Under Tony Abbott, it seemed that the hardline climate denialists of the Liberal Party had achieved a remarkable victory. A man who declared he would not lead a party that wasn’t as committed to climate action as he was had been purged from the leadership in a successful putsch; his replacement was a man who dismissed climate science as “crap”, and he was successfully savaging Labor for taking climate action, based on an entirely invented scare campaign about price rises.
But now, remarkably, they have gone one better. The problem with Abbott was always that the man he forced out, the man who crossed the floor to vote for an emissions trading scheme, might always strike back. And strike back he did, sending Abbott packing from the prime ministership in 2015. But what looked like a defeat for climate denialists has become a remarkable win: Malcolm Turnbull, has joined the denialist camp himself.
Now the Liberals are savaging Labor for taking action on climate change, again based on a fictional scare campaign about price rises, but with “energy security” the new, and every bit as fictional, bogeyman. This time the target is both federal Labor, which remains committed to an emissions trading scheme and a stronger renewable energy target, and state Labor governments. As under Abbott, the policy the Liberals offer the electorate to pretend they take climate change seriously is discredited: Greg Hunt’s “Direct Action” plan was dismissed by economists, soil experts and scientists (and it’s now been abandoned — even Liberals knew it was a ridiculously expensive fig leaf); now, in the absence of any emissions abatement policy beyond the Renewable Energy Target it wants to abandon, the pretence is the fiction of “clean coal”. But that has been rejected comprehensively by the power industry, which has no interest in investing in an immensely expensive technology that delivers minimal emission abatement and which will be left stranded by the rapidly falling cost of renewables.
But that’s no problem because, best of all, there’s no longer a Malcolm Turnbull lurking in the background. The one-time threat who wanted real action on climate change has been transformed into the leader of the new denialist campaign.
This, for the denialists, is surely the sweetest victory of all.
We’ve come a long way from 2007, when John Howard made an election commitment to introduce “the world’s most comprehensive emissions trading scheme”. Despite being one of the world’s most emission intensive economies, we’ve had ten years of delay since then — delay occasioned by the incompetence and cowardice of Kevin Rudd, who put together a dog of an ETS and then repeatedly made it worse, delay occasioned by the cynical denialism of Tony Abbott, and now delay occasioned by another incompetent and cowardly Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The only success in that time was the low-cost, effective emissions trading scheme established by Julia Gillard with the Greens, then dumped by Abbott.
What’s happened in that decade? Seven of the ten hottest years in history globally; 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, beating 2015, which beat 2014, which beat 2010, which was ahead of 2013. And four of the hottest years ever recorded in Australia have occurred here since 2013.
What hasn’t happened is any global leadership by Australia, despite Australia being the developed economy most exposed to the massive costs of climate change; we’ve reverted to the mid-Howard years approach of playing climate laggard, demanding big developing economies do the heavy lifting on emissions abatement.
That the Turnbull government is gleefully handing around lumps of coal as a stunt while the country sets new heat records would be a macabre joke, except the joke is on younger Australians, who will face the twin costs of climate change and decarbonisation that the denialists of the Liberal have ensured they will pay.
How hot does it have to get before the angry old white men of the Liberal Party accept the need for real climate action? The answer is, it will never be hot enough for that — they’d rather the planet cook than concede they’re wrong, or let someone other than themselves govern.