Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House, last week inadvertently gave Labor a preview of its worst nightmare.
Standing next to our Prime Minister, Pelosi delivered a fairly bland statement about working on “critical priorities”, including “so many other things in terms of cooperation on security but also strengthening our relationship with regard to trade and commerce”. On this list she included “climate change – and thank you for your leadership in that regard”.
It was a ridiculous thing to say, as Pelosi’s colleagues would have known – in recent months the Biden administration has made clear Australia’s inadequacies on climate. But Pelosi went even further the next day, citing Morrison’s slogan of “meeting and beating” the Paris targets as proof Australia, along with Britain, was “leading the way”. Whether Australia was doing enough (it’s not) and whether those targets still mattered (they don’t) didn’t seem to come into it – Morrison had a slogan and that was enough.
That Pelosi could say such things should terrify Labor, because of how closely it reflects the likely position going into the election. There is a very good chance Morrison will not have done much more on climate than he has now. He will, however, have a slogan, which will be accepted, by a remarkable number of people, as an acceptable substitute for reality – just as it was in America last week.
Australia’s climate debate has, for some time now, been conducted in a series of parallel universes. As the implausibility of each becomes too large to ignore, we don’t return to reality – instead, another is brought in to take its place.
The first of these fantasies, ushered in by Tony Abbott, was the idea that nothing at all really needed to happen. As the absurdity of this became obvious, it was replaced by the fiction that the costs of acting on climate change were huge and terrible, while the costs of not acting could largely be ignored. This was the parallel universe in which the 2019 election campaign was conducted.
This year’s major climate change meeting, in Glasgow in November, set a use-by date on that fiction. Much of the world is now moving faster than Australia. This means the costs of not acting are adding up quickly, as we get left behind on investment, on technology, on opportunities.
Last week, Josh Frydenberg delivered a speech on climate in which he made this case. The Treasurer did not, as was widely reported, directly support net-zero emissions by 2050 – and so in one sense this was another in the long line of tiny shifts in language from the Morrison government that are reported as more significant than they are. In fact, Frydenberg didn’t even really focus on the costs of inaction – instead, he said there were risks if markets “falsely assume” Australia is not acting. He had to say this because the government’s line is that it is acting already.
But the tenor of Frydenberg’s speech was important nonetheless. In essence, he was announcing that Australia was now ready to exit the parallel universe that dominated the 2019 campaign.