16. 03. 2016

Climate Let-down Down Under

Even for a sympathetic observer from the UK, the politics of climate change in Australia is, to say the least, vexatious. But it’s now entering a more critical phase than ever before. The mismatch between the conclusions of the Paris Agreement in December last year and the failure of Australia’s political establishment to understand what’s going on ‘out there in the rest of the world’ is now putting Australia’s entire economy at risk.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrested power from Tony Abbott back in September last year, the international climate community breathed a deep sigh of relief. Together with Malcolm Harper (former Prime Minister in Canada, Tony Abbott was seen as the most egregiously pig-headed climate change denier the Western world had ever thrown up. By contrast, Malcolm Turnbull had done OK on climate change as leader of the Liberal Party before, so it was assumed he would do a lot better second time round.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As I’ve discovered on this visit, Australia’s Prime Minister has been utterly pusillanimous in pursuing any kind of progressive climate agenda. As part of his ‘oil on troubled waters’ strategy, he immediately decided not to take on Abbott’s climate-denying (as in ‘climate change is absolute crap’) guerrilla fighters, and has offered zero leadership to Australia’s confused and polarised citizenry either before or after Paris.

For instance, he stood idly by as Australia’s world-renowned science agency (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) announced it would be cutting 80% of its climate scientists – effectively ending Australia’s climate research programme.

No surprise then that the New South Wales Liberals passed a motion on Tuesday, with the support of more than 70% of delegates, calling on the Federal Government to ‘arrange and hold public debates between scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and independent climate scientists’. Basically, they’re still refusing to accept ‘that the science of climate change is settled’, and are fighting an obstinate rearguard action to keep on mining and burning as much coal and gas as possible.

You can see why Turnbull might be a bit nervous about confronting such a monumentally ignorant faction in his own Party. And he may even be reassured that such Neanderthal clans still hang on elsewhere in the world. There are, after all, still more than 100 Conservative MPs in the UK who do not subscribe to today’s consensus around the science of climate change. And a recent survey conducted by the Center for American Progress found that there are still 144 climate change deniers in the House of Representatives, and 38 in the Senate. That means, by the way, that more than six in ten US citizens are represented by people who think that climate change is a hoax perpetrated either by Communists or by doped-up greenies.

And that’s before we even start on the horror story that is Donald Trump! My favourite tweet from Trump the Denier is this: ‘The concept of Global Warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.’ Just how many conspiracy theories can one person pack into just one tweet?!

So Malcolm Turnbull is not the only politician having to deal with totally unreasonable flat-Earthers. But that’s no excuse – as in has he even bothered to work out what the real implications of the Paris Agreement look like?

In summary, all he needs to know is that it’s all so much worse (and moving so much faster) than anyone imagined even five years ago. Instead of having decades to do what needs to be done to set the global economy on a genuinely low-carbon trajectory (as in ‘net zero emissions by 2050’ – which is what Malcolm Turnbull’s government signed up to in Paris), we now have little more than a decade.

Australia is uniquely vulnerable in this respect. The damage that will be done to the Australian economy as the world decarbonises at speed, leaving billions of dollars stranded in fossil fuel assets that can no longer be developed the length and breadth of the country, is almost impossible to imagine. And to rub salt into that already inflamed wound, there are few countries that will suffer more from rising average temperatures (as in forest fires, increasingly inhospitable cities, and drought-devastated rural economies) and rising sea levels.

I’m out here in Australia every year for the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme, and I know only too well that this kind of apocalyptic stuff simply doesn’t do it for the vast majority of Aussies. So now let’s turn it all on its head – as in enabling Malcolm Turnbull to stiffen his flaccid sinews and seize this whole low-carbon agenda as the massive opportunity it is. For as it happens, not only is Australia uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of runaway climate change – it’s also extraordinarily well-placed to navigate its way through to the kind of ultra-low-carbon prosperity on which the destiny of all nations now depends.

But travel with me first to the blazing deserts around Ouarzazate in Morocco, where the world’s largest concentrated solar complex is under construction, providing electricity (by 2018) for more than one million people. Morocco is now on track to generate 42% of its total energy from renewables by 2020. And guess what Morocco and Australia have a lot of in common? A lot of sun beating down on a lot of sand.

And then let’s move on to the rolling plains of Uruguay – now intent on becoming South America’s first 100% renewable energy country by 2025. And then to windy Denmark, seeking the same status in Europe. Along the way, dwell for a moment on the astonishing story of the 53 global companies who signed up in Paris to sourcing 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources over the next period of time, even as we celebrate in passing the amazing success of a growing number of Australian companies which have no intention of being left behind in this now UNSTOPPABLE transition to an ultra-low-carbon world – including the property developer MIRVAC (with whom I spent half a day last week) who’ve adopted a brilliant catch-phrase for their sustainability strategy: ‘This Changes Everything’.

Too right it does! Back in January, a block-buster report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) identified Australia as one of the most significant beneficiaries of this kind of accelerated shift to renewables by 2030, providing significant gains in GDP (up 1.7%) and employment, as well as socio-economic and other environmental benefits. As an accompanying article in the Singapore-based Eco-Business newsletter put it: ‘The Study also found that a shift to renewable power could cut water use by more than a quarter in Australia. This is because solar and wind generation uses up to 200 times less water than natural gas or coal.’

And just in case those aforementioned New South Wales Liberals haven’t spotted it: ‘This would be an important development for Australia, which is experiencing a long-term drought in many parts of the country.’

So my advice to a group of senior business people convened last week by the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage could not have been simpler: get on the right page, Mr Prime Minster. You’ll achieve nothing by seeking to placate those whose minds are permanently closed, who think the science of climate change is something you either ‘believe in’ or ‘don’t believe in’, and whose self-interest (as in their links to Australia’s fossil fuel and extractive industries) is so palpably prominent.

Australia’s citizens deserve a lot better than that – and if it takes a thick-skinned Pom (with a lot of respect and affection for (almost) all things Australian) to point that out, so be it.
 

An edited version of this blog was first published in the Guardian Australia: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/mar/15/malcolm-turnbull-risks-australias-economy-with-inaction-on-climate-change

Add your comment

Comments

Add a comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

We appreciate your comments.