Josh Frydenberg

Alarmed at the criticism of his appointment as combined energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg has launched a media campaign to overhaul his image as that of the man who recently insisted there was a “strong moral case” for burning more coal and starting economically unviable new coal mines like Adani’s Carmichael project (not to mention his loathing of environmental groups).

In the last 48 hours, Frydenberg has spoken at a Clean Energy Council summit, given interviews to Fairfax and Lateline, as well as enjoying several articles in today’s Australian (naturally spinning his comments about the role of wind power in South Australia’s power supply situation in a manner complementary to its own, profoundly dishonest campaign against renewable energy — Peter Martin is the latest to point out the complete lack of substance to it).

As part of this media campaign, Frydenberg has dropped the Holy Warrior of Coal rhetoric in favour of insisting he believes in anthropogenic climate change and supports a transition to renewable energy and a low-carbon economy. However, he notably called for state moratoria on coal seam gas extraction to be ended — the instinct to protect the fossil fuel industry evidently dies hard in the minister.

Frydenberg’s apparent Damascene conversion to renewables might be authentic or it might be fake, but the problem is, it doesn’t matter. This remains a government of climate denialism and climate inaction. The Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the party that keeps the Liberals in government (remember, the Liberals are a minority government, kept in office by the Nationals) is an outright climate denialist, as is Barnaby Joyce’s deputy, Fiona Nash; one of the Prime Minister’s promotees to Cabinet, anti-abortion campaigner Matt Canavan, is also a climate denialist, and he now has responsibility for Northern Australia and resources. Nor is climate denialism confined to the Nationals: Attorney-General George Brandis is one too.

And the government’s climate policies — which are entirely those of Tony Abbott, who was himself a denialist — reflect this. The emissions abatement target backed by the government is far below that supported by Labor and recommended as the minimum necessary by the Climate Change Authority. The government’s policy for reaching that target is, by common agreement (including of big polluters themselves), utterly inadequate, with a “safeguard” feature that couldn’t be less effective if it was designed by polluters themselves. And in response to media speculation during the election campaign that the government’s “direct action” policy might be converted into an actually useful policy, then-Environment Minister Greg Hunt angrily denied the reports and insisted the policy would have no impact on polluters.

As the example of Hunt illustrates (or, for that matter, that of Robert Hill in the Howard government), it doesn’t actually matter if the minister responsible for the environment believes climate change is real when government policy is to steadfastly do nothing about it except pretend there’s a meaningful policy in place. And while Frydenberg is continuing the Hunt tradition of climate inaction, 2016 looks set to replace 2015 as the hottest year on record, the latter having in turn replaced 2014 as the hottest year on record, with climate scientists now talking worryingly about the rate of warming outstripping worst-case scenarios, and methane spikes that will accelerate warming even further.

As the developed country with the most to fear from the economic impacts of accelerating climate change, as well as a looming and significant displaced population problem (between ourselves and New Zealand, we’ll have to rehouse everyone in the Pacific displaced by rising sea levels), this should be a key policy priority for any government. We can do little to curb global emissions ourselves, but we’ve abandoned any global climate leadership role in favour of freeriding on other countries, including those with significantly lower standards of living than our own. Frydenberg can feign commitment to renewables all he likes, but the real problem is that we’re actively undermining the chances of meaningful global action.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey