Two and a half solid months into 2021, and there has been zero progress on establishing a net zero by 2050 target for Australia. Of course, once it’s established, it’s simply the start of the process – policy must be made as if that target is real and sincerely held.
That’s a long way off – as confirmed by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Nationals Party, Michael McCormack, on ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday. For several minutes, McCormack rehashed a litany of debunked tropes and deceptive claims, all with the aim of putting off the responsibility for acting on climate change as long as possible.
It is well worth digging into these claims, because this is the tone being set for 2021’s climate and energy policy, in Australia. There is some hand-waving about future technology, mixed with the classic memes and phrases of the past few years. None of it is inspiring, but all of it is significant in the context of a year of global focus on climate action.
The classic SA blackout meme
Presumably a little inspired by a recent large-scale blackout in Texas, McCormack dives straight into this one. When asked if the close of the Yallourn coal-fired power station would necessitate another threat to build a government fossil fuel plant, McCormack responds with:
“Well, we might have to, David. We might well might have to. It will take a very long power cord to get Victoria’s energy needs the way it needs to be. We all remember the 2016 power outages in South Australia. Businesses were screaming blue murder, because their power went out, fridges went out, the whole state went into blackout. We don’t and can’t just rely on intermittent power at the moment. We need to make sure we have the reliable, traditional energy sources and coal has played a part of that, and will, into the future”.
This is something I warned of very recently. The 2016 blackout in South Australia, caused by a severe storm bringing down transmission lines and triggering a cascade of events that included a low-voltage trip on some models of wind turbine, has evolved from being an anti-wind meme into a pro-coal and gas meme. The narrative of fear of blackouts is now the response to the closure of old coal, rather than the construction of new wind and solar.
Generally, the gambit is to argue that closing fossil fuelled power stations would lead to higher prices and more blackouts; neglecting to include the nuance that those impacts all depend on the way in which closure is managed. It is in fact entirely feasible to close coal rapidly while decreasing prices and maintaining reliability.
Technology and taxes
When pressed about whether he supports a net zero by 2050 target – recently weakly blessed by PM Scott Morrison with the word “preferably” – McCormack replied with another tried and tested catchphrase:
“Whatever we do, we will get there through technology, not taxes, David. We have 29 years before 2050. Who knows what inventions might take place in that time? Who knows what absolute advancements in technology will take place?”
We have 29 years before 2050, but we have zero years before we need to start acting on climate. The later we leave it, the harder the hit. The gamble here, of course, is that those advocating to delay action won’t be around to experience that hit – McCormack himself has openly admitted to as much, telling Sky News Australia in February this year that “we’re not worried, well, I’m certainly not worried, about what might happen in 30 years’ time”.
"I’m certainly not worried about what might happen in 30 years’ time" ~ @M_McCormackMP
Well I sure as hell am!
If you support rural Australia then you support serious action on climate change.
— Anika Molesworth (@AnikaMolesworth) February 8, 2021
Perhaps the more egregious point is “technology not taxes”, because nearly every one of the government’s climate policies uses money acquired through the taxation of Australian citizens. It is odd how they get away with this one, because it’s as wrong as you could really possible be about climate policy. There is also the associated problem that the government’s “roadmap” to capture new technologies is badly insufficient.
Missing and failing our targets
Another classic wheeled out by McCormack is the idea that Australia’s on track to achieve its weak, outdated 2030 Paris climate agreement targets:
“We are actually meeting and beating our Paris commitments, we are well on track to meet and beat what we said we would do by 2030, and we are doing it through technology, with farmers and soil sequestration and those sorts of things”
The latest projections from the Australian government unambiguously show that Australia is on track to miss the 2030 Paris targets, and it is way, way off track to align with an updated 1.5C target (of around 66% reduction by 2030).
The PM, Scott Morrison, keeps repeating the same thing. It’s a pretty nice example of what would, in some parallel universe, be considered “misinformation”, or “deception”. If it was typed into a meme template and shared on Facebook, it might even be treated like it.
It matters, of course, because the dual act of having a weak target and also treating targets like they don’t exist result in emissions far higher than they ought to be.
In two short minutes, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister delivered a package of wrongness that, while brief, is a nice insight into how badly far behind the government is on climate. One important question here is whether it’s ethical to provide a platform for these bits of misinformation to go unchallenged (and of course, actually challenging them mid-interview would be unwatchable).
In 2020, many American journalists simply stopped providing interviews and live coverage of Trump’s speeches, on the grounds that he lies too frequently. But the principle of not providing a platform to someone known to spread false information about climate hasn’t spread elsewhere.