scott morrison bushfire
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Even by the standards of Australian climate denialism, Tuesday was especially surreal. Scott Morrison made his way through the thick smoke choking Sydney that day to conduct a media conference — not on the bushfire catastrophe that has been unfolding for weeks now, nor on addressing the climate change has caused it.

Rather, Morrison unveiled a new draft religious discrimination bill.

Instead of addressing the catastrophe literally outside, with Comical Ali-like denial, Morrison was pursuing a culture war in which, somehow, he has managed to find himself in the middle of the battlefield getting shot at by both sides, as he tries to find ways to enable religious organisations and health professionals to discriminate against people based on their religion, their lack thereof or their personal morality.

Morrison then tried to leave the building but the smoke was so thick it triggered fire alarms that left occupants trapped. Political metaphors rarely get more blunt than a climate denialist politician trapped in a building by smoke caused by climate change-generated fires.

The NSW government had a different reaction. Despite some denialists still lurking in government ranks, NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean was given licence to respond, linking the fires to the need for climate action, publishing an op-ed that argued “extreme weather events are exactly what scientists have warned us about for decades … Climate change is no longer just a forecast”.

He wants Australia to “put ourselves at the centre of a new global order on energy”. Overnight, he flagged a new emissions abatement target for NSW of 35% by 2030. The Berejiklian government had not so much sniffed the breeze as inhaled the acrid smoke and dramatically shifted its climate rhetoric. Whether that translates into real action remains to be seen, by there was strong endorsement of Kean’s proposed target from environmental groups.

The contrast with Morrison is stark. He continues to lie about meeting our grossly insufficient Paris targets, while climate denialist Angus “pick one of several scandals to use as a nickname” Taylor is in Spain trying to use accounting trickery and policies inherited from Labor as an excuse for inaction.

Morrison and his colleagues would have been cheered by an attack on Kean by The Australian, with its unsubtle message of what will happen to any Liberal politician who deviates from Murdoch’s climate denialism.

If Morrison’s refusal to act — bought and paid-for by the Liberal Party’s extensive roster of fossil fuel and energy companies and propped up by a rabid fringe group of extremists in his own ranks — can’t be shifted by what happened to Sydney on Tuesday, what will do it? What could be Scott Morrison’s bushfire moment, when even his home city choking on smoke doesn’t work?

After all, during the last term of parliament, the Liberals partially reversed more than a decade of staunch defence of banking misconduct to deliver a royal commission, a banking tax and a new banking remuneration regulatory framework, despite the sector’s millions in donations.

Perhaps international sanctions will accomplish the task. The Macron government has already signalled that any EU-Australia free trade agreement must be “highly ambitious in terms of sustainable development”, including climate change. Some European businesses — no doubt reflecting their own interests as much as, or more than, any concern about climate change — want to go further with a carbon border tax aimed at imports from countries that fail to take action on climate, and to “bring exporting nations to the negotiating table on climate issues”.

A major European business lobby group backs the idea of using trade agreements to compel compliance with Paris targets and is open to the idea of a carbon border tax. The idea is discussed in terms of the US and China; a minor economy like Australia might be a useful warm-up for the main act of a European carbon tax on countries that refuse to address climate change.

Such a tax would be simple protectionism. Only, the problem is that Australia is currently engaging in its own form of protectionism by refusing to address the costs of its addiction to carbon emissions and expecting the world to give us a free ride on those costs, especially given our status as a key coal exporter.

Australia exports $30 billion worth of goods and service to the EU (including, ironically, coal). A proper carbon border tax on our exports might help Morrison see through the smoky haze of fossil fuel donations to a path forward on climate action.

Peter Fray

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