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Cowardice: what Morrison and Albanese have in common on climate

There are various nuances around the energy announcements of recent days, but there is a simple fact, too: the Prime Minister failed us. The beginning of this year, its hurtling fires and thickened air, gave an early taste of the harm that will be done to Australia and Australians by a hotter climate. Most of us will see worse before we die. On Tuesday, Morrison announced he would hurry things along, by doing everything he could to get more gas out of the ground.

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A sad fact about the climate debate, and particularly the mess that Tony Abbott made of it, is that we have been reduced to bleak comparisons. Everything, at this point, is fairly disastrous, but at least X is slightly less disastrous than Y. And so, within these confines, let us note the Liberal Party, under Morrison, has over the past two years moved away from coal. Within the perverse theatre of Australian climate debate, this looks like progress. In terms of brutal reality, it’s close to meaningless.

Climate scientist Will Steffen, who has advised governments of both persuasions on climate policy, provides some sense of how bad things are. We hear a lot about the Paris Agreement. It’s best to think about this in three tiers, Steffen says. First: the aim of the agreement is to keep temperature rises well below two degrees. There is momentum already in the system – the world will keep getting hotter for a little while no matter what we do. If the temperature rise hits two degrees, all of the disasters that are coming our way will be more severe – more heatwaves, more severe cyclones, higher sea levels. And 99 per cent of coral reefs will die. It’s crucial to avoid hitting this point. Note that the aim is well below two degrees.

Second, having agreed to that aim, nations made commitments on what they would actually do. But these commitments are far less than what is needed to meet the aim. If that is all we do, we will likely face a temperature rise of about three degrees.

Third, countries are not even meeting these weak commitments. Australia, Steffen says, is at the worse end of this. If every country acted like Australia, temperatures might rise by close to four degrees. In the abstract public debate, the Paris accord can seem like a series of bureaucratic targets. In reality, it is the difference between the world that we have now – already facing more fire and drought – and absolute catastrophe.

So is there a role for gas as a “transition fuel” away from coal, as the Prime Minister says? Yes, says Steffen – but that means using the gas we already have, not extracting more of it.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

If the world simply relied on all the mines and infrastructure already in place – without adding one more mine or one new gas field – we might still hit two degrees. Instead, the Prime Minister is talking about expanding our gas production, which, over decades, would be “disastrous”. The phrase “transition fuel”, Steffen believes, is being used as a smokescreen. “That is misusing the word and concept of transition.”

It can sometimes be difficult, in politics, to draw a line between canny leadership and weakness. Is it canny, or weak, to wait for events to move, and then move with them? There’s not one answer: it depends on various factors, including how important the issue is, and how high is the cost of waiting. Climate change is the most important challenge any government in any of our lifetimes will face, coronavirus included. And it is clear, from what Steffen says, that the costs of waiting are disastrous.

This is why Morrison’s actions should be viewed as weak. He is failing to take our country where it needs to go. He has managed a shift away from coal partly because he is trusted by his colleagues as a genuine conservative. But he has also managed it simply because time has passed; he has read the politics of the moment, including those of his own party, and gone with them.

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But consider what he might have done. In political terms, he was handed not one crisis but two. He could have used the fires to argue the matter was urgent; and he could have used the pandemic to make the case that a massive expansion of green jobs was necessary. Facing perhaps the most opportune set of circumstances in which to act on climate that any prime minister has faced, he chose not to use his authority. These are the actions of a weak leader – not so different from Turnbull.

And what about Labor, a party of the left, allegedly committed to fighting climate change, the only one of the two major parties to have passed significant legislation to cut emissions? What did Labor do this week? Went along with it, more or less. There were some questions about whether the plan was much of a plan, but there was no strong disagreement. The truth is, Labor has pretty much given up on fighting on climate change from opposition.

Here, we quickly come to the same question we did with Morrison: canny or weak? In a sense, Albanese is staying true to his words in 2009. Government gives you power that opposition does not. To really change things, you must win government. Labor has clearly judged that fighting the government on climate will not help it win.

Albanese is presumably hoping that voters will tire of Morrison, and that he can win on other issues. But as with Morrison, we can talk about political strategy, but we also have the right to judge Albanese against the reality of the world: he too is acting from a position of cowardice, unwilling to give Morrison the fight he wants, unwilling to face down the gas-hounds in his own party, unwilling to take a stand on the issue of our time.

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Perhaps this will prove to be a smart strategic decision; if Labor wins government, and acts on climate, it might seem worth it. But Albanese should remember, too, that “you get power by exercising it”. And if you avoid major fights for too long, eventually people forget that you can fight at all.

This idea that voters might quickly tire of the man who led them through crisis relies to some extent on historical examples, including that of Winston Churchill. The great man lost the 1945 election after leading his country through a war. Voters, it seemed, wanted something new. But two crucial facts to remember are that Churchill’s opponents also offered something new – and that they were given help in that mission.

In 1942 the Beveridge Report was released. That report described the “five giants” blocking the road to post-war recovery – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and a comprehensive program to fight them. It was a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history”, the report stated, and therefore “a time for revolutions, not for patching”. Any election result has many causes, but as some historians have pointed out, while both parties backed the Beveridge Report, Churchill hedged a little. Labour backed it completely.

In Australia, if Labor chooses not to fight on climate, at this revolutionary moment, what will it fight on?

It’s interesting to consider what might take the place of the Beveridge Report – some external force that helps shift the national mood towards accepting change, and offers concrete possibilities. One candidate is a Joe Biden presidency. If he beats Donald Trump in November, the Democrats might, in the early months of next year, help show both Australia and Labor what is possible. Of course, he might not win; or he might win and disappoint. But he has certainly been sharp on climate lately, calling Trump a “climate arsonist”.

This week, he could as easily have said the same of Morrison and Albanese.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

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