Mad as hell, and not prepared to take it any more

Friday’s Global Climate Strike is a chance to shake the complacency of leaders and governments who refuse to take climate change seriously

Greta Thunberg has her say at a rally outside the White House in Washington last week. PHOTO Gulf Today

All governments, knowing that fossil-fuelled economies damage the climate and threaten our future, have pledged to lower carbon emissions. But most have taken no effective action.

Called to account, they respond with evasion, concealment, and downright lies. That applies in Australia, at both federal and state levels, and it’s been the situation since the 1980s. All those years of false dawns and dashed hopes.

It happens because voters allow it to, accepting the narrative that climate change is a second-order issue. But mounting evidence and cranky weather are making people nervous.

Since 2009, the Climate of the Nation survey has been mapping public attitudes around climate. The 2019 survey reveals that around four in five Australians are now seriously bothered about droughts, floods, water shortages and species extinction. Over half of us think there should be a moratorium on new coal mines.

The Bureau of Meteorology reports that in the first eight months of 2019 – with national rainfall the fifth-lowest on record – Australia’s mean temperature was the second highest in 110 years of observations. That is on top of record or near-record warming in each of the past seven years.

Extreme warming from ever-rising emissions is now evident over much of Europe, northern Asia, the Middle East, in oceanic hot zones including off Tasmania’s east coast, and – especially – in the Arctic. Strong warming is helping to drive exceptional floods, droughts, fires and coral bleaching.

Australia’s vulnerability doesn’t seem to register with either major party. Scott Morrison could have chosen to put his weight behind strengthening climate policy when he became prime minister last year, but he didn’t. There’s ample evidence that he takes it about as seriously as tying his shoelaces.

Tony Abbott’s “axe the tax” campaign saw Labor opt for bipartisanship over effective policy. Now many in the party think Bill Shorten’s 2030 target to cut emissions by 45 per cent is too hard.

It has been said many times before that we’re at a crossroads, but we’ve been stuck there for years while governments fiddle with things they deem more important. In truth our country is doing next to nothing, either to mitigate the danger or to deal with it when it arrives.

Every country faces the same confronting future, and authorities everywhere need all the help their people can give them. If the federal government could only muster the courage to change tack, it would get plenty of public support in the huge task facing us all.

Instead we are confronted with the vitriol that passes for question time when parliament is sitting, or snappy, five-second attacks on opponents that we dignify with the title “press conference”. It seems an age since we had leaders able to rise above name-calling and point-scoring.

Instead of substantive policy development and debate we get populist posturing, scapegoating and trivialising of important issues. Chicanery around party donations and secretive dealings with the wealthy and privileged tell us our political class has abandoned public service for its own gain.

We need a mature debate about what climate change means for our nation. And we desperately need governments to prioritise communities and their well-being ahead of the individual hip pocket.

Those masters need to be persuaded that sticking with today’s mindsets and misdeeds spells electoral doom, and that can only happen if a big proportion of the electorate delivers a powerful signal of disapproval.

For an hour or two on Friday Australians are being asked to put other business aside and focus on the state of the planet. The Global Climate Strike grew out of a 2018 strike action by Australian students that drew inspiration from the solitary protest of a Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg.

Next Monday Thunberg will deliver her message to the world at the UN Climate Summit in New York. As it happens Scott Morrison will be in the US next week. He could join other leaders to hear what she and others say, but when Thunberg speaks he’ll be in Washington to dine with Donald Trump.

In reach and participation, Friday’s event will be huge. Past environmental and anti-war protests have focused on regional or national issues, but this is for everyone, everywhere. At thousands of venues in countries around the world, millions of people will be making their presence felt.

Governments may be in denial about the climate, but they can count. A big turnout on Friday will have an impact. It will bring more to the next rally and more again after that, until governments everywhere feel the heat like the rest of us. That’s democracy at work.

• TASMANIA is hosting four public rallies for the Global Climate Strike, starting at noon on Friday in Hobart’s Parliament Lawns, Launceston Town Hall, Devonport’s Providore Place and Cow Park, Wynyard. Elsewhere you can do as Greta did: take your placard to a public place and stay a while.

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The music has stopped but the record keeps playing

The PM’s choice of energy and resources ministers signifies a deep antipathy toward renewable energy and a deep scepticism about the role of man-made climate change

AGL’s ageing Liddell coal-fired power station, in the Hunter Valley, NSW, whose scheduled 2022 closure by its owners, AGL, is strongly opposed by the Morrison government. PHOTO Energy Source & Distribution

If Scott Morrison wants to see Australia’s steady shift to renewable energy come to a grinding halt, putting Angus Taylor and Matt Canavan in charge of energy and resources was a masterstroke.

The two ministers have put career and reputation on the line in their determination to see wind and solar power put in their place and the coal industry given a new lease on life.

Last week’s long-awaited declaration by energy minister Taylor that Australia is about to meet its 2020 large-scale renewable energy target (RET) was remarkable only for what it didn’t say.

It was somewhat premature given that the announcement referred to renewable capacity that is committed (including Tasmania’s Cattle Hill wind farm) but not yet operational. But that’s a minor quibble; no-one is contesting that the RET will be met ahead of time.

That target would have been surpassed long ago but for an attempt by the Abbott government to abolish it. That failed, but it did see our earlier goal of 41,000 gigawatt-hours for large-scale renewables cut back to 33,000 GWh, causing an investment hiatus.

Taylor didn’t mention this episode or his active role in it, nor the fact that before and after entering parliament in 2013 he was on the front line of the crusade against wind farms, which he declared were causing land values to plummet.

He has softened his opposition to renewable energy, but he continues to warn, as he did last week, that intermittent wind and solar cannot deliver “an affordable and reliable system” without “dispatchable” power from sources like pumped hydro, gas and coal.

Suggesting that wind and solar are unaffordable is wrong – they are now the cheapest energy sources – and Taylor ignores the role of an efficient network using generation distributed over a wide area. He also overlooks multiple technologies to stabilise and store intermittent energy, one being pumped hydro which relies on the wind power that he has so strongly opposed.

Taylor seeks to underwrite new gas and coal generation to achieve “a balance in the system” but rules out extending the RET beyond 2020, a stance that has led to a worrying pause in renewables investment.

For his part, last week resources minister Canavan attacked activists opposing new coal mines – he called them “pampered, privileged and petulant” – and the Queensland government, which was “cowardly” for taking too long to approve a coal mine at Muldu, west of Brisbane.

Canavan wants more thermal coal both for Australian use in new coal-fired power stations which he wants the government to underwrite, and for export to India, which he sees as a moral question in that the exported coal would help lift Indians out of poverty.

If India needs more thermal coal to lift it out of poverty, no-one seems to have told its government. It is building more generating capacity, but coal’s share of that is declining, from virtually all in 2015-16 to less than half this financial year. That doesn’t bode well for more coal from Australia.

Both Canavan and Taylor are ignoring the essential questions: Why are banks and investors, not just in Australia but all over the world, unmoved by the idea that coal is in high demand? Why are power companies closing coal-fired power plants and refusing to replace them?

The elephant in this particular room is energy policy – or rather, its absence. Quizzed on ABC radio last week, Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton stressed that the renewable energy industry does not need subsidies, but it does need a more secure investment climate.

Investors, said Thornton, don’t know the rules of the game. Potential investors worry about whether the government will intervene to keep ageing coal power plants open, which if it came about would create “massive uncertainty”.

Investors, said Thornton, don’t know the rules of the game. Potential investors worry about whether the government will intervene to keep ageing coal power plants open, which if it came about would create “massive uncertainty”.

Thornton seeks “an energy policy that will last for several decades, that can have bipartisan support, that can give investors the confidence to make those investments”. Is that too much to ask?

His fears are underlined by a long and so far fruitless effort by the Business Council of Australia to end party differences over energy, which its president, Grant King, has called the largest public policy failure of our time.

I am citing these sources because in times past they were the sorts of people a Coalition government would pay heed to. But no longer, and the reason isn’t exactly hard to find. It’s climate change.

Whatever they may say when forced to talk about climate change, Angus Taylor and Matt Canavan, with some others in the Coalition including, it would seem, their boss, simply won’t accept that it poses enough threat to warrant discarding those old, time-honoured, fossil-fuelled ways.

While others are moving on they remain stuck in the groove, like an old record that’s come to the end of the music but refuses to switch off. Round and round and round, producing nothing but static.

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Is mindless planet-trashing the way to go?

The Morrison government is engaging in the kind of international chicanery we used to associate with tinpot dictatorships.

How the Morrison government is using Kyoto credits to avoid any significant action to reduce emissions. IMAGE: Tim Baxter (2019), In a Canter? Demystifying Australia’s Emissions Budget for Paris

When the United Nations emerged out of World War II, Australia was widely recognised as a model international citizen, a light helping to guide the world in a new age of diplomacy.

Civilisation’s answer to the wreckage left by nationalism was the UN’s multilateral world order. Both Coalition and Labor leaders knew that it gave a leg up to a middle-sized power like Australia, and worked hard to build our country’s reputation as a good global citizen.

Many older northern nations struggled with the new order, but Australia punched above its weight, notably in environmental advocacy. We led the world in pressing for UN measures to protect natural values in our part of the world, including the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

Our efforts were noticed. We secured the first UN presidency. UNESCO’s World Heritage committee held its first southern hemisphere meeting in Sydney, and the first Antarctic Treaty meeting was held in Canberra. We hosted the headquarters, in Hobart, of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

At the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992 Australia lobbied hard for the proposed framework convention on climate change and quickly ratified its agreement. Everyone expected as much. We had the reputation of taking a holistic view, supporting best collective outcomes.

But then something changed. Australia demanded special treatment at the 1997 Kyoto climate conference. Most developed countries agreed to lower their carbon emissions, but Australia was allowed a significant increase over 1990 levels.

That wasn’t all. At the eleventh hour, when delegates thought they had consensus, Australia insisted on an addition to the Kyoto Protocol, later dubbed the “Australia clause”, which drew on highly-favourable land-clearing data from 1990 to 1997 to give us an even greater advantage over others.

The concessions won by our wealthy, developed nation allowed us to increase emissions by 28 per cent between 1997 and 2012. In the final Kyoto commitment period to 2020 they have risen yet further. All the while our government could rightly claim it was meeting targets.

Those exceptional terms weren’t enough for John Howard, who believed we didn’t need a Kyoto Protocol and refused to ratify it. (That was finally done by Kevin Rudd.) Now, even the most tunnel-visioned Australian nationalist knows that Kyoto is a magic pudding that keeps on giving.

The Coalition is now taking yet another slice of that pudding. Unlike New Zealand, Germany, France, the UK and others, it will continue to draw on unused emission “credits” from the Kyoto era, which expires next year, to meet the modest 2030 target it set for itself in Paris four years ago.

With the exception of two brief years when a carbon price was in operation, emissions have continued to rise. So the Morrison government, like its predecessors, doesn’t mention them. Instead it refers repeatedly to “our target”, which we are meeting “in a canter”.

European countries that have actually brought down their emissions are accused by their citizens of doing too little, but Australia hasn’t really had to lift a finger. Now, delegates of leading developed countries at each UN climate conference greet us with suspicion, even hostility.

Anyone over 50 should know all about this brand of chicanery. For decades we saw it exercised repeatedly in international forums to stymy attempts to achieve accord on this or that issue. But it was always others doing it, never us.

It was climate policy that saw us cross to the other side in 1997. Australia has now been playing its Kyoto card for over 20 years, and shows no sign of ending the deception.

It wouldn’t matter if Australia was a small player – a Soviet-era throwback, maybe, or a minor dictatorship from Africa, the Middle East or Latin America. But we’re not – especially not in climate terms, where the physical size of a country counts almost as much as its population.

Pacific island countries place great store in climate conferences and multilateral aid. In December Scott Morrison decried those conferences as “all that sort of nonsense” and stopped Australian payments to the UN’s Green Climate Fund for vulnerable countries.

No wonder his offer to his Pacific “family” last month to redirect Australian foreign aid to rebuild island infrastructure was greeted with stony silence.

Sadly, our government is not alone in devaluing global obligations. Nationalists everywhere have long had multilateralism in their sights, if only for a bit of excitement. Now Brexit and Trumpism have given them the illusion that their narrow, simple-minded notions have substance after all.

In darker moments I find myself wondering if that’s how things are meant to be. Maybe the Morrison government is on to something. Maybe that thing we called civilisation was just a temporary aberration, and we were always more inclined to mindless, self-serving planet-trashing.

But what a crying shame that would be, after all we’ve done. Together.

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