The king and the climate

On the day Australia’s parliament voted for stronger climate laws, and with large parts of Earth’s northern half suffering frightening extremes of heat, fire, drought, rain and flood, a prince famous for his love of nature and his concern about climate change became king. 

The synergies around the death of Queen Elizabeth don’t end there. On that fateful day, as Britain’s new Conservative PM Liz Truss put her reputation (and her nation’s treasury) on the line in a £100 billion package to protect Britons from looming energy price hikes, the Labour opposition called for fossil fuel profits to be taxed to meet the shortfall.

A very similar argument rang around the halls of Australia’s parliament, although in our case it was not Labor but Independents and the Greens who spoke out against those profits. 

First things first. Last week’s passing of the flagship climate legislation of Anthony Albanese and his government was unquestionably a good thing. After a decade of going backwards, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this. 

Positive outcomes include abolishing the Morrison government emissions “target”, which called for no effort on anyone’s part (it was former PM Tony Abbott’s nod-and-wink to climate denial). Australia now has a 2030 target which, though less demanding than those of most developed countries, is at least worthy of some respect.

We should welcome the revival of the Climate Change Authority, which was ignored by the Coalition after the Senate stymied Tony Abbott’s 2014 attempt to abolish it – ironically on the vote of senators in the party of coal magnate Clive Palmer. Without its professional advice politicians and bureaucrats have been flying blind.

The CCA will be empowered to recommend future targets, and its advice to government – thanks to amendments moved by ACT independent Senator David Pocock and agreed to by climate change minister Chris Bowen – will be made public.

Other agreed amendments require that the government hear from the public – including, as Pocock pointed out, the scientific community at large – about “the risks of inaction and the benefits of action” ahead of its mandated annual climate statement.

These are modest advances that deserve modest acknowledgment, but all the work remains ahead. For instance, the Greens believe they can prove the new 2030 emissions target of 43 per cent below 2005 levels is not achievable with Labor’s current suite of policies, and that stronger measures will have to be put in place. I think they’re right.

More to the point, Australia is still well behind the kind of target that developed countries need to aim for if we are to avoid a climate that is far less stable and far more dangerous than what we are dealing with now. 

Current modelling indicates that Australia’s 2030 target applied globally would be consistent with warming of at least 2C, nearly a degree higher than today, and indicators show national actions to date have had next to no impact on the rate of rise in greenhouse pollution. 

Anthony Albanese, climate change minister Chris Bowen and assistant minister Jenny McAllister all know that their current measures are not consistent with containing warming to the recommended Paris limit of 1.5C. McAllister virtually stated this in the Senate debate. 

Conceived a decade ago and signed in 2015, the Paris Agreement was based on UN projections that change would occur more slowly than it did. Many eminent scientists have since attested to this. At just over one degree of warming, we are now in a global crisis vastly more profound and consequential than the death of a queen, or any war.

Governments are dealing in half-measures when decisive and game-changing action is needed. Critically, we must find ways as soon as possible to end fossil fuel extraction and use. In Australia an essential early step would be axing fossil fuel subsidies, estimated by the Australia Institute to cost us $11.6 billion in 2021-22. 

Australia’s new king understands, along with tens of thousands of the world’s scientists, that our warming climate calls for the utmost attention of all governments. Yet we keep hearing he should tone down the rhetoric because he must be above politics. 

But his long-held passion for nature will not end now he is king, and in any case climate action should never have been a matter for party politics. He should feel confident about speaking up in the strongest terms for a cause belonging to all humanity – and about our chronic disdain for the natural world.

King Charles will also have the private ear of many national leaders including our own. Encouraging stronger action by Australia would definitely not go astray. I’m a republican and I do want an Australian head of state, but after so many frustrating, disappointing years in the cause of a stable climate I find this thought curiously pleasing.

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