(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The response of climate denialists to a summer of catastrophe has veered from even more hysterical denialism (Barnaby Joyce and co) to rhetoric about adaptation and transition (News Corp, Scott Morrison) to a sudden reversal and insistence that climate change is not merely real but could be wonderful (Andrew Bolt).

In terms of actual policy outcomes, Morrison has given taxpayer support to one of his fossil fuel donors and $4 million for a study on a new coal-fired power plant. But some journalists continue to write as if the government really is “pivoting”.

The return last week of federal parliament for the year provided more material for another reframing of the issue.

Not merely did the Nationals have their own leadership spill over climate policy, but the Greens elevated the supposedly more hardline Adam Bandt to replace the departing Richard Di Natale.

This enabled some commentators to continue with a narrative that we first heard late in the 2019 parliamentary year, when the bushfires and smoke haze first alerted us that something truly awful was underway.

In November, the use of “arsonists” by Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John to describe the major parties, along with spiteful statements by Michael McCormack and Barnaby Joyce, were the pretext for one senior journalist to declare that such extremism meant climate politics were stuck where they were a decade ago.

The great bloviator of the press gallery Paul Kelly, meanwhile, contrasted the Greens with Scott Morrison’s “prudence” and his “governing from the middle”.

Last week enabled a clearer articulation of the theme of a sensible centre versus raging extremes. The Australian Financial Review, which has been a platform for denialism for years, called for a “centrist consensus” against the extremes of the Greens and the Nationals.

Yesterday it editorialised that it was good that rain would distract voters from climate change while lauding “more significant moves towards the centre on climate change by both major parties” — in contrast to Adam Bandt and Barnaby Joyce.

Journalists have adopted a similar line: one argued that Labor and the Liberals were becoming more closely aligned on climate while extremist Nationals and Greens were complicating the politics of it all.

The Paul Kelly returned to opine that the Nationals were causing trouble for a government trying to do more than it was given credit for. Another senior gallery figure went back to reading the tea leaves for a Morrison “pivot”.

The idea of a centrist capacity to achieve moderate change (often labelled “practical change”) in the face of opposition from extremes is an appealing one for political journalists, who like to think of themselves as sensible centrists who can see good and bad on all sides, and who need to be seen to be balanced.

That’s why there are so many takers in the press gallery for Labor’s revisionism that the Greens wrecked the chance for a solution to the climate wars in 2009.

There’s normally much to be said for centrism, but it isn’t always the best response.

No one’s a centrist on vaccination, urging some happy medium between anti-vax conspiracy theories and medical science.

It’s hard to find gun control centrists calling for a sensible compromise between people who want to carry automatic weapons and the rest of us.

And centrism, because it’s driven by the framing of a debate, often changes, sometimes rapidly. Centrism on LGBTIQ rights in the 1980s was supporting decriminalisation.

And whose centre? Where’s the centre on euthanasia when the overwhelming majority of voters support it but most of the political class refuses to contemplate it?

And centrism isn’t useful if one of the “extremes” is correct. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the Paris Agreement climate target of 1.5 degrees of warming is impossible on current policies around the world, and that even a 2 degree warming target might be missed.

Australia’s own emissions reduction target under the Paris Agreement is pathetically inadequate. Some argue even a zero net emissions target for 2050 is inadequate.

Despite contributing a small fraction of global emissions, Australia has three key reasons to become a global leader on emissions abatement.

Firstly, we’re the developed economy most exposed to climate change, meaning we have a huge stake in encouraging bigger economies to accelerate decarbonisation.

Secondly, we’re in the same camp as Britain, which as Boris Johnson recently explained has a special responsibility to decarbonise because it industrialised much sooner than developing economies.

And thirdly, we’re a major carbon exporter.

A “sensible centre” position on climate action just won’t cut it.

Reducing emissions proportionately to the size of our emissions won’t enable us to exercise any global leadership. And taking no action if it means anyone in the fossil fuel industry loses their job will condemn us to the global laggard status we’ve clung to with Saudi Arabia for decades.

(It was OK for manufacturing workers to lose their jobs by the tens of thousands under “sensible centre” economic reform in the 1980s and 1990s, but coal miners must have a job for life.)

Under many scenarios, “sensible centre” policies will condemn us to catastrophic levels of warming.

Under those scenarios, in which the planet warms more than 2 degrees and more rapidly than forecast, centrism is a form of denialism, elevating the economic interests of fossil fuel industries and the egos of politicians and commentators over those of Australians and the rest of humanity facing worsening climate change.

The centrist convergence of the major parties is a climate disaster, not some long-sought solution to the climate wars.

Peter Fray

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