are fundamental to the entire basis of our democracy and its ability to take the hard decisions ahead of us on issues like climate change.
The words of Lord Acton come to mind: “When you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men (and women) with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Our parliamentarians lack any understanding of the ethical and fiduciary responsibilities of holding public office. No doubt there are good people in parliament, but they are not making themselves heard above the slurping at the trough of political entitlement; as a result, trust in the entire political class has plummeted.
In the near future, we have to make the most difficult decision ever to confront the Australian people – how to transform our fossil-fuel dominated economy to a low-carbon footing at emergency speed. The cost of so doing will be substantial, involving sacrifice, effort, co-operation and most of all, trust. We do have solutions if they are implemented effectively; otherwise the cost will be far greater, probably leading to the collapse of society as we know it. Fossil fuel expansion, in particular, will only hasten the collapse.
That is our choice. A successful outcome is impossible with our corrupt political system and the vested interests to which it is beholden. When climate change, the greatest threat facing the country, is not even accepted by the leadership as an issue, that leadership is untrustworthy, incapable of making ethically and morally responsible decisions, and emergency action akin to wartime is required, they must step aside.
In response to questions at the National Press Club, the Prime Minister insisted that, on climate change: “Australia is carrying its load and more. We are doing what you would expect a country like Australia to do, but what I won’t do is this: I am not going to sell out Australians”. Absolute nonsense; this has to be the first time in Australia’s proud history that it has so cravenly shrunk from its international responsibilities on a major global issue. Selling out Australians is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing by refusing to face climate reality, making this government the greatest danger to our national security.
New governance is urgently needed, bringing together the best leaders and expertise to build a consensus for change and apply solutions effectively, fairly and rapidly.
The revolving earth pitted with its tragedies, cried in a far voice from the middle of space; “you cannot leave me to the politicians……. It cannot be left to them; not solely to them. You have to bring in the wise men”. Neil Gunn
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”.