When it comes to global warming, the Australian media has, once again, fallen into the role of Charlie Brown to Scott Morrison’s Lucy at football practice. You know the popular gag: “Trust me,” says Lucy, before pulling the ball away at the last moment.
This time, Morrison’s Lucy schtick came with his tippy-toes sideways shuffle of the Paris-mandated zero net emissions goal from “some time this century” to “preferably by 2050” — a U-turn of historic proportions apparently, right up until all meaning was pulled away in the face of backbench resistance.
Within a week, the moment was lost as the government leapt at the opportunity to huff over national sovereignty in response to threats of carbon tariffs on Australian exports. (Australia is “dead against” them, according to Energy Minister Angus Taylor, as though that matters to the world. Well done, Angus.)
It’s a trap the media seems willing to fall into — because the alternative is so much worse. News Corp’s resident denialists aside, journalists are not blind to the threat of climate change. Aligning with a journalistic sense of objectivity, they “accept the science” and the policy demands to “do something” that flow from that acceptance.
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The thought that Australia’s leaders, from the prime minister down, may not grasp that imperative (or, worse, just may not care) is existentially terrifying. The more journalists understand about the issue (and the best of them understand a lot) the more terrifying it becomes.
Reporting about global warming policy becomes a continuous head-jerking from excitement to disillusion (tracked over a quarter century through Marion Wilkinson’s The Carbon Club).
It makes the idea of #scottyfrommarketing work in Morrison’s favour. After all, if he’s all marketing all the time, surely he’ll pivot sooner or later to the eminently marketable action on climate change?
Yet maybe the media would be better applying the Maya Angelou heuristic: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
When was Morrison’s first time? Perhaps when as treasurer in 2017 he shocked public debate by waving a lump of coal around the parliament declaring: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.” (“What fresh idiocy is this?” asked The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy at the time when the gallery was still excitedly expecting prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to pivot back to his 2009 climate activist persona.)
There have been plenty of “first times” to see how Morrison understands global warming: from the electric vehicles that would destroy the weekend in 2019, to his bushfire response last summer, or his gas-led recovery this past spring. It’s the shrugging nihilism of “I don’t hold a hose, mate” brought to managing this generational transition.
Morrison understands global warming as a political opportunity to be exploited as a spectre haunting regional Australia — the spectre of transition. That exploitation relies on shifting from Abbott-era denialism of the science to the Morrison-era focus on the costs of transition. Where any action can imply cost (and any cost can be inferred as “tax”), it’s a focus that mandates doing precisely nothing.
The action-cost-tax construction is funnelled through News Corp’s denialist media and, through their domination of media, it structures public debate. (In recent days, it was applied to attack Labor’s reforms to the rights of gig workers from a Christian Porter press conference through the pages of The Australian and on to Sunday’s Insiders.)
Public concerns about global warming demand a certain occasional pretence (like this month’s “preferably by 2050”) that the government ”will do something” — a pretence that usually comes with a sly winking to the denialist base that “something”, in this context, means “nothing much”, largely messaged far from the gallery through social media (hello, Craig Kelly!).
The pretence needs more than rhetoric. As a result, Morrison has brought in “technology” to suggest a pain-free transition — where “technology” plays the role of underpants in the get-rich scheme of the South Park gnomes (phase one: collect underpants. Phase two: ????. Phase three: Get rich.)
The media’s frisson about Morrison’s 2050 pivot has, again, quickly given way to disillusion in light of the government’s fossil-fuel-accommodating plan for electric vehicles and its response to threatened carbon tariffs.
Until the next time Morrison holds out a global warming football for the media to kick.