Scotty from marketing may now be the common Scott Morrison descriptor. When it comes to climate change it is more and more spin.
He still employs glib marketing ideas – ‘technology not taxes’ – but is no longer in rhetorical climate denial mode even if he simultaneously promotes policies such as carbon capture and gas-led recoveries resembling Baldrick of Blackadder’s ‘cunning plans’.
However, Morrison’s problem is that this approach is difficult to maintain when his Government – along with outliers like Russia, Brazil and Trump’s America – is becoming increasingly isolated from world developments.
ExxonMobil has been ejected from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, where it has been a member since 1928, replaced by NextEra Energy a Florida-based company focussed on clean energy. One of the world’s biggest independent oil traders, Trafigura, is making a big push into renewable energy. Royal Dutch Shell is cutting almost 10% of its staff as it restructures to focus on cleaner fuels. BP has outlined plans to increase wind, solar and bio-power to 50GW by 2030.
The EU has earmarked 30% of its 750 billion Euros COVID-recovery plan to climate measures. Joe Biden is promising $US2 trillion to de-carbonise the economy.
BlackRock and other investment managers are pushing companies to decarbonise and advocating divesting coal and other stocks at risk. Australian superannuation funds are pressuring boards to act on climate change.
The former Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has said banks should link executive pay to climate risk management as part of efforts to align the finance industry with Paris climate goals.
And while Morrison continues to frame the issue as a trade-off between the economy and the environment he fails to recognise the impact of climate change costs and risks on the economy.
The Townsville ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that between 1995 and 2017, Great Barrier Reef coral numbers fell by more than 50%. The risks for Queensland’s tourist industry and Australia’s economy are obvious when the Great Barrier Reef Foundation estimates the Reef’s total economic, social and icon asset value at $56 billion; its national economic contribution at $6.4 billion; and, its job creation at 64,000.
The Guardian (13/10) reports that the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority says the country should be spending about $3.5 billion a year to prepare for climate change-related natural disasters, warning the cost of responding after the fact is likely to be 11 times greater.
In Nature (7 August) Jeff Tollefson argues that as humans diminish biodiversity by cutting down forests and building more infrastructure, they’re increasing the risk of pandemics such as COVID-19.
An interdisciplinary group of scientists, including virologists, economists and ecologists, published an essay in Science (24 July) arguing that governments can help reduce the risk of future pandemics by controlling deforestation and curbing the wildlife trade, which involves the sale and consumption of wild — and often rare — animals that can host dangerous pathogens.
Dr Peter Dazark, a zoologist at the non-governmental organization EcoHealth Alliance, said most efforts to prevent the spread of new diseases tend to focus on vaccine development, early diagnosis and containment, but that’s like treating the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause – the need to investigate biodiversity’s role in pathogen transmission.
Dazark presciently warned in 2003 after SARS 1: “What worries me the most is that we’re going to miss the next emerging disease…we are suddenly going to find a Sars virus that moves from one part of the world to another, wiping people as it moves along.”
Morrison’s government, in contrast, recently joined an infamous group of nations – the US, China, Brazil, India and Russia – in refusing to sign a global pledge endorsed by 64 countries committing them to reverse biodiversity loss because it was ‘inconsistent with Australia’s policies’. Well at least he told the truth on that.
This at a time when the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi, based on research from more than 200 scientists in 42 countries, estimated that two-fifths of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction. They estimate that the extinction risk may be much higher than previously thought, with an estimated 140,000, or 39.4%, of vascular plants estimated to be threatened with extinction, compared with 21% in 2016.
Former US Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson is promoting, in conjunction with IMF MD Kristina Georgieva, the need to extend concern about climate change to the wider question of biodiversity and natural capital.
The World Economic Forum has estimated that about half of global gross domestic product – $US44 trillion – depends on natural capital.
Kew director of Science, Prof Alexandre Antonelli, said: “It’s a very worrying picture of risk and urgent need for action.” Not that worrying to Morrison obviously as the government’s university funding changes include a 29% cut to environmental studies courses funding – one of the largest cuts to any university courses.
There are also other risks. China is doing our environment a favour by blocking cotton imports. It threatens $2.5 billion in exports but, on the other hand, it will give Australia the opportunity to finally do something effective about the Murray-Darling and the environmental and financial damage caused by us growing cotton in the area.
Any cost benefit analysis would show that the $2.5 billion earned from cotton exports to China is a tiny proportion of the social, economic and environmental benefits saving the Murray-Darling would bring.
It will have the added advantages of depriving LNP-linked agribusiness owners of windfall profits from scandalous water buy-backs; and, bring great benefits to downriver communities.
However, there is the hint of a much bigger risk in China’s action. There is increasing talk of carbon tariffs being imposed on countries which try to free-ride on other countries’ climate action. China is heading towards net zero emissions while Australia will allegedly make some vague target ‘in a canter.’
If carbon tariffs do come to pass Australia will become a pariah – and poor – state.
The other risk is litigation. The Economist (22/9) reported that while ExxonMobil prevailed in the New York Attorney-General’s case against it for misleading investors about climate risks the judge also concluded that “nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change.”
Last year a UK court stopped a Heathrow expansion on the grounds that the government had failed to take national climate commitments into account. As a harbinger of more such decisions Lord Sales, a UK High Court Judge, said: “the old dichotomy between a company’s financial success and its environmental profile is collapsing.”
Similarly the Morrison government’s climate policy pretensions will collapse in the face of international pariah status and the risks and costs of doing nothing.
Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/