climatechange denialists
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Most Australians — over 60% of them, according to one poll — believe in climate change and the need to take action to address it. But extreme weather tends to increase that concern.

While hardcore denialists don’t shift their views and tend to explain away even record heat events — a Bureau of Meteorology conspiracy etc — “undecided” people are swayed by extreme weather. This has been established in polling for a number of years: not merely does direct experience of extreme weather affect people’s views about the existence of anthropogenic climate change, non-aligned voters are likely to express concern about climate change in response to warm weather. 

The last six months have therefore been very difficult for climate denialists. Climate change re-emerged as a high-profile and intractably divisive issue in the Liberal Party’s civil war after what was ostensibly a denialist victory in the ouster of Malcolm Turnbull in August. Climate change, along with asylum seekers, was front and centre in the Liberals’ ensuing loss of Turnbull’s seat. While the voters of Wentworth were dismissed as atypical of the famed “Liberal Party base”, in fact more than 40% of Liberal voters believe Australia is not doing enough about climate change, as part of an overall 50+% of voters who feel the same.

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Australia’s record hot summer of 2018-19 — on top of an extended drought in parts of eastern Australia — came on top of this pushback against denialism, making it increasingly unviable for a major party to reject action — or at least perceived action — on climate change. For the moment, no credible politician can afford to refuse to at least pretend to take the issue seriously. That’s why Prime Minister Scott Morrison has abandoned his false claim that Australia will meet Tony Abbott’s unambitious Paris Agreement targets “in a canter” in favour of new spending on climate action.

Morrison recently announced he was directing $3 billion into pumped hydro projects and further funding for Tony Abbott’s “Direct Action” fund. The latter is a program discredited even within Liberal ranks — its funding was dramatically slashed once the Coalition was elected in 2013 — and primarily used to direct grants to Nationals voters in regional areas, with no identified permanent carbon abatement benefits; a coal-fired power plant controlled by a Queensland LNP figure has even sought funding from it. 

But even rank denialists like Abbott have been forced to adjust their position. Facing a significant threat in his own seat in the coming election, Abbott had yet again reversed his position on the Paris Agreement, which he committed Australia to ostentatiously in 2015 (“when we make commitments to reduce emissions we keep them”), then demanded we withdraw from in 2018, and now says we should remain in. This more or less completes the circle for Abbott, who has literally held every position on both climate change and climate action that it is possible to have over the last 10 years.

If Abbott’s backflip is unconvincing — ludicrous, even — how much more convincing is Morrison’s belated conversion, as a man who famously brought a lump of coal into question time? The government’s policy incoherence on energy — it literally has no policy on the subject, for fear of alienating denialists, Nationals or moderates — doesn’t help answer the question, except in the negative.

But adding to the Coalition’s electoral problem is the accelerating drift of the government’s traditional business supporters toward climate action. Over 100 major banks, development banks and insurers around the world are now refusing to lend for or cover coal projects (despite the government’s efforts to find foreign finance for Adani’s Carmichael project); investors are switching to renewable power generation, Australia’s biggest coal company Glencore giving in to pressure to cap its coal production and there is a rising level of aggression from business leaders toward the government’s refusal to take climate change seriously.

This has all been complemented by a more rigorous stance by business regulators over the issue: APRA, ASIC and, most recently, the Reserve Bank have all made clear that climate risks must be explicitly addressed in risk management, disclosure and financial stability analysis. For large companies, climate change and its risks are now part of the governance framework within which they must operate.

There is no guarantee the current electoral mood will last; a cooler summer, an economic downturn, may in the future distract voters from the ever more worried forecasts of climate scientists. And business is driven by perceived self-interest, not conviction. But recent months have the sense of a tipping point: action on climate change is now a sine qua non of mainstream politics in Australia. The question is, whether vested interests can slow down and stymie action to the absolute minimum, or genuinely effective action on climate change will emerge for the first time in Australia since 2014.

This piece is part of our dedicated climate change series, Slow Burn. Read the rest here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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