‘The balance sheet is breaking up the sky.’
Originally published in Tanya Plibersek’s book Upturn
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australian shores, we were on the cusp of a new age. Turbo-charged by a hotter climate, massive bushfires had just scoured the land, confirming what scientists have long maintained, namely, that this continent is especially vulnerable to global heating.
Countless Australians were touched by the catastrophe, directly or indirectly. Homes, farms and livelihoods were destroyed in a season of hell. Some tragically lost their lives, and the toll would have been higher were it not for the monumental effort from firefighters and government agencies. Over a billion native species perished, billions more were displaced, some teetering towards extinction. As palls of smoke, like scenes from a disaster movie, draped cities already running short of drinking water, the climate crisis was literally in our backyard.
The speed, reach and intensity of the fires happened on the back of a one-degree rise in average temperatures. We are currently on track for a rise of three degrees or more by the end of the century.1
For many of us, it is unthinkable that parts of the country could be unliveable in the future, but Aboriginal people in Central Australia, who have occupied the land for longer than can be imagined, are already contemplating that prospect. If we fail to act decisively, a three- to four-degree increase will accelerate environmental decline and push our political, security and social systems to breakpoint. So can we make the change?
The discovery during the COVID-19 pandemic that we could see vast swathes of stars in less polluted skies, hear, the sweet sound of birdsong and see more clearly the immediate natural environment, were some reminders of what we are losing. That is the healthy waterways, oceans and forests, fertile landscapes, all the plant and animal species, and our thoughtful relationship with these that underpin life on earth.
The mantra that any pro-environment decision is a dangerous trade-off between the economy and nature, between ‘jobs and trees’, is still taken at face value in the halls of power and in many newsrooms. Yet there is no economic evidence for this view and plenty of evidence against it. What the evidence tells us is this:
- With imagination, good policies, competent planning and strong laws, we can have plentiful jobs and a healthy environment. There is no better example than renewable energy, the use of which is now accelerating at a rapid rate worldwide.
- With the increasing severity of human-induced climate change, it is the pursuit of profits and maintenance of employment in fossil-fuel-intensive industries that now directly threatens Australian lives and livelihoods.
Look no further than how Australia treats the Great Barrier Reef, recognised as one of the great natural wonders of the world. The coal industry contributes to the global heating now damaging the reef, with three mass-bleaching events in the past five years,2 but in Queensland employs half as many people as work on and around the reef.3 Additionally, this natural treasure generates over $6 billion in tourism each year,4 and is worth over $60 billion to the economy.5 The figures speak for themselves.
There have been periods in modern Australia, usually when reformist Labor governments were in power at the federal and state level, where major environmental challenges were addressed. Australia was instrumental in safeguarding the Antarctic. In the latter period of the last century, there were extensive additions to the national estate, including World Heritage areas like Kakadu National Park and the North Queensland Wet Tropics.
The pioneering Landcare program, along with concerted community efforts to oppose destructive practices and rehabilitate damaged landscapes, show our values.
Yet federal and state governments have never consistently treated the environment with the seriousness it deserves.
Now Australia is a world leader in extinctions – a shameful state of indifference – with native animal species declining at warp speed unabated since 1788, polluted inland river systems run dry, and with hotter, drier landscapes, fire has destroyed large swathes of the country, including areas that never previously burned.
The default position in government is short-sighted; to build or allow anything to be exploited that, it is claimed, will create jobs, without considering the alternatives, or the consequences.
Finally, after a sustained period of economic growth, the endpoint has been reached as Australia’s natural environment degrades rapidly, whilst we continue to spew carbon dioxide and devour resources at an unsustainable rate.
Environment NGOs, citizen scientists, communities and experts have been ringing the warning bell on this state of affairs, but few in our political institutions have listened. Even for those who seek to act, it remains the case that without national leadership we are stymied.
What’s needed is a change of heart and mind in how we see and interact with our world, especially in the political and corporate world where much power resides. Many Australians yearn for politics that will create a robust national framework of policies that prioritises the protection of the environment; attacks waste and pollution; and supports climate-friendly industries and practices.
It is no surprise that the preponderance of donations to political parties from big business generally, and the resources sector specifically, has coincided with the absence of serious climate policy on the part of the Liberal/National coalition. No surprise either that this corporate largesse has occurred in tandem with declining public confidence in the political system. The science is unambiguous. To survive the climate crisis, we have less than a decade to start reigning in greenhouse pollution including reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Consequently, the decisions of the Morrison Coalition, as Australia emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic facing a recession, are as crucial as any contemplated since the Second World War.
To fail to seize the moment means condemning successive generations to a hotter, more degraded, less productive world. If we fail, these generations will judge today’s leaders harshly. For all the talk of ‘a fresh start’, even before COVID-19, a pattern had emerged. The Prime Minister, having appointed a former fossil-fuel executive as his chief of staff, repeatedly downplayed the role of climate change in the bushfires. Talk of establishing any meaningful long-term emission targets was a no-go-zone, and in international climate talks, Australia continued pushing to exploit a historic loophole to meet our current inadequate targets.
This shouldn’t really surprise anyone given the Coalition’s past decades of inaction, and regular defenestration of climate measures once in government. Former Prime Minister John How ard’s recent admission that he never really believed in climate change is instructive. His government’s last-minute foray into an emissions trading scheme was taken seriously by the media and the public, but never by Howard.
The first genuine attempt to get to grips with climate came during the Rudd/Gillard years, where briefly there was a price on carbon, and a raft of policies introduced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. History records that in a hallelujah moment emissions actually came down. When wrecker-in-chief Tony Abbott became Opposition leader, and then Prime Minister, the sacking of Canberra by the anti-climate vandals resumed and the nation has been stranded ever since. Abbott and Howard, like many conservative politicians, simply do not believe what a substantial body of science, and personal observation, tells us about a heating world.
The country has been held hostage by these unreconstructed ideological fantasists for too long. Yet the Prime Minister and numerous Liberal/National members are cut from the same cloth. The implacable hostility to protecting the environment and addressing the climate crisis remains hard-wired into the DNA of conservative politics. How else to explain the multiple cuts to the Environment Department since the Coalition took office in 2013, to the extent it can no longer perform its functions properly? How else to explain the continuing hostility to renewables, despite the coalition now tacitly accepting Labor’s Renewable Energy Target (RET), which it previously attacked mercilessly? The RET has worked so well that wind and solar are now unequivocally cheaper and cleaner forms of energy than coal- and gas-fired power. The world is moving forward, seeing the lower costs and new jobs as an opportunity. We are missing that boat.
How else to explain the drive to reform national environmental laws under the guise of reducing so-called ‘green tape’, announced before the recent bushfires? As they stand, the laws to protect nature don’t work effectively and can be easily circumvented by a determined government. The expression ‘green tape’, pushed incessantly by the resources sector, is simply code for freeing up rigorous approval procedures. In any event, Coalition ministers have rarely used their powers to rule out actions that may cause damage to matters of national environmental significance.
How else to explain the convening of a secret review led by a leading fossil-fuel executive, Grant King, to provide advice on reducing energy prices? The conclusion? Australia’s funding agencies for clean, renewable energy should now invest in fossil fuels, something banks and investors are baulking at. In the age of so-called fake news, this was fake policy development.
Since the pandemic began, the Prime Minister has urged a return to ‘business as usual’, with a ‘laser-like focus on jobs. The COVID-19 Commission, again led by a resources sector CEO, Andrew Liveris, is championing a gas-fired recovery, whereby potential major gas projects could be subsidised with taxpayer funds. Another form of industrial socialism aimed at turning the world into a blazing inferno.
The release of Energy Minster Angus Taylor’s Energy Roadmap with the buzz phrase ‘technology not taxes’, followed. Whilst cobbling together a range of potential measures to reduce emissions, the roadmap effectively replaces Australia’s long-term targets to reduce carbon emissions altogether. Instead, it highlights gas (again), previously intended as a transition fuel, which would lead to increased emissions and require support from taxpayers to be economical.
Other suggestions included a wink to nuclear power – unproven, unsafe, and expensive – with additional investment for carbon capture and storage technologies which to date have failed to deliver. The Coalition’s supposed free-market principles are jettisoned for their ideological obsession.
Side note: The roadmap also includes pumped hydro with an emphasis on ‘Snowy 2.0’, which aims to effectively act like a giant battery connected to the existing Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme. Snowy 2.0 is extremely expensive and unlikely to fulfil the claims made by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Small-scale pumped hydro projects would be much more effective. Much of the roadmap is ‘profoundly irrational’, as one analyst put it, aimed mainly at protecting the revenue stream of the country’s most emission-intensive assets.
Next came the interim review of national environment laws by senior businessman Graeme Samuel, which, to no-one’s surprise, found they were ‘not fit to address current or future environmental challenges’.
Overnight the government ruled out a key recommendation for an office of independent oversight, whilst cherry-picking the proposals for greater deregulation, which suited its agenda despite no compelling evidence that this initiative was likely to lead to better environmental protection.
In a rush to open the floodgates to unregulated developments, the environment minister announced the government would legislate on this issue prior to the release of the final report and before public comments had been received. The die was cast.
Scientists and experts have repeatedly pointed out what is necessary to avert disaster, as they did with COVID-19. That is setting ambitious short- and long-term targets and reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately and at scale.
Meanwhile, the world – and the global markets on which we depend – is moving on and will soon leave us behind. The mainstream is embracing the obvious, asking ‘if we have to rebuild the economy, why rebuild it dirty and risky?’
As the Economist argued earlier this year, the COVID-19 crisis ‘creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon’. They pointed out that ‘Getting economies in medically induced comas back on their feet is a circumstance tailor-made for investment in climate-friendly infrastructure that boosts growth and creates new jobs. Low-interest rates make the bill smaller than ever’.6
The World Bank7 and the International Monetary Fund8 are calling for equivalent policy shifts. The European Union is seizing the moment to stimulate economic activity by directly funding climate action. Germany is creating ‘future proof jobs’, in areas specifically aimed at reducing carbon emissions. At home, the Morrison Government delivered a poorly designed tradies’ bonus, without linking the package to improving energy efficiency, and so reducing energy costs, or even addressing social housing shortages.
As Treasurer, Scott Morrison famously hugged a lump of coal in parliament, and there is no sign this love affair is waning, despite the economics of coal heading south. The world’s largest fund manager, Blackrock, is abandoning companies with major investments in thermal coal. Insurers are retreating from coal operations and it won’t be long before investors assess Australian government bonds through a climate lens. Then we will really be in strife. There are conflicting views across the parliament, with some members in thrall to an imaginary future where a dirty, dangerous and increasingly uneconomic source of energy prevails over cleaner and cheaper alternatives. Many MPs refuse to acknowledge we are facing a climate emergency, preferring to delay the day of reckoning with a range of responses; ranging from outright denial to band-aid incrementalism. Yet the necessity for a safer, more stable future path has never been clearer.
It sees us becoming an energy superpower, ably described by Professor Ross Garnaut in another chapter of this book. Here abundant solar, wind and precious rare mineral resources are deployed to meet current energy needs at a lower cost whilst exporting surplus energy to the regions.
This approach guarantees growing employment, with professional services network Ernst & Young’s most recent finding that a renewables-led recovery would produce almost three times as many jobs as one based on fossil fuels.9 We could build a new manufacturing base, reduce our dependence on imports (from China in particular), and adopt technologies that get us to zero emissions as soon as possible.
Finally, we could again play a constructive role in the global community effort to stabilise the Earth’s climate after years of spoiling and undermining genuine attempts, like the Paris Agreement, to build an international consensus on reducing plan et-heating emissions.
Australia’s relative success in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic was based on an essential three-way compact: governments working together in the national interest, incorporating the advice of scientific experts, underpinned by community co-operation.
The threat of a pandemic was immediate and required drastic action. However, the threat the climate crisis presents is of far greater magnitude, albeit unfolding over a longer time frame.
The Economist again:
COVID-19 has demonstrated that the foundations of prosperity are precarious. Disasters long talked about, and long ignored, can come upon you with no warning, turning life inside out and shaking all that seemed stable.
The harm from climate change will be slower than the pandemic but more massive and longer-lasting. If there is a moment for leaders to show bravery in heading off that disaster, this is it. They will never have a more attentive audience.
This is clearly no longer business as usual. Our future health and prosperity depends on a healthy planet. Seize the moment we must.
Peter Garrett AM is a musician, activist and former Labor member of federal parliament. He is a renowned environmentalist and social justice campaigner through his work with trailblazing rock band Midnight Oil and his decade as Australian Conservation Foundation President. He was a Cabinet Minister in the Rudd and Gillard Governments and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Australian National University.
- ‘Addressing global warming’, Climate Action Tracker website, December 2019, <climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/>.
- Graham Readfearn and Adam Morton, ‘Great Barrier Reef suffers third mass coral bleaching event in five years’, the Guardian, 25 March 2020, <www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/25/great-barrier-reef-suffers-third-mass-coral-bleaching-event-in-five-years>.
- ‘Explained: Adani’s continuously changing jobs figures’, the Australia Institute, Medium, 26 April 2019, <medium.com/@TheAustraliaInstitute/explained-
- Deloitte Access Economics, At what price? The economic, social and icon value of the Great Barrier Reef, 2017, <www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/au/ Documents/Economics/deloitte-au-economics-great-barrier-reef-230617.pdf>.
- Deloitte Access Economics, 2017.
- ‘Countries should seize the moment to flatten the climate curve’, the Economist, 21 May 2020, <www.economist.com/leaders/2020/05/21/countries-should-seize-the-moment-to-flatten-the-climate-curve>.
- ‘Climate change’, the World Bank website, 2020, <www.worldbank.org/en/ topic/climatechange>.
- ‘Climate mitigation’, International Monetary Fund website, 16 October 2019, <www.imf.org/en/Topics/Environment/climate-mitigation>.
- Michael Slezak, More jobs in renewable-led COVID-19 economic recovery, EY report finds, ABC News, 7 June 2020, <www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-07/