The hidden player in Scott Morrison’s climate game

Could the PM’s religious beliefs be behind his climate policy paralysis?

Ten years ago this month Australia came within an ace of becoming the first nation to put a price on carbon – until a single MP’s vote saw Tony Abbott take Liberal leadership and pull his party out of the pricing deal.

Since then, any move among Liberals for better climate policy has been promptly snuffed out. Now, amid an undeniable climate emergency, we have no effective policy at all. In world climate forums our country is a pariah.

In 2014 Abbott abolished Labor’s carbon tax, which government data shows brought coal emissions down. Malcolm Turnbull thought he should have another go but failed, while Scott Morrison offered his own cameo performance by brandishing a lump of coal in parliament before handing it to another coal champion, then-deputy PM Barnaby Joyce.

It should be noted that those three leading opponents of action to cut fossil fuel emissions – Abbott, Morrison and Joyce – all have strong and openly-expressed religious convictions.

Many religious people speak out for climate action and are in no way to blame for Australia’s policy failure. But it’s worth speculating on how the personal faiths of these three men shaped their attitudes to climate change, and how this might affect our future.

Abbott’s scepticism about man-made warming was evident before he took over as leader. A practising Catholic, he had a close relationship with George Pell, well known for preaching that climate could not be changed by humans.

Joyce has set himself up as the parliament’s go-to man-on-the-land who, unlike the hopelessly ignorant city slickers opposing him, really understands nature’s forces. He too asserts that all change is natural and has repeatedly derided the proposition that humans influence climate.

And he too is a man of God. That came to the fore in a Christmas post on Twitter featuring an eye-opening video selfie of him feeding his cattle and ruminating on the climate, which he admitted is changing.

“My problem’s always been whether you believe a new tax is going to change it back,” he continued. Then this: “We’ve just got to acknowledge there’s a higher authority, beyond our comprehension, right up there in the sky”, and if we don’t respect that authority “we’re just fools and we’ll get nailed.” So climate change is divine retribution.

Abbott and Joyce are past history, but Scott Morrison holds the most powerful, most influential office in the land. Last week he conceded that the drought and “broader fire events” – he avoided calling them a disaster – were linked to global climate change.

He added that it wasn’t credible to link climate change to “any single fire event”; the fires had a “multitude” of causes including carelessness, arson, dry lightning strikes and desiccated fuel. He also opened avenues to compensate brigade volunteers for their efforts.

All fine, except it counts for little when the PM has not acknowledged the gravity of our situation: years of drought topped off by raging wildfires and repeated heatwaves, all ahead of summer’s hottest months. We’re not after bland reassurance, just clear-eyed recognition of our plight.

Doing that could open a door to all sorts of things. Morrison could call the military out in force, agree to modify military aircraft to fight fire and accept Californian offers of more aircraft. And he could put his weight behind a national summit on managing fire risk long-term.

Most important, he could say what must clearly be said: that we are in a climate emergency requiring a wholesale policy rethink, and that we must commit to a massively stronger 2030 emissions target. But the potential conservative backlash would probably stop him.

Something else may also be stopping him. The prime minister’s Pentecostal faith holds that the universe and all that it contains, including all of humanity, is in the hands of its creator, God, and that God will determine its future through the second coming of Christ and the final judgement.

It’s a small step from here to see climate change as part of God’s grand plan where God both causes the change and decides the outcome. In that scheme of things, mere humans are powerless. A Pentecostal Scott Morrison would find it hard to swallow the proposition that humans, as the cause of climate change, must now do all they can to reverse it.

The PM likes to keep his beliefs and his politics in separate boxes. He says people should not assume that his religion affects his policies, and we may feel obliged to take him at his word. But in this time of turmoil – many have called it apocalyptic – we have reason to feel very nervous.

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Let Christmas, religious or not, draw us together

We are tearing ourselves apart, yet we need each other as never before.

Let’s pretend there are places where people have never heard of Christmas. Imagine being from such a place and suddenly finding yourself in the thick of it, here in Australia.

You may not come across the unlikely story of a baby boy born to save us, but you’d definitely spot the decorated streets, homes and trees and the bearded man in red, and you’d rightly conclude that an Australian Christmas is above all a pagan festival.

I grew up in a family and community that accepted the religious messages of Christmas. My family attended church, prayed for unfortunates and sang carols with conviction. Nowadays I value Jesus for his teachings but don’t believe he was divine.

A couple of billion Christians do believe, and will reaffirm their faith tomorrow in churches around the world, reflecting the global spread of European culture courtesy of colonialism – the same colonialism that brought everyone capitalism, fossil fuels and a heating planet.

But in the developed world the religion that gave birth to Christmas is now trumped by non-religious things. The same applies in China, India, Turkey and a dozen or so other essentially non-Christian countries which observe Christmas but don’t give it a public holiday.

Amid everything else happening in our world – wildfire, heatwaves, storm and tempest, not to mention Brexit, Donald Trump’s impeachment, public disorder in Hong Kong, Paris, Santiago, India – it’s hard to think of Christmas quite as we used to, years ago.

There is an unavoidable contradiction at work on Christmas Day, between a celebration of the humble birth of a Jewish child 20 centuries ago and the extravagant shopping, feasting and travelling that always accompany it.

A common response has been to keep it simple, to forgo gifts, or at least expensive ones, and limit the feasts and travel, but it’s been a losing battle. As life becomes more fraught people want an escape, and there’s no better escape than a trip away or a good party.

The English philosopher John Gray observes that religion, which answers deep human needs, is way beyond rational argument. We should accept that it will never die and focus on its excesses, when people take themselves into thoroughly silly places in its name.

One of the best examples of this is Israel Folau. His athletic gifts have graced many rugby fields, but all that went by the board when he applied his particular brand of Christianity to the complexities of modern Australian life.

Folau’s antipathy towards homosexual and transgender lives defies the facts of sexuality and gender. Even sillier is his deduction that the root cause of Australia’s fire crisis is an un-Christian support for same-sex marriage. Which brings us to where Christianity went wrong.

Gray tells us that before Christians got hung up on the idea that we must believe in Jesus to save ourselves, the world’s religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, focused not on belief but on observance – on personal and communal rituals that give form to daily life.

Which is as it should be. Humans are social animals and like to ponder how they came to be, how they should live with each other and other species, and how they die. Rituals giving shape to this thinking are important.

Then along came the religions of belief, Christianity and then Islam a few centuries later, preaching that if you went outside specified norms – if you were homosexual, for instance – you were an infidel, a non-believer, and could be put to the sword.

Inevitably they came to blows, an example that has caught on. In the wake of Islamist terrorism, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Myanmar and Jews in Israel all take issue with Moslem minorities. In China, the state has determined that Moslems in that country’s west must stop practising their faith.

Jesus preached love, peace, and caring for nature – God’s creation if you like – as do all the great religions, each in their own way. But we are beset with hatred, strife, and abuse of nature. While needing each other as never before, we are tearing ourselves apart.

There is a universal value in Christmas that extends way beyond Christianity. It’s about togetherness, cherishing common values and the institutions that defend them, and it takes in everyone. Not simply Christians, but every blessed one of our species including heathens like me.

Christmas Day is for all of us. Its messages of peace and love invite us to connect with all, the familiar and the foreign alike. Next week we should resolve to continue applying those messages through 2020, because being together is the heart of humanity, and without it we’re done for.

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Sydney smog is setting off alarms

Australia can no longer deny that climate change is a clear and present threat.

In a surreal moment last week, the western Sydney headquarters of the NSW Rural Fire Service had to be evacuated during a media conference on the state’s continuing fire crisis.

The cause? A smoke alarm set off by dense wildfire smoke smothering greater Sydney. The pollution level was 11 times the level deemed hazardous by health authorities, with immediate impact on people with respiratory or heart ailments, and long-term implications for everyone.

In the same smoke-filled city, at the same time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison held his own media conference to talk about religious discrimination. Inevitably, questions turned to his government’s fire and climate response, whereupon the PM counter-attacked.

In a nutshell, he said Australia’s emissions record is second to none, that we’re meeting targets, and that emissions have lowered over the past two years. He also said state fire authorities are getting all the help they need from the federal government. Then he turned away and walked out.

Within hours NSW environment minister Matt Kean broke Liberal ranks by declaring that the NSW fires were “not normal”, that “doing nothing is not a solution”, and that “we need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately”.

A day later, with public anger mounting over the smoke in the streets and the apparently endless fires causing it, emergency minister David Littleproud announced that $11 million would be made available immediately for aerial fire-fighting.

Flying in the face of his government’s own data showing rising emissions, Scott Morrison’s claims to the contrary rely on something that no other country is doing: claiming credits left over from 22-year-old Kyoto provisions uniquely favouring Australia. In 2015 then-environment minister Greg Hunt called it “global gold standard” accounting.

A Climate Analytics report last week concluded that Australia cannot legally claim these credits, derived from large-scale deforestation in 1990, to reach its 2030 target, because the Paris Agreement does not allow such credits. The report was commissioned by the Australia Institute, which I guess the Morrison government would consider unpatriotic.

This is the sort of minefield you get into when a government pays lip service to acting on man-made climate change while effectively denying it exists. A global report last week rated Australia’s effort to curb greenhouse warming right at the bottom of the barrel, alongside Donald Trump’s US. We’re simply a spoiler.

That recalcitrant mindset was in the spotlight at the Madrid climate summit at the weekend, when Australia’s use of Kyoto credits and refusal to countenance a tougher 2030 target came in for some heavy criticism from countries which had raised their own targets in line with Paris expectations.

Now, thanks to this year’s early fire season, breaches are appearing in that once-impenetrable Coalition defence. Wildfire is a small part of the global change now sweeping across our planet, but it has the potential to change minds like nothing else.

The duration, spread and intensity of the NSW and Queensland fires is shaking not just fire-fighters but whole regional populations. An area equal to nearly half of Tasmania has so far been burnt by the fires, and they are likely to continue burning for many weeks.

Burning through dense, dry foliage, the fires have been so intense that they’re being likened to the massive blazes that are turning large tracts of Amazon forest into open savannah.

Those Amazon fires are severely degrading the capacity of tropical South America to capture and store carbon dioxide, with net carbon loss this year calculated at 14 million tonnes. Now there’s speculation that Australia’s eastern forests may suffer the same fate.

Regeneration after fire normally sees carbon captured by growing trees making up for what was lost. That assumption will be applied to the burning of the NSW and Queensland forests, so those fires will not change the bottom line of Australia’s carbon accounts.

But this season’s fires have been so severe that leading Tasmanian fire ecologist David Bowman doubts that some forests will ever fully recover. In that case, these fires will be net emitters – a figure which will not appear in official emissions data.

In a better world the Morrison government would advise its people and the international community of this accounting failure and seek to fix it. So far the government shows no sign of wanting to do that, or to stop misrepresenting Australia’s poor performance.

But endless fires and city smog on top of this year’s intense drought now make it impossible to deny that climate change is already at work: no longer a future threat but a clear and present danger. Forget global obligations – Australia has a duty to itself to lead the world in lowering its emissions.

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