Anthony Albanese Mark Butler
Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Labor’s inability to resolve internal tensions over climate policy looks starker than ever in light of the Climate Target Panel’s report on just how badly adrift Australia is of meeting its Paris Agreement commitments.

The report cuts through the persistent and routine lying of Scott Morrison and his ministers that Australia is on track for anything other than a trivial reduction in its overall emissions (primarily driven by renewable energy investment the government has tried its best to deter).

To be consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below two degrees, the report concludes: “Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target must be 50% below 2005 levels. A 2035 target would need to be 67% below 2005 levels. Net-zero emissions would need to be reached by 2045.”

But to meet a 1.5-degree target, our 2030 target must be 74% below 2005 levels, with net-zero by 2035. The 2050 net zero target popular with business — which Morrison refuses to commit to — isn’t going to cut it.

In fact Morrison is committed to investing taxpayer money to increase fossil fuel energy production, with scandal-plagued minister Angus Taylor promising the Commonwealth will fund a gas-fired power station as part of the government’s “gas-led recovery” plan drafted by its gas company donors.

Labor remains all at sea on the issue, with open conflict between figures like Joel Fitzgibbon, who continues to support coal mining companies even as they abandon thermal coal, the AWU and the mining division of the CFMMEU which oppose serious climate action, and Mark Butler who is committed to stronger climate policies.

Labor’s 2019 target of a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 remains in abeyance. According to media reports, Butler is to be moved from the climate portfolio in the forthcoming reshuffle by Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

From within Labor ranks the motivations are clear. The government incurs little political penalty for its climate denialism — the press gallery obstinately refuses to treat the climate emergency with appropriate seriousness. And in any event, News Corp is a self-avowed propaganda arm for the Coalition, Seven and Nine and their newspapers are both Liberal-aligned, and ABC News is hopelessly cowed and compliant.

When there has been failure by the entire governing class, the temptation is to stick with that class rather than break away, when doing so will make you a target.

But while Labor believes itself torn on how to balance demands for stronger climate action with the need to win seats in areas reliant on fossil fuel production, the NSW Liberals have got on with addressing the dilemma. They face a similar challenge of responding to community pressure for real climate policies while keeping a rump of opponents of climate action — the NSW Nationals — happy.

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean resolved the tension: facilitate a surge in renewables and storage investment and the infrastructure required to handle it that will create hundreds of jobs in regional communities, while establishing a framework to reduce prices as the cost of renewable energy comes down.

Climate action goes from being a potential economic cost (always wildly overstated by denialists) to being an economic stimulus and job-creator; the fear of what damage might ensue is replaced with fear of missing out on the opportunities created by a world moving more rapidly to decarbonisation — with the United States under Joe Biden now on board.

There are political dangers for Kean. By showing up the denialism of his federal colleagues — and the collaboration in denial of so-called Liberal moderates — he has painted a target on his back for the likes of Taylor and News Corp. But as a lesson in how to win the climate wars he’s demonstrated a path forwards that Labor has been unable to take — so far.