Events have overtaken the article I posted earlier today. The latest leadership challenge spectacle in Australian politics has delivered the top job in the conservative Liberal/National government to neither the incumbent Malcolm Turnbull nor the challenger Peter Dutton. It turns out the new Prime Minister is Scott Morrison. Turnbull was supposedly a moderate out of step with his party, Dutton was supposedly a far-right populist, and Morrison apparently represents a compromise between those two warring factions.
Regardless, my overall message has not changed. Sure, the new PM could obliterate what little is left of Australian climate policy after the damage done by his precedessors. But it’s not like he can make things much worse than they already are.
Like Dutton, Morrison has been a senior minister in the government. He has been variously Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Minister for Social Services, and most recently Treasurer. In other words, Morrison has been at the forefront of some of the government’s worst agendas – promoting investment in the fossil fuel industry, persecuting refugees, and increasing economic inequality. He is also very Christian and still opposes same-sex marriage and LGBT-related curricula. Morrison is notorious for having brought a lump of coal into Parliament after a blackout during a heatwave, holding it up and saying “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.”
His new deputy Josh Frydenberg also held the lump of coal. Frydenberg has been Turnbull’s Minister for the Environment and Energy. He recently failed to respond to the following question asked in Parliament by Greens MP Adam Bandt: “Has his department considered the implications for policy-making of climate change being an existential risk to human civilisation?” Frydenberg has overseen the design and selling of Turnbull’s worse-than-nothing climate policy – hence why the new PM cannot make things much worse.
Postmortem on the Turnbull government
By coincidence, the previous run of my blog petered out around the time that Turnbull successfully challenged his predecessor Tony Abbott. It’s worth remembering that at the time many environmentalists, left-wingers, and casual observers supported Turnbull, believing he would stand by his previously stated conviction to climate action. I argued against that consensus, often finding myself the only Turnbull critic in a room full of Turnbull fans. I pointed out Turnbull had never supported any climate policy that wasn’t friendly to the fossil fuel industry, and even if he had the best intentions he would have to pander to his less green colleagues and to the big corporations who appear to pretty much run the world.
Three years later, I think it’s fair to say my prediction has been vindicated. The Turnbull government’s climate and energy policy has gone through a confusing series of incarnations – from an “Emissions Reduction Fund”, to an “Emissions Intensity Scheme”, to a “Clean Energy Target”, to the current “National Energy Guarantee” (NEG). Each has been a different variant of slush fund for big polluters (funny how the Liberals’ “free market” principle doesn’t apply to big business).
The “National Energy Guarantee” is supposedly designed to address an alleged crisis of power price rises and blackouts. In reality, it is fossil fuels that will get ever more expensive as the fuels become more difficult to cheaply extract from the Earth; renewable energy prices are actually coming down. Electricity price rises are occuring mainly because of price gouging by the energy companies, who are gaming Australia’s complex partially-privatized oligopolistic electricity grid. As for blackouts, they are rare and generally caused by inflexible fossil fuel generators being unable to cope with sudden demand spikes in heatwaves which, ironically, are increasing due to climate change. In any case, the government and mainstream media have sold the NEG as a compromise balancing the important priority of addressing the fake energy crisis against the preservation of the planet we all depend on.
The NEG requires a certain amount of “dispatchable” energy to be ready to go at any time, and before this week it included an emissions criterion ostensibly consistent with Australia’s useless target under the Paris Agreement, 26% below 2005 by 2030. In reality, the government’s own modeling shows the NEG is intended to lock in no change from 2021-2030:
The NEG is not only worse than nothing as a climate policy, but one might wonder how this lack of change is even supposed to reduce electricity prices. Indeed, leaked modeling showed that most of the projected electricity price reductions would come from the renewable energy installed before 2021 to meet the Renewable Energy Target, in spite of the NEG!
For a moment it looked like this fraud of a policy might pass with the support of Labor, finally delivering the wonderful “stable bipartisan moderate compromise” we’ve had dangled in front of our noses for the past decade, to be opposed only by the Greens and the far-right faction of the government. Fortunately, there has been a revolt from both extremes of politics. The Greens, the renewable energy lobby, and various petitions from the public have successfully persuaded the Labor states to oppose the NEG, while the conservatives within Turnbull’s party have continued to insist it doesn’t go far enough.
During the leadership turmoil this week, Turnbull removed the emissions criterion from the NEG legislation. Now the NEG is aimed entirely at energy reliability and will underwrite new “dispatchable” power plants without regard for their emissions – and “dispatchable” appears to be a codeword for coal. Although Treasurer Scott Morrison claims the tender process will be “technology neutral”, National Party deputy leader Bridget McKenzie said at a recent press conference: “I am not afraid to say the c-word, coal, coal, coal. It’s going to be one of those areas that we are going to invest in.”
But no matter how much Turnbull concedes to even the dirtiest of fossil fuel industries, the right-wing of his party have continued to demand still more concessions. It was in large part climate policy which brought down every Prime Minister who has fallen in the last 11 years, and climate is again a major factor that has brought down Turnbull and elevated Morrison.
What little climate policy remains to be destroyed?
There is not much of a climate policy left for Morrison to destroy. He could take an axe to the 2020 Renewable Energy Target, and withdraw Australia from the Paris climate agreement. Still, the National Energy Guarantee is already designed to stop renewable energy deployment just after 2020. And the Paris Agreement was a sham anyway, an unforceable piece of paper advertising targets that governments claim they will meet. The Australian government already has no climate policy sufficient to reach the target it signed up to in Paris. In short, Morrison’s administration will be not much different to the direction in which the government was already going.
I do fear the government’s policies will continue to get worse, but I think that would have happened regardless of who was chosen as figurehead. I’m losing count of how many Prime Ministers I’ve seen come and go, but no matter how many times the face changes, I’m yet to see much real political change in Australia or indeed the world. What scares me most is the status quo.
If (and “if” is an important word here because we don’t know what Morrison will be like as PM) the battlelines are between the populist right-wing and the neoliberal capitalist establishment, I’m not particularly on either side and I’m certainly not on the side of the establishment. If anything, the populists might do some good by shaking up the system. Although the populist right is radically opposed to climate action, they are introducing an element of chaos into today’s political landscape, and that instability might eventually create the space for the radical climate action we need. At the very least, as those who openly oppose any climate action get into power, they undermine any false sense of security that governments have the climate crisis under control.
Indeed, by fighting every fraudulent “moderate compromise”, the conservatives have become so needlessly extreme they have undermined the prospect of investment certainty for the fossil fuel industry they are tripping over each other to defend. It is almost comical to watch. No wonder the business lobby has come out swinging against the investment-damaging “instability”. But there can be no political stability until the big problems like climate change are solved, which can only occur against the will of the business lobby.
The political pantomime vs the climate emergency
The current climate policy spectrum is in my opinion best understood as having little to do with actually saving the planet, and a lot more to do with the varying interests of different businesses. At the brown end of the spectrum, the coal industry is losing profitability and increasingly isolated politically, so its cause is increasingly taken up by right-wing populists who claim they can bring back the coal jobs, and climate change denial is taking on a life of its own beyond the corporate propaganda purpose that it once served. It is now in the interests of most businesses, even many fossil fuel businesses, to rhetorically acknowledge climate change, claim to be taking steps to reduce their impact, and support policies which open up new investment opportunities in renewable energy, carbon trading, and the supposedly “low-carbon” natural gas. At the green end of the spectrum, the increasing wealth and power of renewable energy corporations has helped to push reluctant politicians toward moderately better energy policies (though this has largely failed in Australia).
But it is still not in the interests of any business invested in fossil fuels to support a real effort to drastically reduce emissions, which requires phasing out fossil fuel burning. Nor, to a lesser extent, is it truly in the interests of any business – not even the renewable energy ones – because all businesses seek to grow, a goal fundamentally at odds with reducing their environmental footprint. So don’t believe those in the mainstream media who claim that if only the good “left-wing” politicians prevail in Parliament, or if only the “moderates” of “both parties” come together to craft a bipartisan policy, we’ll get an effective climate policy or even a stable “compromise”. In reality, none of the currently powerful political factions will save us, because they represent the institutions that have created and perpetuated the climate crisis (among other crises).
The emissions reduction policies of governments across the supposed political spectrum are falling far short of the actions scientists are calling for with increasing boldness. More and more scientists are coming out and saying we are in a climate emergency. German climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber recently released a paper outlining how a series of amplifying feedbacks could lead to a “hothouse Earth” and calling for governments to halve global emissions each decade. Schellnhuber says in the foreword to a new report by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration:
“Climate change is now reaching the endgame, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences. Therefore, it is all the more important to listen to non-mainstream voices who do understand the issues and are less hesitant to cry wolf. Unfortunately for us, the wolf may already be in the house.”
Shellnhuber’s Australian coauthor Will Steffen said in an interview:
“The obvious thing we have to do is to get greenhouse gas emissions down as fast as we can. That means that has to be the primary target of policy and economics. You have got to get away from the so-called neoliberal economics…
We need to immediately stop deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and other tropical forests, and start reforesting them. That means a U-turn in terms of how we operate the world’s economic systems. The only way you’re going to change that is if you actually change value systems, perhaps even changing the way political systems operate and so on. The social scientists in our group have said this really is a fundamental change in human societies we need to have if we’re going to solve this problem…
Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None. That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new. Second, you need to have a rapid phase-out plan for existing fossil fuels…
[We need] a completely different view of economics, going away from viewing the natural world as resources to viewing it as an essential piece of our life support system that needs to be maintained and enhanced. I think you simply have to go right back to the fundamental science of who we are, the planet we evolved into, how that planet operates and what’s happening to it, and that will tell you immediately that so-called neoliberal economics is radically wrong in terms of how it views the rest of the world.”
All in all, my opinion is pretty much summed up by the following cartoon from First Dog on the Moon, to which I will give the final word: