Bursting the fossil fuel bubble

Our leaders’ coal addiction is looking increasingly exposed.

Australia’s leaders are facing a policy choice: allow the business-as-usual, politics-as-usual bubble to grow until it bursts, with messy consequences, or pop it now, face reality and lead accordingly.

Established economical and political norms that once seemed set in concrete turn out to have masked underlying weaknesses, not least being the fact that the same norms (endless economic growth among them) have led to the multiple crises now threatening human and other life on Earth.

Claims about strong climate and pandemic policies damaging the economy are hollowing out now that the consequences of neglecting them are on stark display. To see what contagion can do to government, just look at rising tension within and between pandemic-afflicted countries over repeated lockdowns and vaccine rollout – issues that could easily be ours too if we drop our guard.

But a pandemic is small beer compared to the compounding costs and stresses of climate inaction. Last week the Climate Council, a crowd-funded research and information organisation, released its most confronting report in over seven years of documenting Australia’s rising climate crisis.

The report’s principal author is a world authority on atmospheric science, ANU professor Will Steffen. As the title suggests, Hitting Home is about the price the world is now paying for failing to act decisively in the critical decade to 2020.

Even with the best possible level of global emissions reduction from now on – an impossible scenario given our record – the world will continue to get warmer for several more decades, which means more extreme heat, heavier rain events, bigger storms, bigger wildfires.

Also in store are more “flash droughts”, first observed in Australia in 2019, where an apparently good growing season turns to dust in a matter of weeks with sudden high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds accompanying low rainfall.

Recent warming, says the report, has caused a succession of mass bleaching events that killed off about half the Great Barrier Reef’s hard corals, and started “a new and dangerous era of megafires” – notably the Black Summer fires which burned an area eight times that of an average fire season.

Adjusting for inflation, the cost of weather-related disasters in this country is now about double what we paid in the 1970s. Future rapid sea level rise will add megabucks more. With more to lose from climate change than any other developed country, the report advocates a cracking pace in cutting emissions – at least halved by 2030 and down to net zero before 2040.

Australia’s body politic has failed to confront the reality that climate change is already upon us and that the worst will only be avoided if we stop burning fossil fuels, now if not sooner. Both the major parties still talk as if we can have our cake and eat it too. We can’t.

Australian governments acted decisively and cooperatively when faced with a pandemic disaster, and we’re now reaping the benefits. But Scott Morrison’s government shows no sign of applying that thinking to climate by raising its mediocre commitments.

This will change, not because the government suddenly decides to take notice of harrowing scientific evidence but because Joe Biden has ended the Trump horror show and injected science into US domestic and foreign policy. A vastly stronger US climate policy announced last week includes putting pressure on all nations, including Australia, to strengthen their own measures.

In April Biden will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit, ahead of which he will announce his nation’s targets under the Paris Agreement, which the US has now rejoined. Australia will attend, and will face exceptional pressure to come up with a strong, coherent, binding plan.

As of now, you could be forgiven for thinking Australia is moving in another universe. Both major parties have given unwarranted assurances about the future of coal and gas because they think the electorate will reward them. But the only visible outcome of those assurances is indecision and weakness, not something that any elector finds appealing.

Morrison is vulnerable over this, but no more so than Anthony Albanese after last week’s underwhelming reshuffle of Labor’s front bench. Mark Butler, a strong voice for climate action, now has Chris Bowen’s health role, Bowen has climate change, and Richard Marles has a big new national reconstruction portfolio.

Regardless of how that pans out, Biden’s powerful climate moves are a game-changer. Both major parties must now find the courage to abandon completely the big lie that we can safely accommodate fossil energy in our future and focus on climate policy leadership. They might be surprised at voters’ response.

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