Can the catastrophic fires bring some sanity to Australian climate politics?

A firefighter hoses down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019.
 Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

“It might be a moment.”

The world is watching our country burn. More than 17.9 million acres have gone up in flames since September, an area 15 times the Amazon fires. At least 27 people have died. A billion animals and 2,000 homes may have been lost. And we are only about halfway through the fire season.

A complex interplay of weather phenomena and systems — including a positive-phase Indian Ocean Dipole, the cycle of the temperature gradient between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean — has created the tinder-dry landscape. But the record temperatures and drought conditions linked to climate change have vastly intensified the fires.

The fires have also brought international scrutiny of our stance on climate change. Why was Australia as the worst-performing country on climate policy in the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index?

While the current fire catastrophe is unprecedented, these are not the first climate-related losses Australia has mourned. Prolonged drought has devastated much of the agricultural sector, forcing many farming families off the land. The jewel in our tourism crown, the Great Barrier Reef, is dying.

So why did we team up with Brazil and Saudi Arabia to nearly derail the UN climate negotiations in Madrid at the COP25 if we have so much to lose? And why does Australia have no national energy policy?

The answers are largely the same: Our politics is tainted by fossil fuel interests, doubt, and fear of change. But the fire provides a unique opportunity to move forward.

Climate action has been brandished as a political weapon

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions account for 1.3 percent of the global total, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider the size of our population. With just 25.5 million people, we’re the second-highest per capita emitter in the world, behind Saudi Arabia. Not included in this figure are emissions generated by burning the resources we sell: We’re the world’s largest exporter of both coal and liquified natural gas (LNG).

But to understand why we have no national energy policy, we have to go back to 2007 when Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd called climate change as the “greatest moral challenge of our generation.” He went on to win the election, but as prime minister he failed to pass an emissions trading scheme. He was deposed by his deputy, Julia Gillard, who in 2012 introduced a price on carbon.

That was a big step. “We did actually succeed in placing a full market-based mechanism over two years,” says John Connor, CEO of Australia’s Carbon Market Institute, with members ranging from conservation groups to heavy emitters. “The carbon pricing mechanism reduced emissions while the economy grew.”

The carbon tax brought down emissions, but it may have cost the Labor Party control of the government. Labor lost in 2013 after conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) leader Tony Abbott, on record for referring to climate change as “absolute crap,” campaigned on a promise to “axe the tax.”

Abbott successfully established fear of climate action as a political weapon, leading the free-market Liberals away from a market-based mechanism.

Abbot’s short run ended in 2015 when he was rolled by Malcolm Turnbull, a Liberal moderate who once said, “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.”

It turned out his party agreed, and last year he was dumped after failing to reach party room consensus on national energy policy, due in part to the inclusion of modest emission reduction targets. The man who replaced him as prime minister was Scott Morrison, who refers to himself as ScoMo, back then arguably most famous for brandishing a lump of coal in parliament.

2019: The climate change election

This brings us to the 2019 federal election, which played out amid a severe drought, reports of irreversible damage to the Great Barrier Reef, and a high-profile fight over the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mega-mine in the state of Queensland. National polling put climate change on top of the list of critical threats to Australia’s vital interests over the next 10 years.

The Labor opposition promised ambitious, science-based emission reduction targets. The incumbent government arranged its remaining members (many had quit expecting electoral wipeout) behind Morrison, who warned of economic ruin under the opposition’s climate plan.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attends the funeral service for Rural Fire Service volunteer, Andrew O’Dwyer, at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church in Horsley Park, Sydney on January 7, 2020. 
Christopher Pearce/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images

But polling showed a narrow race close to the election, and the Liberal party was returned to power.

No one was more surprised than Morrison himself. “I’ve always believed in miracles,” he concluded.

Many, un-supernatural factors can explain this result: an unpopular opposition leader with an expansive reform agenda.

Moreover, the election was decided in the coal-rich electorates of regional Queensland and the resources state of Western Australia. Voters in Queensland resented the caravan of climate campaigners from southern cities, who traveled through their towns protesting against the Adani coal mine, which promised thousands of jobs to the region.

The election became a contest between regional and urban, between past and future. And between the status quo and the unknown.

“As one of the world’s top fossil fuel exporters, we are straddling the barbed wire fence. On one side climate risks and opportunities in cleaner technologies, but on the other side deeply entrenched interests, attitudes, and simple human inertia,” Connor says.

Less easy to understand is why Australia’s identity as a major coal exporter is so inextricably linked to its inability to undergo an energy transition at home. The vast majority of emissions from Australian coal are counted overseas. Hypothetically, Australia could decouple its own economy from fossil fuels without impacting exports.

But neither side of politics will quickly forget that Morrison managed to make fear of the costs of climate action more terrifying than the reality of climate change itself.

There has always been a tussle in the LNP between moderates and a small band of climate deniers. But the moderates have a problem: weaponizing climate change keeps winning elections.

Will the fires be a catalyst for change?

Australia’s fires have reignited the debate over this deadlock.

“You can no longer argue that it’s just inner city ‘woke’ people who care about climate change,” says Will Grant, a senior lecturer in science communication at the Australian National Center for the Public Awareness of Science.

But he says the complexity of the catastrophe makes it possible for people to pick the information — some of which is deliberate misinformation from climate deniers — which fits their belief system.

A protester chants slogans on a megaphone during the Uni Students For Climate Justice rally in Brisbane, Australia, on January 10, 2020.
 Joshua Prieto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“An event like this may be catalyzing, but a lot of people will interpret these bushfires through their existing biases and beliefs about whether climate change is happening or not.”

Still, he says, “It might be a moment. Maybe this is the thing where the moderates in the Liberal party start saying, ‘shut up’ to the far-right anti-climate groups.”

Connor agrees.

“I do hope we can use what we’ve seen,” he says, “and that we hear more conservative voices drawing a direct link between emissions and this crisis.”

One of those voices is a woman who served as deputy to both Turnbull and Abbott, before quitting politics at the last election. Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was blunt when interviewed about the fires on breakfast television this week, saying, “Australia is a highly developed country. … If a country like Australia fails to show leadership (on climate change), we can hardly blame other nations for likewise not showing leadership in this area.”

Polls show overwhelming support for decisive climate action

Australia’s “leadership” in the most recent COP25 in Madrid involved creative carbon accounting, raising a contentious argument that it should be able to use carryover credits from the Kyoto agreement, to meet its Paris targets.

“Morrison deliberately misquoted data at the UN, to say we are reducing emissions when the data says that we are not … that we are going to achieve our Paris commitments ‘in a canter’ when you can only do that if carry over all your Kyoto credits,” says John Hewson, who led the federal Liberal party from 1990 to 1994 and now works with the Crawford School of Public Policy in Canberra. “That’s like some kid trying to count the six gold stars they got at the end of Primary School for their university admission. It’s nonsense.”

Hewson believes more transparency from elected representatives on the issue of climate action is key. “Government is responding to a handful of people within the coalition, with the support of the Murdoch press, to defend the indefensible.

“I’d like to see every individual member of parliament declare their position and be responsible to their constituents. Whatever poll you want to look at, you get overwhelming support for decisive action and it’s getting stronger.”

State governments are acutely aware of this, and have almost uniform net-zero 2050 targets, including the conservative-ruled states of South Australia and New South Wales.

In the absence of a government agenda, the private sector is moving toward lowering emissions

Blessed with boundless renewable resources and sitting on the doorstep of Asia, Australia is poised to benefit from an energy transition. And in the absence of a government agenda, the market is evolving quickly.

Large-scale private investment in renewables is underway, with Australia’s per capita renewable energy growing at a rate 10 times the world average. In the north, a number of mega-projects are in development, including one to export solar energy via subsea cable to Asia. A race is underway to establish “green hydrogen” — an alternative fuel produced using only renewable energy — as a viable export commodity.

Industry is also agitating for policy certainty. Heavy emitters including Rio Tinto, BHP, and Australia’s largest oil and gas companies Santos and Woodside have called for a price on carbonBHP has set a net-zero target for 2050.

“There is a sense of [industry] getting on with it and not being reliant on government,” said Connor. “We’re not just talking about policy, we’re talking about pressure from investors, prudential regulators, shareholders and consumers, so those forces are very actively at play whilst public policy is moving slowly. I hope that at least one positive that will come out of this horror is that we can move to embrace the opportunities, as well as better managing the risk of the future that is facing us.”

So, when the smoke clears, will the Australian government end its climate inertia?

“I do think 2020 is a year of opportunity,” Connor says. “Government has said it’s committed to completing a long-term strategy this year. We are encouraged under the Paris agreement to have a mid-century emissions reduction strategy, and there will be incredible scrutiny on that.”

Perhaps we should all believe in miracles.

Michelle Crowther is an Australian journalist based in Perth. She has worked in emissions reduction with the resources sector and holds a master’s degree in strategic communication focusing on climate change.

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