Veteran pollster John Utting believes the fires have been an “absolutely seminal moment. The conversation in the past has been kind of abstract, with [the case for stronger action] very much in in the hands of the virtue signallers; people felt they were being lectured. But now, everyone is breathing the proof. There is an incredible amount of evidence that the issue is beginning to bite … people are worried about a huge loss of lifestyle, and the impact on how they want to live and what they like about this country.”
Huntley agrees, though she’s not yet as certain as Utting that this season’s fires are a complete game-changer. “People can respond to traumatic events in very different ways, and some can push back and say, ‘I don’t want you to play politics with this disaster’,” she says.
But she senses a change in public opinion. This summer’s infernos have meant images of what climate change looks like are no longer so remote for many Australians.
“Polar bears on icebergs, Pacific islands sinking, ice floes melting … it hasn’t felt like that hit at the heart of our identity or way of life. Now, tragically, critically, we have really compelling images in our minds of what climate change might mean for us.”
Huntley is midway through writing a book on the emotional response to climate change and says her research points to “a very high level of concern about climate. All the surveys show that, and whether you believe in surveys or not, they can’t all be wrong all the time”.
“This is an opportunity for leaders to show that actually we are all in this together, that this affects us all … It’s an opportunity to drop some of the really destructive partisan politics on climate and step forward.”
Groups that Coalition governments generally listen to – the Business Council of Australia, the insurance sector, parts of the finance industry, investors, even some religious communities – have been “talking about the importance and opportunity of transitioning to a low-carbon economy for some time”, she says.
The federal government could bring those interests together and ask what should be put on the table in terms of climate action, she suggests. “You would not need one environmental group there and you could still have a meaningful conversation about what needs to be done.”
The CEO of the Investor Group on Climate Change, Emma Herd, also sees an opportunity to “put aside the [toxic partisan debate] of the last decade and to face forward”.
“It is simply not good enough for Australia to say we are only 1.3 per cent of global emissions and there is nothing [more] we need to do. Because we will feel the effects if nothing happens. We really need to be increasing our international engagement to ensure that the world is acting because we are on the front line of the worst effects.”
Former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop stepped into the ring this week, telling Nine’s Today show that “we should be showing leadership on the issue of climate change … If a country like Australia fails to show leadership, you can hardly blame other nations for not likewise showing leadership in this area.”
The remarks were squarely aimed at the federal government’s widely panned performance at the recent Madrid climate summit, where Australia was seen as cheating on targets for emission reductions by insisting on using “carry-over” carbon credits from the much earlier Kyoto treaty.
Experts overwhelmingly believe Canberra’s targets are too low in the face of the mounting evidence that climate change effects are accelerating. Yet, thus far, the Prime Minister has baulked at revising those targets upwards, telling ABC radio again on Friday morning that “our policies don’t pursue reckless job-destroying and economy-destroying targets”.
State Liberal leaders are proving far more willing to embark on stronger climate policies than their federal colleagues.
Last month, NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean caused a stir by telling a Sydney summit that climate change was a factor in the severity of the fires and “exactly what the scientists have warned us would happen” – a comment that only looked brave because so many of his federal colleagues had run a mile from acknowledging the link.
He told the Herald this week: “For a long time climate change has been something theoretical, but what we are seeing now is tangible impacts on people, property and the environment. We are actually seeing it played out. My view is that the public wants meaningful action in a way that won’t destroy the economy.”
The state government has a stated goal of net zero emissions by 2050, though little has been on offer so far to show how that will be achieved. Concrete measures to make good on the promise are likely to be unveiled soon. By 2030, the goal is a 35 per cent emissions cut on 2005 levels, though that’s yet to become official.
“Business is already doing it, not because they are greenies but because they are capitalists,” Kean says. “Markets are shifting, community sentiment is shifting, and it’s time government caught up.”
He says he’s excited by what he saw in international markets at the end of last year, particularly in the Netherlands where they were “overbuilding” wind generation capacity to produce “green” hydrogen. “They will export [it] to the rest of Europe and will make a killing out of it,” he says.
“I think we can win the climate wars by lowering our carbon emissions in a way that creates jobs, sees investment coming into our country and underwrites our prosperity for future generations.”
Kean was unimpressed by federal Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly’s starring turn on British TV this week, when the hapless MP was lashed by high-profile host Piers Morgan after arguing that the savage fires were not linked to climate change but to high fuel loads and the drought.
“Craig Kelly is as qualified to talk about atmospheric physics as he is to perform brain surgery,” Kean says.
Liberal governments in South Australia and Tasmania are also pinning high economic hopes on renewable energy. South Australia produces just over 50 per cent renewable energy now and aims to up that to between 75 and 85 per cent in five years’ time.
That leap in capacity will be aided by a planned new interconnector to link SA’s riverlands and the Riverina in NSW, smoothing out peaks and troughs between the two different weather systems.
Steve Marshall’s government is also investing in closed-loop hydro, large-scale battery storage and subsidies for home batteries to make the most of a high uptake of rooftop solar. The state’s goal is 100 per cent renewable energy by the 2030s, if not 2030 itself.
“We have a good working relationship with Canberra, but the attitude here is we are running our own race,” a senior source says. “Tasmania is in a similar place … we are both talking about how we can become net exporters of renewables.”
Even the cautious Business Council of Australia is chafing at the bit. It made no secret of its dismay when the then Turnbull government ditched the proposed National Energy Guarantee, which would have enshrined lowering emissions as one of the key aims of a national energy plan.
The group was wary of harnessing the fires to pressure for policy change this week. However, a spokesman said: “The climate science tells us that extreme weather events and natural disasters will become more frequent and intense. So we need a credible climate change and energy policy that puts us on a transition path to net zero emissions by 2050.”
John Utting believes the fires have changed the electoral calculus. “Someone running for office now has to be on the right side of the issue at the next election,” he says. “Governments are reluctant to lead opinion, they only respond when community sentiment overwhelmingly backs a change. But look what happened with same-sex marriage – I think it will happen on climate change.”
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.