Political and media failure on climate in Australia

Aug 13, 2021

The technology roadmap sketched by Morrison and Taylor is a con. It is in fact a statement of support for the fossil fuel industry which is heavily subsidised by and a significant donor to the Liberal and National Parties.

Wake up calls, final warnings, tipping points – these are some of the cliches that accompany public announcements of increasing climate chaos. The Doomsday clock is often evoked as the very final indicator of imminent disaster that should goad governments into urgent action. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Greta Thunberg, the courageous and outspoken climate activist, has taken the global schoolkids climate campaign right up to heads of corporations, governments, the UN – you name it. She too utters grave warnings and wake up calls, and she’s right to do so. “How dare you?” she thunders against the powerful, and again, she’s right to call them out for climate inaction.

Thunberg, and those like her, are on one side of a parallel universe, while on the other, the deniers and techno-saviours think that there is no mess, or that we can escape the worst. Alarmingly however, all the portents point in the opposite direction. Climate scientists are tearing their hair out as one international conference after another sets non-binding targets, and countries around the world continue to build coal-fired power stations, clear massive tracts of forests, and dodge accountability mechanisms. Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions are rising, the Arctic’s methane burp is more like a foghorn, and extreme weather events are there for all to see.

And there’s more to come, according to another carefully crafted IPCC report, warning that we’re heading recklessly and wilfully in the wrong direction. Reflecting on the report alongside the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, Scott Morrison – certainly not a figure admired by his peers when it comes to climate action – says Australia is doing its bit, but that the problem is global in nature and scale. If the US cut its emissions to zero and China remained at current emission levels, Morrison asserted, then nothing would change. This sort of rhetoric is, of course, all about dodging the truth about Australia’s dalliance with fossil fuels. It has absolutely nothing to do with leadership.

The technology road map sketched by Morrison and colleagues, is in fact a statement of support for the fossil fuel industry which is heavily subsidized by, and a significant donor to, the Liberal and National parties. Morrison knows this. During the Canberra press conference, he puffed out his chest, smirked and lauded Australia’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The gathered press simply let him get away with it. No one called him out for the blatant distortions. No one asked why Australia has the most emission-intensive energy system among the OECD nations. No one asked if his government would eventually phase out fossil fuels, or come up with a transition plan away from coal, along the lines of Germany. No-one pressed him on the total lack of a plan to reduce emissions across various sectors.

Instead, they obsessed with the government’s trickery around targets. No one in the press gallery pointed to the accumulated evidence showing that fossil fuels are integral to Australia’s future energy plans, offset apparently by the miracle of carbon capture and allied technologies.

Yet while Morrison’s boastful display may have reassured his supporters, the fact is that his government’s record of climate inaction is now the stuff of infamy. This is made clear in the 2020 Climate Transparency Report based on research by over a dozen think tanks and non-government organisations. Australia’s performance on climate action when compared to other members of the G20 is woeful. At best, it’s a piecemeal, half-baked and paltry catalogue of missed opportunities, avoidance and sheer dishonesty. The government’s ongoing commitment to the fossil fuel industry is however, abundantly clear. For instance, of the G20 nations, Australia has some of the highest rates of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. And the industry is delivering. The proportion of coal, oil and natural gas as sources for energy has, over recent years, increased at a higher rate than China, while carbon emissions per unit of power remain higher than most G20 nations.

And despite the efforts of various state and territory governments, more than three quarters of electricity supply is generated through fossil fuels (renewables are still proportionally smaller than the G20 average). Far from shutting down coal-fired power stations, the government is actively extending their life. The federal government’s love affair with coal is there for all to see in its world beating coal exports, and its conspicuous lack of a transition plan. Equally concerning, the government has no comprehensive plan to reduce emissions in public and freight transport, and no firm commitment to boost sales of electric vehicles. It has some of the highest building emissions of all G20 nations and is among the world’s worst when it comes to deforestation and destruction of biodiversity. The list goes on – and so does the rhetoric.

While state and territory governments and Australian businesses are making great strides in transitioning to renewables, they do so against the grain of much federal policy.  The bipartisan commitment to coal is particularly galling in the wake of the IPCC report. Instead of exercising leadership at the federal level we have two parties committed to dangerous, antiquated technologies that are only likely to make a bad situation worse.

What is required now – if only to rescue Australia’s tarnished international reputation when it comes to climate action – is leadership and not go-it-alone techno triumphalism. Technology is not the miraculous cure for climate chaos, if indeed a cure is possible given where we’re at. Leadership may mean not simply having a comprehensive national policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – including a rapid transition away from fossil fuels – but also a genuine appraisal of how we all live. We may, as George Monbiot noted some time ago, need to consider a more modest way of life, with less consumption and lofty expectations of what constitutes the ‘good life’.

We may also have to consider our place in nature, in the web of life – working within its complex adaptive ecological systems, encouraging cooperation rather than dominion, regeneration rather than exploitation and destruction.  Leadership may also involve preparing citizens for a very different future which at worst may involve huge social disruption, chaos and even collapse. This is no idle speculation; even the US military has considered such future scenarios.  To duck and dive in this context, to boast when humility is needed, to assert action only when others take the first step is the very opposite of the courage, honesty and leadership that we now require.

Greta Thunberg is right: how dare you?

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