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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