This means people can’t be easily classified as either deniers or believers when it comes to climate change. In my research, I focused on understanding the complexity of climate opinion in light of the slow political response to climate change around the world.
I conducted an online survey in the UK and found 78% of respondents were extremely or fairly certain climate change is happening.
But when asked to rank eight issues (climate change, healthcare, education, crime, immigration, economy, terrorism and poverty) from most to least important to the country, 38% ranked climate change as least important, with a further 15% placing it seventh out of eight.
Recent pledges from a number of large countries to reach net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 have led Climate Action Tracker to project that limiting warming to 2℃ by 2100 may be possible.
Although this progress is heartening, it has taken many years to reach this point and the challenges in actually meeting these emission targets cannot be overstated.
Climate ranking in other countries
I found similar results in other countries. Based on a Eurobarometer survey of 27,901 European Union citizens, a majority of the populations in all EU member countries are concerned about climate change, but only 43% across the EU rank it in the top four most important issues for the world. There are some differences between countries — climate change tends to be ranked higher in Nordic countries and lower in Eastern Europe.
Fewer than 5% of 3,445 respondents in the 2017 New Zealand Election Study said the environment was the most important election issue and an even smaller number specifically mentioned climate change.
Why are some people more engaged with climate change than others? People’s worldview or ideology seem to be particularly important.
In many countries — including, as illustrated in my research, the UK and New Zealand — there are partisan and political divides in climate change with supporters of right-wing parties less likely to support climate change policies or to see it as an important issue.
People who support free-market economics, hold authoritarian attitudes or have exclusionary attitudes towards minorities are also less likely to engage with climate change.
Consequences for climate policy
In democracies, politicians often respond to public opinion; ignoring it risks being voted out at the next election. But the degree to which they do so depends on how important the issue is to the public relative to other issues.
If people are not thinking about an issue when they go to vote, politicians are less likely to give that issue much attention. As my research shows, people in most countries don’t give climate change a high importance ranking, and politicians are therefore not under enough public pressure to take the difficult steps required to combat climate change.
There are other reasons for the slow political response to climate change, besides the low importance of climate change among the public. Vested interests, such as fossil fuel companies, are undoubtedly involved in slowing the adoption of strong climate policies in many countries.
Although only a minority of the population, climate change deniers may also make some politicians hesitate to act. But, regardless of the influence of vested interests and deniers, it is difficult for politicians to act on climate change when the public believes other issues are more important.
Understanding the relationship between public opinion and climate policy can help focus the efforts of climate campaigners. Perhaps less attention could be paid to the influence of vested interests.
Given the deep ideological reasons climate change deniers have for their disbelief, it’s unlikely they will be convinced otherwise. Fortunately, this may not be required to move climate policy forward.
As my research reveals, the majority of the public want action on climate change but tend to be more concerned about other issues. Campaigners might find it useful to focus their attention on persuading this section of the population about the urgency of climate action.
Back in pre-COVID times last year, when New Zealand passed the Zero Carbon Act, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insisted “New Zealand will not be a slow follower” on climate change.
It struck a clear contrast with the previous National government’s approach, which the then prime minister, John Key, often described as being “a fast follower, not a leader”.
He had lifted this language from the New Zealand Institute’s 2007 report, which argued against “lofty rhetoric about saving the planet or being a world leader”. Instead, it counselled New Zealand to respond without “investing unnecessarily in leading the way”.
Key was eventually accused of failing to live up to even this unambitious ideal — New Zealand came to be known as a climate laggard.
With her hand on the nation’s rudder since 2017, has Ardern done any better?
Is New Zealand a climate leader, and not merely a symbolic leader on the international speaking circuit but a substantive leader that sets examples for other countries to follow?
Finally a fast follower
On my analysis of Ardern’s government, New Zealand is now, finally, a fast follower.
The government’s climate policy is best evaluated from three perspectives: the domestic, international and moral.
From a domestic perspective, where a government is judged against the governments that preceded it, Ardern is entitled to declare (as she did when the Zero Carbon Act was passed) that:
We have done more in 24 months than any government in New Zealand has ever done on climate action.
But at the international level, where New Zealand is judged against the actions of other countries and its international commitments, it is more a fast follower than a leader, defined by policy uptake and international advocacy rather than innovation.
At the moral level, where New Zealand is judged against objectives such as the 1.5°C carbon budget, its actions remain inadequate. A recent report by Oxfam notes New Zealand is off-track for its international obligations.
The nation’s record looks even worse when we factor in historical responsibilities. From this perspective, New Zealand, like other countries in the global north, is acting with an immoral lack of haste. It is for the next government to go from being merely transitional to truly transformational.
Turning in the right direction
The formation of the Ardern government in 2017 inaugurated a phase of rapid policy development, drawing especially from UK and EU examples. But the evidence of substantive climate leadership is much less clear.
The government’s most prominent achievement is the Zero Carbon Act, which passed through parliament with cross-party support in November 2019. This establishes a regulatory architecture to support the low-emissions transition through five-yearly carbon budgets and a Climate Change Commission that provides independent advice.
Its other major achievement, less heralded and more disputed, was the suspension of offshore oil and gas permits. This supply-side intervention is surely Ardern’s riskiest manoeuvre as prime minister, not only on climate but on any policy issue.
Similarly, the offshore oil and gas ban builds upon longstanding activism from Māori organisations and activists. In 2012, Petrobras withdrew prematurely from a five-year exploration permit after resistance from East Cape iwi (tribe) Te Whānau-ā-Apanui. New Zealand was also only following in the footsteps of more comprehensive moratoriums elsewhere, such as Costa Rica in 2011 and France in 2017.
Towards climate leadership
There are many other climate-related policies, including:
In all likelihood, New Zealand’s greatest claim to pioneering policy is its decision to split targets for carbon dioxide and methane in the Zero Carbon Act, which means agricultural methane is treated separately. If the science behind this decision eventually informs the international accounting of greenhouse gases, it will have major ramifications for developing countries whose economies also rely heavily on agriculture.
Not all proposed policies made it through the political brambles of coalition government. Most conspicuously, commitments to an emissions-free government vehicle fleet, the introduction of fuel-efficiency standards, and feebates for light vehicles were all thwarted.
This is symptomatic of this government’s major weakness on climate. Its emphasis on institutional reforms rather than specific projects will yield long-term impacts, but not produce the immediate emissions reductions to achieve New Zealand’s 2030 international target under the Paris Agreement. This is where a future government can make the rhetoric of climate leadership a reality.
The intricacies of climate change policy have not been front of mind for the Australian government this last half year, but the issue is now back on the agenda. Yesterday a review chaired by energy industry executive Grant King into new low-cost sources of emissions reduction was released. The government has accepted many of its recommendations.
Federal energy minister Angus Taylor says the changes create new ways to reduce emissions across the industrial, manufacturing, transport and agriculture sectors.
The package spells a broadening of existing mechanisms and may open the door to some better outcomes. But the existing climate policy patchwork remains deeply inadequate, and in practice the changes may do little more than channel government funding to industry.
The role of carbon capture and storage and storage
In line with the review’s recommendation, the government’s emissions reduction fund will be extended to projects using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from sources such as power stations, gas plants or cement plants and pumping it underground. It tends to be technically difficult and costly per unit of tonne of emissions saved, and usually does not capture all of the emissions.
The Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) has been the government’s primary climate policy mechanism. It gives subsidies to projects that are deemed to reduce carbon emissions – to date, mainly in agriculture and forestry. The policy is vastly less effective and efficient than the carbon pricing mechanism it replaced in 2014.
The obvious criticism is that extending government support to CCS locks in some fossil fuel use, when Australia has great opportunities to put our energy system on a zero-emissions footing using cheap renewable energy.
However, in the path to decarbonising Australia’s economy, the technology may well have a role in some industrial applications such as cement production and natural gas processing. In principle it makes sense to include any technology in a policy mechanism, as long as it is cost-competitive.
In practice, carbon capture and storage projects in Australia would require far more to be economically feasible. This is because the additional cost per tonne of carbon dioxide removed is usually far higher than in typical agriculture and forestry projects. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, or saving energy through better efficiency, is typically also far cheaper than cutting emissions through CCS.
So on present settings, where all project types receive the same rate of subsidy, including CCS might be mostly just a nod to the relevant interest groups. Methodologies for establishing and monitoring projects would be established by the bureaucracy but it seems unlikely that many projects would happen.
Energy technology support
The King review also calls for expanding the remit of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to make them “technology neutral”, so the agencies could support technologies across all sectors of the economy.
This implies expanding ARENA’s research and development activities, and the CEFC’s project finance, to the transport and industry sectors. These are the next big areas for decarbonisation after electricity, and it makes sense to channel resources into them.
A “technology neutral” approach could include carbon capture and storage. ARENA and CEFC make their own decisions about their investments within a broad mandate by government. It is important this remains so, allowing the most promising technologies to be supported, irrespective of the apparent preferences by government for fossil fuel-based technologies.
Broadening the ERF
The review recommends other changes to broaden the ERF, including to make it easier for smaller projects in agriculture and forestry to participate. This may have been prompted by the fact that the last two ERF auctions resulted in only a small number of projects and small volume of contracted emissions reductions.
This change may get extra projects over the line. But it does not fix the fundamental problem with the ERF, or its successor the Climate Solutions Fund.
The scheme pays businesses, in the form of credits, when they take steps to reduce emissions relative to a hypothetical baseline. Since it is generally impossible to know whether a company’s action to reduce emissions would have happened anyway, we can’t know to what extent claimed reductions are real. Despite elaborate estimation methodologies, the fundamental problem remains.
Under an effective and efficient climate policy framework, the ERF would either not exist or have a relatively minor role. But Australia is a long way from effective and efficient climate policy.
Softly, softly towards carbon trading?
Under the government’s Safeguard Mechanism, a company emitting carbon emissions beyond its baseline is required to buy emissions reductions credits to cover the excess.
But in practice, the baselines are set so high that projects rarely reach them, and those that do receive exemptions.
The new recommendation, accepted by the government, is to give emissions credits to companies that stay below their baselines, if it was the result of investment in “transformative” emissions-saving measures. This would create an incentive to do better, rather than just the existing, muted incentive not to do worse than a very unambitious standard.
The question is, who would buy these credits? The review suggests the government, or companies that exceed their baselines, might buy them. The former would expand the subsidy approach to emissions cuts even further. This is quite unnecessary: private money in industry is available for relevant investments if the right incentives or regulations are in place.
But what holds promise is if companies emitting over their baselines have to buy credits from companies that operate below the baseline.
That would create a form of carbon trading. There would be a market price for emissions in industry, and companies would move towards establishing cost-effective measures to curb emissions. There would be no money flowing to or from government, as trades would be only between companies.
The safeguard mechanism was originally designed with this possibility in mind, and perhaps now the door is opening a fraction.
But to create real demand for emissions credits, and a meaningful price on emissions in industry, emissions baselines would have to be drastically lowered and no more exemptions granted. Companies running old, inefficient equipment, of which there are many in Australia, would be put on the spot.
Given the government’s deep aversion to carbon pricing, and the likely opposition by some industry players, this is perhaps more pious hope than imminent prospect.
At least for now, we will probably only see a government-funded carrot given to some, and no stick. Government handouts to individual companies will continue to be the measure of Australia’s climate policy.
In these times of dramatic fiscal spending, sending a few more billion dollars of public money to businesses to subsidise new equipment may not seem a big deal. But one day, all that money needs to be recouped through taxation. It will then be obvious that industry should have been required to spend its own funds to cut emissions, and that a comprehensive market mechanism would have led to more efficient and productive investment choices.
Abolishing Australia’s carbon pricing mechanism in 2014 was a consequential failure of politics. The fine-tuning of the patchwork of policies that followed does not make up for it.
Debate about how Australia will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic is heating up. As part of the economic recovery, business groups have renewed calls to cut “green tape” – environmental regulation that new projects, such as new mines, must follow.
In response, federal environment minister Sussan Ley wants to introduce new legislation to cut green tape and speed up project approvals.
Cutting green tape is a long-held aim of the Morrison government, which claims excessive environmental regulation unfairly stifles businesses.
But this isn’t the case. In my 30 years of experience researching water pollution, “green tape” has not translated into effective environmental regulation of industry. In fact, I’m yet to see a coal mining operation that’s effectively regulated after approved through the NSW and federal environmental assessment processes.
Here are five examples that show how existing environmental regulations have done little to prevent pollution and toxic chemicals from entering the environment.
1. Closed mines pollute for decades
My research on water pollution from coal mines in the Sydney basin routinely reveals inadequate environmental regulation. I’ve repeatedly uncovered long-standing environmental issues the industry doesn’t seem to learn from, such as pollution continually leaching from active and closed mines.
As part of my PhD research in 2002/3, I studied Canyon Colliery – a coal mine deep in the Blue Mountains that closed in 1997. The mine constantly releases large volumes of toxic zinc and nickel contaminated water from the flooded underground workings into an otherwise pristine mountain stream.
This caused ecological damage in the Grose River, including a steep reduction in species and numbers of river invertebrates below the entry of the mine wastes into the river.
It’s now 23 years since the mining stopped, but the pollution continues – testimony of weak and ineffective environmental regulation. And it will probably last for centuries.
The Canyon Mine is just one of thousands of contaminated, derelict mining and industrial sites dotted around Australia lacking environmental controls.
Despite approvals from both the NSW and federal governments, it seemed no one had noticed the magnitude of pollution from poorly treated mine wastes until our research was conducted. This caused ecological degradation to more than 20 kilometres of the highly “protected” Wollangambe River.
The Conversation contacted Centennial Coal, which owns Clarence Colliery, for comment. They directed us to their statements in 2017, when the EPA finished a five-year review of Clarence’s Environmental Protection Licence (EPL). Then, the company said:
As a result of this review Clarence will operate under a new EPL which will include agreed reductions in metal concentration limits for all water discharged to the Wollangambe. Salinity targets will also be set at 100 EC (electrical conductivity).
Clarence will also be required to comply with a Pollution Reduction Programme (PRP), also issued by the EPA, which will result in Centennial formalising options to address all water quality issues and to meet specific water quality milestones.
This involved reading thousands of pages of consultant reports explaining how the expanded operation would attempt to avoid or minimise impacts to the environment.
The mine extension was approved. Despite the many “green tape” hurdles, the approved mine was allowed to discharge wastes which our research discovered contained pollutants that were hazardous to river life in the Georges River. These included salt, nickel, zinc, aluminium and arsenic polluting the upper Georges River.
The EPA has since worked with the coal miner to reduce pollution from the mine.
4. Coal mining under Sydney’s water supply
Many were stunned on March 16 this year, when the NSW government signed off on new coal mine “longwalls” directly under Woronora Reservoir, part of Sydney’s drinking water supply.
Longwall mining is the continuous mechanical removal of coal in underground mines that allows the roof of the mine to cave in after the coal is removed.
So what can they do to a river? Redbank Creek near Picton – 65 kilometres southwest of Sydney – provides a sad testimony.
For nearly a decade, I documented damage where falling ground levels (subsidence) caused by longwalls led to extensive damage to the creek channel.
The land surface fell more than one meter. This caused cracking, warping and buckling of the creek channel. It now rarely holds water in many stretches. Isolated stagnant pools in the creek now accumulate saline and metal-contaminated water containing little aquatic life except for mosquitoes.
The mine responsible for this damage, Tahmoor Colliery, is seeking to extend its operations and the NSW government is currently considering the development.
These were previously regarded as safe chemical additives, for example in fire fighting foam, particularly at military bases.
Such contamination is very expensive to remediate and in February this year landholders near three defence bases reached a financial settlement for the PFAS damage to their property.
“Green tape” is an emotive word implying unnecessary and slow environmental regulation that delays major projects.
Given my own direct experience involved poorly regulated coal mines, I shudder to imagine the environmental degradation “fast-tracked” environmental regulation will lead to.
The Conversation also contacted SIMEC, which owns Tahmoor Colliery. A spokesperson said:
Mining in NSW is governed by stringent state and federal laws enforced by a number of government departments and regulators. SIMEC Mining acquired the Tahmoor Coking Coal Mine two years ago and takes its environmental, compliance and social responsibilities seriously.
Tahmoor Mine has been operating for well over 40 years. We acknowledge that historical mine activity did impact Redbank Creek and that this was self-reported to the regulator. Since then, SIMEC has worked closely with the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) to enact a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the creek. Recent rainfall has demonstrated the success of this work and we are confident that the rehabilitation works will restore the creek.
While our operations do produce water as part of the mining process, this is treated and monitored in accordance with our licence conditions. The quality of this water is mandated by our environment protection licence issued and monitored by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Typically, the water monitoring results are well below those limits allowed by the licence. To further improve water quality, SIMEC Mining has committed to the installation of a new water treatment plant.
Water management has been a key focus for SIMEC in the planning of the proposed Tahmoor South extension. We have commissioned extensive specialist assessments to understand any potential impact on ground and surface water. If our extension is approved, these water assets will be carefully monitored throughout the life of the mine to ensure that should any issue occur, it is detected early and resolved efficiently.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s announcement on Friday that a Labor government would adopt a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 was a big step in the right direction. But a bit of simple maths reveals the policy is too little, too late.
Perhaps the most robust way to assess whether a proposed climate action is strong enough to meet a temperature target is to apply the “carbon budget” approach. A carbon budget is the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide the world can emit to stay within a desired temperature target.
Once the budget is spent (in other words, the carbon dioxide is emitted), the world must have achieved net-zero emissions if the temperature target is to be met.
So let’s take a look at how Labor’s target stacks up against the remaining carbon budget.
Blowing the budget
The term “net-zero emissions” means any human emissions of carbon dioxide are cancelled out by the uptake of carbon by the Earth – such as by vegetation or soil – or that the emissions are prevented from entering the atmosphere, by using technology such as carbon capture and storage.
(The net-zero emissions concept is fraught with scientific complexities and the potential for perverse outcomes and unethical government policies – but that’s an article for another day.)
So let’s assume every country in the world adopted the net-zero-by-2050 target. This is a plausible assumption, as the UK, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany and many others have already done so.
What then should the world’s remaining carbon budget be, starting from this year?
The globally agreed Paris target aims to stabilise the global average temperature rise at 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial level, or at least keep the rise to well below 2℃.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that from 2020, the remaining 1.5℃ carbon budget is about 130 GtC (billion tonnes of carbon dioxide). This is based on a 66% probability that limiting further emissions to this level will keep warming below the 1.5℃ threshold.
This is where the “net-zero emissions by 2050” target fails. Even if the world met this target, and reduced emissions evenly over 30 years, cumulative global emissions would be about 170 GtC by 2050. That is well over the 130 GtC budget needed to limit warming to 1.5℃.
So how far would Labor’s target go towards limiting warming to 2℃?
The carbon budget for that target is about 335 GtC. So a net-zero-by-2050 policy could, in principle, stabilise the climate at well below 2℃.
But a word of caution is needed here. The budgets I used above ignore two “jokers in the pack” that could slash the carbon budget and make the Paris targets much harder to achieve.
Jokers in the pack
The first joker is that the carbon budgets I used assume we will reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, at about the same rate we reduce carbon dioxide.
But these potent non-CO₂ gases, which primarily come from the agriculture
sector, are generally more difficult to curb than carbon dioxide. Because of this, the IPCC recognises the carbon budget may have to be reduced if these gases are emitted at amounts higher than assumed.
Given the large uncertainties in how fast we can reduce emissions of these non-CO₂ gases, I’ve taken a mid-range estimate of their effect on the 1.5℃ carbon budget and consequently lowered it by 50 Gt. (This value is based on a median non-CO₂ warming contribution as estimated by the IPCC.) This reduces the remaining carbon budget to only about 80 Gt.
Second, the carbon budgets do not include feedbacks in the climate system, such as forest dieback in the Amazon or melting permafrost. These processes are both caused by climate change, at least in part, and amplify it by releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Emissions caused by feedbacks are expected to increase as global average temperature rises. Under a 1.5℃ rise, feedback processes could emit about 70 Gt of carbon dioxide. When the 1.5℃ budget is adjusted for both non-CO2 greenhouse gases and feedbacks, this leaves just one year’s worth of global emissions in the bank.
The corresponding reductions for the 2℃ warming limit reduce its carbon budget to 160 GtC. This is less than the cumulative emissions of 170 GtC if every country adopted a net-zero-by-2050 policy.
What does effective climate action look like?
These calculations are confronting enough. But for Australia there is, in addition, a huge elephant in the room – or rather, in the coal mine.
Our exported emissions – those created when our coal, gas and other fossil fuels are burned overseas – are about 2.5 times more than our domestic emissions. Exported emissions are not counted on Australia’s ledger, but they all contribute to the escalating impacts of climate change – including the bushfires that devastated southeast Australia this summer.
So, what would an effective climate action plan look like? In my view, the central actions should be:
cut domestic emissions by 50% by 2030
move the net-zero target date forward to 2045, or, preferably 2040
ban new fossil fuel developments of any kind, for either export or domestic use
The striking students are right. We are in a climate emergency.
The net-zero-by-2050 policy is a step in the right direction but is not nearly enough. Our emission reduction actions must be ramped up even more – and fast – to give our children and grandchildren a fighting chance of a habitable planet.
Typically, a crisis only leads to substantial policy changes if there is also a broader understanding about the need to act, and the shape of the change needed.
The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes provided the basis for policies that ensured full employment during and after World War II.
The monetarist theories of Milton Friedman provided the means to limit inflation in the 1970s and 1980s.
A library of pre-existing publications on national security directed policy in the wake of 9/11.
Theory is needed as well
Crisis and economic theory were essential to some of the big reforms under the Hawke and Keating governments, including a new approach to Australian retirement incomes.
Superannuation had been a patchwork of individual employer arrangements since before federation.
The stagflation crisis of simultaneous unemployment and inflation in the 1970s created the conditions for a new approach. Inflation rose to 15%, unemployment to 6%. It led to government-union Accords and deferred wage increases that were the basis for Australia’s universal employee superannuation scheme.
Many see the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as a turning point in ending the cold war and dismantling the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev acted decisively in the midst of a disaster that created a groundswell of support for change bringing in an system (capitalism) which had deep theoretical underpinnings.
There are high levels of public support for action climate change in Australia, but can we say it is the same as “war fever”?
Australia’s emissions policy has been stuck for a long time. Australia was recently ranked as having the worst climate policy in the world, and some of the worst outcomes.
Australia’s annual emissions are not expected to change much between 2020 and 2030 – which doesn’t give Australia much chance of getting to near zero emissions by 2050, which is generally regarded as what’s needed to avoid runaway climate change.
There are reasons to believe the summer bushfire crisis won’t be any different.
No-one has accused the Prime Minister of moving too fast or too far in responding to the fires. In his interview with ABC at the weekend, he did not commit to tightening, or even reviewing, Australia’s carbon emissions targets in light of the fires.
Fake news on social media and in some sections of the mainstream media about an arson emergency has blunted the chance of a broad-based popular groundswell.
There’s hope, but not much
The proposed royal commission might be a means to find a way forward on climate change. But by the time it reports, the fires will be out, and the moment of crisis will have passed.
For now, the fires smoulder on. It’s not too late for the federal government to seize the opportunity for substantial change. State governments may well use the aftermath of the fires to coordinate their responses to climate change – possibly without the Commonwealth. For the moment, they are understandably preoccupied with responding to an ongoing emergency.
There is a real possibility that Australia will have to wait for another crisis – with different leadership, and more public consensus – before there is significant change on emissions policy.
The bushfire smoke that chokes 10 million people in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and elsewhere will no doubt contribute to changing attitudes, and it might even shift the media’s coverage of climate change, but there’s no guarantee that it will be the policy turning point we need.
But when it comes to climate policy, there are three possible scenarios in the aftermath of the crisis: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.
What these three scenarios look like
Everything magically changes for the better would look like this: Morrison announces the crisis has transformed his previous token admission of a link between bushfires and climate change into a revelation of the reality of global warming, with consequential policy change.
As logical and desirable as this seems, it is unlikely, not least because of Morrison’s character and personal beliefs.
Everything stays the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton.
Government-friendly journalists and commentators at News Corp and 2GB show no sign of changing tack either, so even if the government wanted to shift its policy, the media environment makes it difficult to do so. The forces of inertia are powerful.
Then there is the slim hope that something different happens. This scenario relies on all three of Australia’s main political groupings – the LNP, Labor and the Greens – realising they each face their own distinct climate policy challenge and rising to it.
Avoiding the appearance of a backflip
Opinion polls are not done over the summer holiday period, meaning the LNP has yet to see the impact of the bushfires on their public standing.
When polling resumes, Liberal and National MPs will understand the impact, and they won’t like it. Morrison and others will likely urge party members to hold their course since the next election is years away and a dozen other issues could distract attention from climate policy between now and then.
This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable: firestorms like those in the summer of 2020 will not be the last.
The emerging LNP argument that inadequate hazard reduction burns are to blame for the current crisis is risible. The Australian who has emerged with the most credibility from the bushfires – NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons – rejects it out of hand.
The LNP’s challenge, then, is to realise its current position won’t hold strategically and to transition to better policy ahead of that becoming obvious, managing the optics to avoid the appearance of a backflip.
The challenge for Labor and the Greens
Labor is benefiting from leader Anthony Albanese’s call for “an adult conversation” in Australia about climate policy. He is astutely citing British Tories like the late Margaret Thatcher and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who long ago accepted and acted upon the climate science the Morrison government viscerally rejects.
Labor’s homework now is to reconcile the views and interests of members and supporters prioritising climate policy over mining jobs, and vice versa.
This can and must be done if Labor is to build a coalition of support big enough to win office and then enact the climate and other policies the current firestorms make so urgent.
The Greens, meanwhile, need to have an internal conversation about whether they want to continue making perfect policy the enemy of the good – leaving Australia with no emissions trading system (ETS) at all, for example, because they would not vote for one that did not meet their every demand – or join in efforts to begin on the path to better policy.
Central to that conversation must be a realisation their current strategy isn’t working – the LNP keeps returning to power.
A possible way forward
There is an obvious point the LNP, Labor and Greens might momentarily agree upon to move policy forward. It is the ETS proposed by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.
Howard saw climate change coming. In late 2006, he established a prime ministerial task group on emissions trading chaired by the secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.
The Shergold Report, released in May 2007, said “emissions trading should be preferred to a carbon tax” and among the various kinds possible, a national “cap and trade” ETS was best.
This will be a world-class emissions trading system more comprehensive, more rigorously grounded in economics and with better governance than anything in Europe.
Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decisions Australia will take in the next decade.
This emissions trading system must be built to last. It needs to last not five or 10 years, it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities and further build our economic prosperity.
Howard positioned the LNP as the party Australians could trust to implement an ETS in a way that gives “firms and families” the ability to “plan for the future with confidence”.
His authorship – and his framing of his ETS as an act of economic responsibility –provides a fig leaf Morrison can now use to move the LNP to a credible, sustainable and politically viable climate policy position.
“Something different” has to start somewhere. If Morrison can deploy the cunning he showed winning the 2019 election by drawing on Howard’s deep well of credibility within the LNP to implement the plan himself and then inviting – daring – Labor and the Greens to back him, it would be a signal political achievement.
And if Morrison doesn’t want to, Labor, the Greens, independent MPs and conscientious LNP MPs should vote together to turn Howard’s ETS into law right away. With political will, “something different” can start now.
Updates to add that the latest Newspoll, released late Sunday, shows Morrison’s standing has taken a massive hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister from 48% to 39% since the last poll in early December. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stood at 43% – a massive reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage point lead over the Labor leader in early December.
Frank Jotzo, the director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at Australian National University, has some constructive advice for Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a column today for the ABC: do not waste an opportunity to recalibrate his government’s approach on climate change.
Morrison should heed Jotzo’s suggestion that he and his cabinet need to “drop the old anti-climate change stance”. As Jotzo writes,
You’ve been politically locked into a no-action position, but the bushfires give you the reason to change […] You can make it your mission to protect the country from harm, an essential conservative cause.
Jotzo speaks with authority as one of the country’s foremost experts on climate reduction policies. He has a global reputation.
Whether Morrison is capable of a course correction on climate change and, in the process, yield on an issue he has used to wedge his political opponents remains to be seen. However, he would be unwise to pretend that once the immediate bushfire danger passes and the smoke clears, the country will return to normal politically.
The nation will expect – indeed it will demand – that any government, conservative or Labor, face up to what is the new normal of a drying continent rendering human settlement increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather. Failure to do so will exact a heavy political price.
Morrison’s fallback positions are less defensible
The prime minister insists he has not denied there is a link between climate change and bushfires, but at best his responses on the subject have been evasive and self-serving politically.
Pressed on the issue, his fallback position is to say
I am sure you would also agree that no response by any one government anywhere in the world can be linked to one fire event.
That might be true, but it is hardly the point in the wider scheme of what measures might be adopted to address problems of a sluggish response to the bushfire emergency.
Morrison and others in his government might also go easy on claims that local opposition to hazard reduction burning in native forests contributed to the fires. This is a coded attacked on the Greens and is not supported by the evidence.
When in doubt, politically you might say, blame the Greens.
Memo to Scott Morrison: people are fed up with politics proving to be a constraint on the development of a credible and sustainable climate policy that involves reasonable transitional steps to a low-carbon economy over time.
As such, he might also drop his claim that calls to reduce carbon emissions are “reckless”.
Where the prime minister is particularly vulnerable – this will be subject studied closely by any future commission of inquiry – lies in his refusal to meet a group of former emergency services leaders calling itself Emergency Leaders for Climate Change.
In April, the leader of the group, Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, wrote to Morrison warning him of the threat of “increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events”.
In September, this expert group wrote again to the prime minister asking for a meeting.
They received no constructive response.
Likewise, academic warnings about risks of climate-induced extreme weather events have been ignored.
More than 500 Australians, about the same number who died in the Vietnam War, die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050, which is roughly equivalent to what the Australian government spends annually on defence.
Bear in mind Glasser’s report was written before these Christmas-New Year bushfire disasters.
We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.
Demonstrating empathy, not political calculations
This bring us to issues surrounding the PM’s own leadership during the crisis.
Rosemary Williamson of the University of New England concluded a useful survey of Australian prime ministers’ responses to natural disasters last year with these words:
Australians will expect prime ministers to come and see for themselves, to demonstrate empathy and to instil confidence in recovery.
If these are the benchmarks for prime ministerial behaviour during a crisis brought on by disaster whether it is flood, fire or cyclone, Morrison has not lived up to these expectations.
First, he was – inexplicably – out of the country on holiday while uncontrollable fires began ravaging his home state of New South Wales.
Second, he has had trouble demonstrating reasonable empathy for victims of the fires.
And third, he has had difficulty accepting the Commonwealth had a shared responsibility for assisting the states in coping with the fallout from arguably the worst natural disaster in Australian history.
What has been most surprising is the time it has taken for Canberra to understand that such are the dimensions of this disaster that military assistance was necessary.
Weeks passed without the Australian Defence Force (ADF) being called out. The explanation for this delay is that states had not asked for military involvement, as if the out-of-control bushfires themselves respected state boundaries – or Commonwealth-state relations.
Coordination between Canberra and the states has improved in recent days, but in the early stages such cooperation left much to be desired.
Debate over climate – whether it is changing, and if so what to do about it – has become a culture wars issue over the years to the point where it has proved to be a useful political device for parties of the right.
As a politician of the right, Morrison would be reluctant to yield ground on issues to do with electricity prices that might benefit him politically in the future.
These are the political considerations that would be weighing in his calculations.
Charting a new course
However, the ground is shifting politically.
Polls indicate the environment is assuming greater importance among Australians. It is not far behind the economy and health in people’s concerns, according to an exhaustive poll conducted by the ANU’s 2019 Australian Election Study.
Among issues that will burden governments – both federal and state – over the next months will be the heavy costs associated with cleaning up the mess. All up, costs will run into the billions given the dimensions of destruction.
Inevitably, the bushfires will have an impact on economic activity in the December and March quarters. Growth is anaemic in any case, and may well become weaker as a consequence of reduced economic activity during the bushfire season.
Whatever economic fallout ensues, the political costs for the prime minister will continue to weigh heavily.
He would do himself a favour by advancing a credible climate and land management policy that ensures the country is better prepared when the next disaster strikes, as it surely will.
Joel Fitzgibbon was on his mobile at a cafe at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney on Thursday when he encountered Scott Morrison getting a mid-morning coffee.
“You’re making a lot of sense,” Morrison said to Labor’s resources spokesman, who’d set off a fire storm in his party by suggesting the ALP revise its climate policy to adopt the upper end of the government’s target of reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2030.
“Your love won’t help me, Prime Minister,” Fitzgibbon shot back.
He’s right there. Fitzgibbon’s radical proposal has burst open the conundrum the opposition has in reshaping one of the ALP’s centrepiece election pitches.
It’s a great deal more complicated than, for example, dealing with the franking credits plan, which Labor can’t afford to keep in its present form. That can be restructured, or dumped, without much political angst.
But the climate policy – for a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 and a target of net zero by 2050 – has become an article of faith within Labor, and among many of its supporters. It’s also a policy that in the election split the voters Labor needed, attracting some but driving away others.
Weaken the policy and there will be a reaction from the ALP’s inner city constituents, who tend to look toward the Greens out of the corner of their eye. Keep a very high target and lose people once again – to the Coalition or minor parties on the right – from the traditional base, including in regional areas, especially in Queensland where coal mining is a thing.
Fitzgibbon maintains that by adopting the 28% target, Labor would not just be more acceptable to blue collar voters but would put more pressure on the government to act – although this latter point seems a stretch.
Getting to 28% without destroying blue collar jobs or harming the economy would also provide “a great foundation” for prosecuting the case for further action, he claims.
Among the multiple problems Labor has in reviewing its policy is that it will be considering a more pragmatic, less ambitious approach just when the climate debate is once again taking off in public consciousness.
It’s hard to assess precisely the extent to which the step up in activism represents the wider public view. Indeed the civil disobedience demonstrations are infuriating some people because of the disruption. Nevertheless, the period ahead could see the issue biting more, as the ALP is considering easing back.
Given how quickly things change and the relevance of what other countries do, in strict policy terms Labor arguably would be best not to settle a policy until, say, early 2021, for a 2022 election. But the government (and the media) will be able to exploit a Labor vacuum, so that holding out does carry political cost.
Fitzgibbon, who represents the NSW coal seat of Hunter and experienced voter wrath in May, won’t get the ambit claim he outlined this week. That would be going too far for the party, and for its climate spokesman Mark Butler who has a lot of reputation at stake. As soon as Fitzgibbon made public his proposal, Butler said it wouldn’t be embraced by Labor, declaring it was “fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris agreement and would lead to global warming of 3℃.”
Fortunately for the government, Fitzgibbon’s intervention reduced the attention on its energy policy, the inadequacy of which was again highlighted this week.
As the Coalition pushes ahead with seeking to get its “big stick” legislation to deal with recalcitrant power companies through parliament, criticisms of its policy came from, among others, the chair of the Energy Security Board Kerry Schott and the Grattan Institute.
Schott, whose board advises federal and state governments, wrote in the Australian Financial Review, ahead of the paper’s energy summit, that “government interventions to cap prices and to effectively subsidise certain generation projects will not encourage the considerable new investment and innovation that is needed”.
The Grattan Institute, which released a report on Australia’s electricity markets, said the government’s “fight to avoid the impending closure of the Liddell coal power station in NSW makes it harder for Australia to achieve its emissions reduction targets, and is likely to increase electricity prices and reduce the reliability of supplies”.
The AFR summit saw much finger pointing, with energy minister Angus Taylor blaming industry for the lack of investment, and industry blaming the government.
Taylor said dismissively: “Time and again we’ve seen industry participants and commentators swept up in the excitement of complex new programs represented by the latest fashionable acronym that everyone pretends to understand but few ever do.” Origin Energy’s CEO Frank Calabria said “the mere existence of the big stick is acting as a handbrake on investment, right when we need investment the most”.
In theory, Morrison could have tried to use the great authority his unexpected election win gave him to pursue more appropriate energy and emissions reduction policies. Admittedly, it would have been extremely difficult, as it would have contradicted much the government had been saying and doing.
But it was never an option. Morrison is either wilfully blind to what needs to be done (although when treasurer he supported the more rational policy of a National Energy Guarantee), or he is afraid to stir those powerful naysayers in his party.
So where are we left?
With a government stubbornly tied to a set of policies that experts insist won’t deliver effective results. And an opposition that’s in a funk about where it should position itself in the future.
Meanwhile Australia’s overall emissions rise (although electricity emissions are down, as some coal fired power goes out of the system); high electricity prices remain a burden on private and business consumers alike; and there is nervousness about the summer power supply.
Opposition resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon has had his proposal to bring Labor’s climate change target into line with the government’s immediately torpedoed by the party’s climate spokesman Mark Butler.
In a speech to the Sydney Institute made public ahead of its Wednesday evening delivery Fitzgibbon suggested the ALP offer “a political and policy settlement” to match the higher end of the government’s 26-28% target for reducing emissions on 2005 levels by 2030.
Labor’s controversial election policy was for an ambitious 45% reduction.
Fitzgibbon said the change he advocated would mean “the focus would then be all about actual outcomes, and the government would finally be held to account and forced to act.
“A political settlement would also restore investment confidence and for the first time in six years, we could have some downward pressure on energy prices,” Fitzgibbon said.
But Butler rejected the proposal saying the government’s target “is fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris agreement and would lead to global warming of 3℃.
“Labor remains committed to implementing the principles of the Paris Agreement, which are to keep global warming well below 2℃ and pursue efforts around 1.5℃,” he said.
“Labor’s commitment to action on climate change is unshakeable. We will have a 2050 target of net zero emissions and medium-term targets which are consistent with the agreement,” Butler said.
Despite dismissing Fitzgibbon’s idea, Butler has acknowledged that Labor’s climate change policy must be up for grabs in the party’s review of all its policies between now and the 2022 election.
But revising the climate policy will be one of its major challenges, because the party is caught between its inner city progressive constituency and its traditional blue collar voters. Its ambivalent position on the planned Adani coal mine cost it votes in Queensland at the election.
Apart from the politics, the 45% target for 2030 would be more unrealistic at the next election because emissions at the moment are increasing, meaning ground is being lost.
Fitzgibbon, who takes a more pro-coal attitude than many of his colleagues, had a big swing against him in his NSW coal seat of Hunter.
He said in his speech that a 28% reduction would be a “meaningful achievement” and could be built on later. He also pointed out bluntly that Labor couldn’t achieve anything if perpetually in opposition.
“If we could get to 28% by 2030, and also demonstrate that we could do so without destroying blue collar jobs or damaging the economy, then we would have a great foundation from which to argue the case for being more ambitious on the road to 2050,” he said.
Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, who is from Queensland, refused to be pinned down when pressed on Fitzgibbon’s proposal.
“My view is we can take real action on climate change without abandoning our traditional strengths, including in regional Queensland,” he said.
The Victorian minister for energy, environment and climate change, Lily D’Ambrosio, asked at the Australian Financial Review’s national energy summit about Fitzgibbon’s comments, said she wasn’t much interested in what a federal opposition did.
“We have a very strong and ambitious policy and we took that to the last state election, and we all know the result of that election, so we will continue to implement our policies and get them done,” she said.
Federal energy minister Angus Taylor pointed to the divisions in the opposition but welcomed that there were “people in Labor who are making sensible suggestions about dropping their policies from the last election.
“What we saw happen there was Labor went to the election with policies – 45% emissions reduction target, 50% renewable energy target – where they weren’t able to or willing to detail the costs and impacts of those policies,” he said.