The far right of the Coalition has maintained enormous ideological discipline to insist – in the face of ever mounting evidence to the contrary – that climate science is a giant hoax.
That climate denial – still evident in most of the conservative rump of the party, even if Barnaby Joyce now wonders if “climate change might be real” after staring at a dry creek bed on his family property – has now seeped through to everyday government.
Two events this week highlight how this ideological intransigence retains its hold over the Turnbull administration.
The first came earlier this week when environment minister Greg Hunt was forced to deny the idea that Direct Action – once dismissed as a “fig leaf” for climate action by his boss, Malcolm Turnbull – would evolve into a type of emissions trading scheme.
The second event came when it was revealed by The Guardian that Hunt’s environment department had managed to have removed any mention of Australia in a UNESCO report on the environmental impacts of climate change and world heritage sites.
Hunt’s department defended itself, suggesting that such reports might be bad for tourism. They might as well have demanded that the Great Barrier Reef be removed from all maps in Australian schools.
It’s extraordinary stuff. The ANU’s Will Steffen, one of the scientific reviewers of the axed section on the reef, described it as astounding and said Australia’s move was reminiscent of “the old Soviet Union”.
The climate policy hoax was brought to a head when Alan Kohler wrote a story about the the Coalition’s “secret emissions trading scheme”, noting how Direct Action could evolve, through its “safeguards mechanism” into a baseline and credit emissions trading scheme.
None of this is new. That was and remains the case, but Hunt has two problems. First, he needs to attack Labor with an electricity scare tax campaign, at the same time as trying to hide from the public, and his own far right wing, that Coalition policy is designed to follow a similar course if it is ever to achieve anything.
Direct Action has already been described as a hopeless waste of money handing out funds to people largely doing things they were intending to do anyway, through the $2.5 billion emissions reduction fund.
The safeguards component is supposed to be a cap on emissions, but it is so generous it allows polluters to emit at their highest levels for the last six years without question, or even more if they can provide justification for doing so.
It is, as it stands, no restriction at all. But if the safeguards are tightened, then companies will then earn tradable credits and penalties – effectively morphing into a sort of emissions trading scheme originally favoured by the architects of Direct Action.
The fact that the Coalition is seeking to deny this is one thing, but the censorship of the UNESCO report is quite another. Remember how the Coalition bridled when Barack Obama brought the issue around the Great Barrier Reef to the world’s attention at the APEC conference in Brisbane? The Coalition would have liked to have censor the US president too.
Labor branded the censorship of the UNESCO report as the “Great Barrier to Truth”. Spokesman Mark Butler said “Turnbull is trying to bury the existence of climate change” by getting the Environment Department to eliminate mentions of Australia.
“Report after report, expert after expert, tells us that the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change,” Butler said. “How could UNESCO miss this? They didn’t. The Government made sure it was left out.”
This is what the report wanted to say, and has been released by lead author Adam Markham, through his employer, the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The biggest threat to the GBR today, and to its ecosystems services, biodiversity, heritage values and tourism economy, is climate change, including warming sea temperatures, accelerating rates of sea level rise, changing weather patterns and ocean acidification.”
This threat to tourism is the devil in the detail. While the Coalition and state Labor government have sought to welcome the expansion of the coal industry, the risks to the reef and its tourism and its 4,800 direct jobs have been growing by the week.
This was one reason why tourism operators feared rocking the boat on federal climate policy, although some have now broken ranks – in the midst of the worst ever bleaching event – and openly called on the Coalition to act.
Of course, this is not the first time that the Coalition has sought to censure information. One of its very first acts when elected in 2013 was to abolish the Climate Commission, which was providing updates on climate science. That has since re-emerged as a private-and-crowd-funded Climate Council.
Then the Coalition sought to abolish the Climate Change Authority, which publishes advice on how the government should act to address the climate change issue. Those reports, which constantly recommend a significantly more ambitious policy, are a source of embarrassment to the government.
These shenanigans are rapidly gaining more widespread attention. In the New York Times this week, columnist wrote: “So it’s coral versus coal, the earth’s health against a big industry, and science versus the Abbott-inspired denial gang.”
But it’s not just Abbott. Turnbull has long known what is at stake. “Yet, Turnbull, beholden to Abbott’s right wing of the Liberal Party, has, as leader, done his best to forget what he said six years ago.”
More Greg Foyster cartoons can be found here.