As anxiety mounts, another missed opportunity

Scott Morrison is passing up the chance to reset his climate agenda.

There’s a lot of uneasiness around the country.

It isn’t just fire and drought and the bad things they do to us. They seem endless, but they will end. It is reasonable to expect that rain will come and plants will shoot and wild animals will return to keep us company. But we have little idea when that recovery will come nor how lasting it will be.

For all its ups and downs the climate of the last century was more or less predictable, but that climate has now gone and will not return. What is more, the climate will not stop changing. I find that deeply sad.

Decades of lived experience made some people sceptical about climate change. Observing no clear signs in daily weather and hearing mixed views in the media, they dismissed talk about small temperature shifts as insignificant, along with the scientists who raised it.

It took practical experience to change that. Multi-year drought across regional Australia, last year’s Tasmanian fires and north Queensland floods, and now this summer from hell have left an indelible impression in the Australian consciousness.

A new poll by Ipsos shows the environment to be the country’s top current concern, well ahead of the cost of living, health care, the economy and crime. Some of this increase can be put down to the fires, but the trend has been rising for four years.

In other words, people’s disquiet about the state of our environment, on the back of the chronic failure of governments everywhere to rein in emissions, is not something that will disappear before the next election. This is a long-haul development.

Resisting decisive action on emissions is to deny the truth of the science. It’s troubling that it took so long for people to fully accept that, however genuine the mistake. But what really sticks in the craw is the persistence of climate change denial among people in positions of power and influence.

Most of them will say this misrepresents them. They may say they don’t deny the science but stand up for the economy, claiming a rapid response spells economic ruin. Or that they serve as some sort of cool head, an antidote to fervent climate activists.

That was the position taken by prime minister Scott Morrison at the National Press Club last week.

Listing things to work on (using defence people, getting more firefighting aircraft, reducing local hazards, improving recovery arrangements), he added “we must … prepare for and adapt to the environment and the climate we are going to be living in,… acknowledging what that is.”

He went on to describe “real climate action”: “building our ability to resist, absorb, accommodate, recover and transform in the face of such events – and this includes the effects of longer, hotter, drier summers.

“Practical action on mitigation through reduced emissions needs to go hand-in-hand with practical action on climate resilience and adaptation. Locally, when it comes to practical safety of people living in bushfire zones, hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction.”

He’s dead wrong. Hazard reduction is not more important – not locally, not practically, not now, not ever – because nothing is remotely as important as curbing emissions. Without it we will always be behind the eight-ball, struggling in vain to adapt to a moving, ever more extreme target.

On the day of Morrison’s Press Club address, 80 eminent research academics urged him to recognise the threat to human societies posed by climate change and the need to cut emissions “in time to safeguard against catastrophe”.

At the Press Club the PM got a chance to respond when Kieran Gilbert of Sky News pointed out that nations with carbon footprints similar to Australia’s 1.3 per cent of global emissions added up to 40 per cent of the total.

The PM interrupted the question with a sharp “How did we get from 1.3 to 40 per cent?” before diverting attention to protecting the economy and keeping a lid on costs. But that diversion flies in the face of an essential fact: unmitigated climate change will smash the economy.

Uniquely vulnerable to climate change, Australia is also uniquely well placed to be a renewable energy superpower. The eminent scientists described us as “ground zero for both climate impacts and climate policy uncertainty”. We’re tailor-made for global leadership.

But Scott Morrison is digging in. It is useless to hope that he might draw on the fire crisis to radically reset his climate agenda this year. All we should expect from this master of spin is spin.

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