OPINION

Are we really going to let Scott Morrison cook the country?

The Coalition is increasingly in the thrall of members who are working to stymie meaningful action on climate change. Picture: Getty Images
The Coalition is increasingly in the thrall of members who are working to stymie meaningful action on climate change. Picture: Getty Images

It was just about the first action the new President of the United States took - rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. And it was one quick way to signal exactly the path the Biden presidency will take on the biggest challenge of our times. Pandemics come and go, but climate change is a one-way ticket to a catastrophe no vaccine can help us avoid.

For years now, the Coalition has done precisely zip to avoid global warming. One excuse after another from a variety of actors. Avoidance. Weakening. Rebuttal. Refusal. Withdrawal.

The Coalition and its supporters are also home to a host of climate change deniers, but Australia's Loudest Global Warmer is probably the member for Manila, George Christensen (in close competition with Scott Morrison, Malcolm Roberts, Angus Taylor, Craig Kelly and Barnaby Joyce, among others).

He wins only because of his much-publicised desire to get up an inquiry into banks either pulling back or refusing to lend to mining projects because of climate change. Despite all the pre-Christmas hooha, poor old George is finding it hard to get the numbers to back the review, even though the Treasurer provided substantial high-level support. Yet on Wednesday the Prime Minister said coal mining will continue to generate wealth for Australians for decades to come. Dear God. This man actually wants to cook the country.

During Trump's presidency, Morrison had an ally in his war on climate change action. Trump's "leave pass" for inaction empowered Morrison. But as Kevin Rudd wrote last year: "Under Biden, he'll be seen as nothing more than the climate change free-loader that he is. As he will by the rest of the world. And our economy will be punished as a result."

So what was in the Prime Minister's mind as he praised coal on the eve of the inauguration of a new US President who clearly recognises the threat of climate change? Why are Morrison and co refusing to recognise what all our trading partners do? As entertaining physicist Julius Sumner Miller might have asked back when I was a girl, why is it so?

Do we really want Australia's Loudest Global Warmer setting the tone on climate policy? Picture: Getty Images

Do we really want Australia's Loudest Global Warmer setting the tone on climate policy? Picture: Getty Images

Kate Crowley has some answers.The University of Tasmania associate professor of public and environmental policy reminds me Australia's structural reliance on coal can't be magicked away in two minutes. Then she reminds me about what happened to Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme and Julia Gillard's carbon tax, both destroyed by various bad-faith actors. Since then, she says, the Coalition has found itself increasingly in the thrall of the conservatives within its parties, despite the guidance of bodies such as the OECD, the International Energy Agency and even the government's own climate change authorities.

"There are some forward-thinking people in those parties who would like to see a transition, who see the writing is on the wall and Australia has to do it - but conservatives are holding sway," she says.

"Where we are today is embarrassing on the international stage, and Biden will call Australia out."

That will infuriate the conservatives, such as Christensen, Kelly and company, who are already enraged by the decision by business to go where our government refuses to go. This year will be bookended by two significant events on the climate calendar - one, the decision by the US to rejoin Paris made on the first day of the new administration, and two, the annual global climate change conference in November, COP26.

Emma Herd is the chief executive officer of the Investor Group on Climate Change which, thrillingly, is a bunch of big investors putting pressure on companies to stop polluting. When I say pressure, the IGCC is responsible for $2 trillion worth of investments among its members (about two-thirds of Australia's super investment) - and that's just Australia.

But the bigger project is Climate Action 100+, which has 500 members worldwide and accounts for $US50 trillion of investment. This kind of investor activism has already had some success with other bad company behaviour, and Herd says there is already a shift. Big companies have already signed up, such as BHP, AGL, Woolworths, Qantas and Boral.

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"If our government won't shift, business will," she says.

"Business has to respond to the real world and it can see what is going on in investment trends. We know that every major industry sector will go through major decarbonisation."

And as she points out, even Australia's conservative allies, such as Boris Johnson's United Kingdom, are on board with the shift.

"This is a huge opportunity for Australia if we can get it right. We must get past the climate wars and come together. We need a unity ticket on climate," she says.

This must infuriate the climate deniers no end - but their power is teensy in comparison. Thank heavens. And Susan Park, professor of global governance at the University of Sydney, says Biden's move will put increasing pressure on Australia and reinforce the position of the United Kingdom, which is leading the COP26 negotiations.

"We are now sitting alone as a laggard," she says.

"It depends on how the Biden administration wants to engage with its ally. If it is willing to gently encourage, I could see that working - but there is a great unwillingness from us and I don't think our Prime Minister likes to be told."

Park's advice to the government? Be proactive.

"It would be a huge coup if we had something for COP26 which showed we are responsible international citizens," she says.

If not, then the country, through business, is going ahead without him. We are moving towards net-zero emissions by 2050. Morrison could gain some respect by getting on board.

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.
This story Are we really going to let Scott Morrison cook the country? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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