In 2017, as treasurer Morrison exuberantly wielded a lump of black rock in Parliament, declaring “This is coal. Don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.”
A little over a year later Morrison had become PM, in part due to a Coalition insurrection over Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee, seen by many in the Coalition as a carbon price in disguise. Among those who agitated against Turnbull were members of the Monash Forum, a loose alliance of explicitly pro-coal Coalition members including former prime minister Tony Abbott along with figures such as Barnaby Joyce, George Christensen and Craig Kelly.
Polling showed climate action was popular in the community yet the 2019 election was fought largely on other issues that were, as one Liberal MP puts it, “on our turf”. Rather than applying pressure on the fissures within the Coalition over climate, the Labor Party allowed negative gearing and franking credits to dominate the campaign. Despite Morrison’s victory many in the party noted that the loss of Abbott’s seat to independent Zali Steggall showed the risks of a failure to act on climate. Especially in city seats.
Then the devastating bushfires occurred over summer. The disaster gave new urgency to the steady accumulation of scientific data demonstrating the rapid onset and horrific dangers of climate change as well as the dramatic shift towards action by the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea and most recently US. It was this combination of events that convinced Morrison of the need to take some action even as the world was distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberal MPs told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on the condition of anonymity.
The shift could be seen in the release of the government’s technology road map in September. To the dismay of many climate scientists the document championed the use of gas, but tellingly it barely mentioned coal. In keeping with Coalition climate doctrine it included no reductions targets and no price on carbon. Emissions would be achieved by backing new technologies rather than penalising old industries.
If it cut emissions by the amount the international community was increasingly demanding, that would be almost incidental, Morrison seemed to suggest when flagging the plan in Parliament.
“We’re putting together the technology plan, and a technology road map … which may well exceed a zero net carbon outcome in 2050,” he said. “It may well exceed that. But those opposite came up with a target, they had no clue what it would cost, no clue how they would get there.”
Due to the pandemic the UN climate talks in Glasgow set for last November were delayed by a year but diplomatic pressure was mounting on Australia to take more climate action nonetheless. For host Boris Johnson, a successful summit had become a legacy issue and the UK Prime Minister kept ramping up his own goals. The UK, he said, would not only hit net-zero by 2050, but reduce emissions by 68 per cent on 1990 levels by the end of the decade. This pressure grew with Joe Biden’s victory in the United States in November.
When it became clear Morrison would not be offered a speaking slot at an interim climate meeting in December, the PM instead announced to a meeting of Pacific island leaders that Australia would not use controversial “Kyoto credits” the government claimed to have earned by beating reductions targets set under a previous treaty in meeting its Paris goals.
“We’re committed to achieving net-zero emissions as soon as possible,” he said. “Our long-term emissions reduction strategy, to be lodged ahead of COP26 [United Nations Climate talks], will provide the necessary detail on our plan, but much has already been released.”
In January Morrison took another rhetorical step, telling The Australian that the shift towards a net-zero economy was inevitable.
“It is now about the how, not the if … That is what I’m saying in G20; that is what I’m saying in G7,” he said. “They are the conversations that I have, whether it is with the Europeans, or with the Japanese or whoever else … We all want to get there. It is not about the politics any more, it is about the technology.”
None of these statements, nor the drift that they chart, have been accidental, Liberal MPs have told the Herald and the Age. In the words of one, Morrison has long been aware he cannot attend the Glasgow talks and be isolated alongside a small handful of climate recalcitrants in the face of Australia’s allies and trading partners.
Nor can he risk firm declarations of reductions goals that are anathema to those in the Coalition who oppose any action. Morrison is “inoculating himself” with language that signals the change to them without forcing their hand to action, one of his MPs says.
His shift has not gone unnoticed in climate science circles either. Professor Lesley Hughes, a counsellor with the Climate Council says it is clear the PM’s progression is real.
“I think he is boiling the frog, getting opponents, mainly in the National party, used to the idea of action. He knows in the general community there is a political advantage in acting,” she says.
The problem is, each month the world fails to take significant action, carbon accumulates in the atmosphere. The goal of reaching net-zero by 2050 gave us a good chance of meeting the Paris Agreement target of holding warming to as far under two degrees as possible when it was first set in 2015. But since the world has not reduced emissions enough since then, the goal posts have shifted closer.
Today, says Hughes, the science says we need to hit net-zero by 2040, and to reach that we would need to cut emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. Australia’s 2030 target remains a reduction of 26-28 per cent by then.
“[Morrison’s] shift is glacial,” says Hughes. “And the glaciers are melting.”
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.