Australia’s January news has been full of official reports of record-breaking extreme weather devastating our ecosystems on land and in the sea and government ministers suggesting we build new coal-fired power stations, provide billion-dollar subsidised loans to rail lines for new coal mega-mines, increase coal exports to reduce temperature rises and reduce our ambitions for renewable power.
The disconnect is glaring but perhaps dimmed in the eyes of some readers because Australian politicians have been dissembling on climate change for decades, pretending it will be possible to do what we must without any impact on our position as the world’s largest coal exporter or our domestic reliance on brown coal-fired power, or without incurring any costs.
The Coalition government – which boasts as one of its proudest achievements the repeal of the former government’s emissions trading scheme – has a particular need for doublespeak.
Having run two election campaigns on the pledge of “axing the tax” with hyperbolic assertions that it would strangle the economy and impoverish households, it found it convenient to claim the discovery of the climate policy equivalent of a free lunch.
The Coalition has never resolved the bitter internal divisions with conservative climate doubters that saw Malcolm Turnbull overthrown as leader in 2009 owing to his support for carbon pricing, to be replaced by Tony Abbott, who had declared the settled science of climate change to be “crap” and believed coal was “good for humanity”.
In September 2015 Turnbull overthrew Abbott but, since then, climate change has barely rated a mention and the new prime minister has surprised many by apparently falling into line with the mineral industry’s argument that our coal exports are really doing the world a big favour.
Trump’s victory has emboldened the doubters – the resources minister, Matt Canavan, for example, enthused that “Donald Trump is good for fossil fuels, good for steel and good for Australia”.
But it has also coincided with more conflicting responses from the government.
Less than a day after the US election, the Turnbull government ratified the Paris agreement – the same agreement the new US president has vowed to “tear up” and that calls for zero net emissions by the second half of the century – describing it was a “watershed … that has galvanised global action”.
But then it promptly abandoned a domestic policy idea that represented its last credible chance of meeting its promised targets or galvanising any real action here.
With the world recording its third year in a row of record temperatures and the Great Barrier Reef bleaching, any objective assessment would suggest the time for prevarication and obfuscation is long since past.
We’ll soon see. On 1 February, in his first major speech for the year, Turnbull will stand before the National Press Club to explain his policy on energy and the greenhouse gases it produces.
Experts from business, industry and the environment movement are wondering what he can possibly say.
For years the former environment minister had privately reassured stakeholders that a 2017 review would quietly morph the Direct Action policy into a so-called emissions intensity trading scheme and business and environment groups alike were clinging to those promises as the last hope for a credible climate policy and an end to the investment drought caused by years of mindless “climate wars” and policy uncertainty.
But late last year, despite advice that such a scheme would lead to lower household power prices, despite having bipartisan support and just hours after the current environment minister said the review would look at it, the government ruled it out.
Turnbull will announce new vehicle emissions standards and a new energy efficiency scheme. He and his office are looking at “technological solutions” – bright new ideas in solar thermal, or battery or carbon storage technology that might fill the policy void. But all those technologies need government policies to provide investors with incentives and certainty, and without actually confronting the climate doubters no one can imagine what that policy might be.
Turnbull will also reassure voters, who repeatedly tell pollsters they are worried about global warming, that Australia will “meet and beat” its international targets, as it has in the past.
But again complexity hides the underwhelming truth.
Australia got not one but two special deals in the original Kyoto protocol – an allowance to increase its emissions in absolute terms – unlike almost all other developed countries, on account of our reliance on fossil fuels – and another special deal so particular to our circumstances it was called “the Australia clause”. It allowed the inclusion of land-use changes in emission calculations in a way that meant restrictions that had already been imposed on large-scale land clearing – especially in Queensland – allowed Australia to rest assured it had achieved its new target before it even signed up to it. The deal was so good we did “meet and beat” the target and, unlike almost all other developed countries, we are using that overshoot to help us also meet our very low 2020 target.
But now state governments are overturning land-clearing restrictions and the federal government is arguing that states should abandon their regional renewable energy targets, which were only ever necessary because the federal scheme is effectively winding down.
In short, we have done very little and we have no effective federal policies to shift to a low emissions economy, and everyone knows it.
Trump gives the Australian sceptics the chance to run the same old arguments – if the US does nothing, then why should we? His victory has increased the prospect that some of them could split to form a new conservative party.
The energy market remains so complex that all kinds of wild claims can be made to justify a do-nothing end. And international climate negotiations remain so byzantine that countries can claim hero status while doing very little.
But the reality of global warming cannot be disguised by political obfuscation and the Turnbull government has run out of excuses. It has to have an honest internal reckoning – is it serious about climate policy or does it run with the sceptics? Trump’s election makes it more urgent that we finally have an honest debate.