OPINION

Coalition's last-minute shift on net zero beggars belief

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's
Prime Minister Scott Morrison's "plan" to reach net zero emissions by 2050 barely constitutes a change to existing policies. Picture: Getty Images

In August 2020, I published an essay entitled 40 Years of Climate Warnings Ignored by Australian Politicians. Shortly after its initial publication, it was - without my instigation and to my surprise - republished with layout improvements by Social Policy Connections, an associate of the Catholic Church. In the penultimate paragraph of my article, I predicted that, as our climate deteriorates, my grandchildren (I'm a mid-octogenarian) will start to struggle in an increasingly hostile world. Further, I said that they would deserve to have available to them a rogue's gallery of media moguls, politicians and commentators who were climate change and global warming deniers, sceptics or minimisers who had done their best to frustrate effective action.

My incomplete list of rogues ran to 26 institutions and persons, and included 11 politicians. My list of politicians was incomplete, but did include our current Prime Minister - a man who in February 2017 walked into Parliament holding a lump of coal and said, "Don't be afraid, don't be scared, it won't hurt you; it's coal." A man apparently wilfully ignorant of the fact that when coal combusts, gaseous carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere (this was known by 1800, but isn't part of a marketing man's curriculum).

Currently about one-third of the Nationals (a party that has functionally morphed into a Coal and Gas Party) appear to be implacably opposed to effective action on climate change, regardless of the net zero deal. The National Party attracts only about 5 per cent of voters, which means representatives of about 2 per cent of the total electorate held the country to ransom and mounted an assault on Australian democracy. Yes, the Nationals and a recalcitrant group of Liberals have long obstructed effective action on climate change. But what sticks in my craw is the intellectual laziness, lack of curiosity, wilful ignorance and callous disregard of the future wellbeing of Australians exhibited by these obstructionists.

The National Party has agreed to a "process" to work towards net zero emissions by 2050. Picture: Getty Images

The National Party has agreed to a "process" to work towards net zero emissions by 2050. Picture: Getty Images

Let's be charitable and excuse these renegades for not knowing that in 1856 and 1859, respectively, a remarkable American woman, Eunice Newton Foote, and an Irish physicist, John Tyndall, produced evidence that if the Earth's atmosphere contained a high concentration of carbon dioxide, its surface temperature would also be high. Let's also let our obstructionists off the hook for not knowing that on August 14, 1912, The Rodney and Otamatea Times, a small New Zealand newspaper, under the heading "Coal consumption affecting climate", published this brief but extraordinarily prescient text: "The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more efficient blanket for the Earth and to raise its temperature. This effect may be considerable in a few centuries."

Jumping to the past three or four decades, why were these obstructionists so intellectually lazy and wilfully ignorant not to be aware, unlike many youngsters in secondary school, that the pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 278 parts per million (ppm), but this same measure is now 419ppm? Why did they ignore the work of Charles Keeling, who in 1958 set up a station on Mauna Loa in Hawaii to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and showed, in what became the famous "Keeling Curve", that by 2005 (when he died) concentrations had risen from 315 to 380 ppm over the 47 years? What interest did they show in the fact that Australia's monitoring station at Cape Grim yielded results in complete agreement with Keeling's work?

There is a long sequence of important milestones in the history of climate change science that have been ignored by the wilfully ignorant. The scientific journal Climatic Change was founded in 1978. In April 1979, an American group of scientists known as the "Jasons", the chairman of which was Gordon MacDonald, presented their report The long-term impact of atmospheric carbon dioxide on climate to the US Department of Energy. The abstract of this report commenced: "If the current growth rate of fossil fuels continues at 4.3 per cent per year, then the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere can be expected to double by about 2035 [subject to conditions]". And regarding impacts: "If civilization continues its heavy reliance on carbon-based fuels, and if there are no major shifts in the current response of the oceans and biosphere to changing carbon dioxide content, then we should expect during the middle of the 21st century a warming of 2 to 3 degrees, accentuated by a factor of three or four at high polar regions."

In 1987 the CSIRO's Division of Atmospheric Research organised a large climate change conference in Melbourne, the proceedings of which were published in 1988 as a 750-page book, Greenhouse: Planning for climate change. This was a landmark achievement in the history of climate science in Australia. On June 23, 1988, James Hansen fronted a US Senate hearing and said that a human-induced warming trend could be detected with a high degree of confidence. TheNew York Times then ran the front-page headline "Global warming has begun". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988, and its first major report was published in 1990. The sixth and most recent was published in August this year.

Starting in 2005 with "The Weather Makers: The history and future impact of climate change", Tim Flannery produced a series of books and two Quarterly Essays dealing with various aspects of climate change. His sustained and impassioned pleas for action on climate change are unrivalled, but have largely fallen on deaf ears. In The Conversation on September 17, 2019, Flannery said: "In Australia, the disconnect among our political leaders on the deadly nature of fossil fuels is particularly breathtaking. Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to sing the praises of coal, while members of the government call for subsidies for coal-fired power stations. A few days ago, the energy and emissions minister, Angus Taylor, urged that the nation'sold and polluting coal-fired plants be allowed to run 'at full tilt'. In the past, many of us have tolerated such pronouncements as the utterings of idiots ... but the climate crisis has now grown so severe that the actions of the denialists have turned predatory: they are now an immediate threat to our children."

In Time magazine in May 2006, just as he was about to release his important book and film, An Inconvenient Truth, former US vice-president Al Gore published a tribute to distinguished American climate scientist James Hansen, which concluded: "When the history of the climate crisis is written, Hansen will be seen as the scientist with the most powerful and consistent voice calling for intelligent action to preserve our planet's environment." Three years later, and just over 20 years after his historic appearance before the US Senate, Hansen produced his own landmark book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity (2009).

Tim Flannery, the 2007 Australian of the Year, gives a speech on global warming at the National Press Club in July 2007. Picture: Getty Images

Tim Flannery, the 2007 Australian of the Year, gives a speech on global warming at the National Press Club in July 2007. Picture: Getty Images

In December 2011, the British Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research found that Australia's agricultural land would be more severely impacted by global heating than that of almost all of the 24 countries considered (only Spain would be worse off). Without action, 97 per cent of Australia's cropland would face degradation additional to what is already happening through overgrazing and land clearing and the like. There can be no better indication that the National Party no longer represents the interests of rural Australians on the land than their wilful ignorance and total neglect of this research.

A carbon pricing scheme was introduced by the Gillard Labor government as the Clean Energy Act 2011, which came into effect on July 1, 2012. Greenhouse gas emissions from companies subject to the scheme dropped almost immediately, and as the official graph of total annual greenhouse emissions (excluding land use, land use change and forestry) showed, reduction continued in the years up to 2014. However, following the 2013 election, the Abbott government came to power - and in July 2014, in what may be regarded as a destructive act of bastardry actively encouraged by the Murdoch media, repealed the Gillard legislation. It prompted an Age editorial headlined "Repeal of carbon tax shames our nation" on July 21, 2014. Hereafter emissions resumed their upward march. In another highly destructive act, Abbott, within days of his election, abolished the Climate Commission in September 2013.

December 2015 saw the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement, which came into force in November 2016. This international treaty aimed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and improve upon and replace the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. It aimed to hold the increase in global mean temperatures to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. The agreement emphasised co-operation, flexibility, transparency and the regular reporting of progress in achieving intended nationally determined contributions. However, there was no mechanism to enforce compliance - only one to promote compliance. In June 2017, President Trump signalled his intention to pull the United States out of the agreement, but this did not occur until November 2020. Since then President Biden has restored America's membership.

Joelle Gergis, an award-winning climate scientist, produced in 2018 the book Sunburnt Country: The history and future of climate change in Australia, which Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty said should be read by every Australian (if only it could be!). Gergis starts out with the First Fleet in 1788 and reconstructs Australia's climate through to the present - making a distinction between natural climate variability and human-induced climate change. She poses the question: "Can we live with ourselves knowing that we are passing on an unsafe and unstable future to our young ones?"

Scotty's 2050 commitment cannot be taken at face value. It is fraudulent and meaningless as long as our federal government is committed to the expansion of coal and gas projects, when climate science dictates that coal must stay in the ground almost immediately and gas use must diminish.

The UN Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) met in Madrid in December 2019. This had a disappointing outcome, with our Australian representative, Angus Taylor, playing a significantly destructive role. Australia's proposal to reduce its emissions to only 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and its plans to get most of the way there by using "carryover credits" from the Kyoto Protocol, was met with dismay and condemnation by many.

In January 2020, the journal BioScience published a brief but data-rich paper titled World scientists' warning of a climate emergency. This article had five principal authors, but was endorsed by 11,285 scientists from 153 countries. It commenced: "Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to 'tell it like it is'. On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below we declare ... clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency."

George Monbiot has recently discussed the Earth's tipping points. Climate breakdown will not be linear, smooth and gradual; it will go in fits and starts. 2 degrees will be more than twice as bad as one, and 3 degrees will be more than 3 times as bad. Monbiot considers that assumptions that the Earth's tipping points are a long way off are starting to look unsafe; sudden changes of state might be possible with just 1.5 or 2 degrees of heating.

Enough of the milestones largely missed by the wilfully ignorant. What now for COP26 in Glasgow? Australia will limp there with the status of a world pariah. "Scotty from Marketing" will do his best to appease major countries by committing Australia to net zero emissions by 2050. Further pressure for this came from the Murdoch media, which on October 11 suddenly turned on its deniers (poor Andrew Bolt!) by splashing favourable front-page coverage for climate action in its numerous tabloid newspapers (but not the recalcitrant The Australian); an abrupt end to decades of war on climate change science and scientists.

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But Scotty's 2050 commitment cannot be taken at face value. It is fraudulent and meaningless as long as our federal government is committed to the expansion of coal and gas projects, when climate science dictates that coal must stay in the ground almost immediately and gas use must diminish. Further, Morrison has now pathetically confirmed that he will take an unchanged 26 to 28 per cent 2030 reduction target to Glasgow, instead of a credible 50 to 60 per cent target.

Recently, in the space of just one month, Environment Minister Sussan Ley approved four new coal projects. Further, Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Resources Minister Keith Pitt have reiterated their strong commitment to a so-called "gas-led recovery" - said recovery being conceived in purely economic rather than environmental terms. Taylor is pushing ahead with the Narrabri gas project in NSW, whose development costs approach $4 billion and involves fracking with the drilling of 850 new coal seam wells. This year Pitt blocked the public funding for a green energy hub in Queensland, approved a $175 million loan for a new coal mine in Queensland, and controversially approved a $21 million loan to Imperial Oil and Gas to start exploration in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory. We can be sure Scotty will be hiding these and similar developments in Glasgow.

Despite strong reservations about Australia's contribution, we must fervently hope that COP26 is resounding success. Much, in fact everything, is at stake. If we fail, then by 2150 humans and the outstanding achievements of humanity - our art, the musical manuscripts of Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz, our architecture - may be reduced to dust, incorporated into geological strata perhaps inhabited by something no more sentient than thermophilic bacteria.

Some scientists think we have left our run too late. But we must strive to succeed.

  • Ian Bayly is a former vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He has over the past six decades authored over 100 scientific papers. Bayly Bay in the Vestfold Hills is named for his contribution to Antarctic science.
This story Coalition's last-minute shift on net zero beggars belief first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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