Dutton confirms nuclear push and climate denial go hand in hand: The pretence has gone

peter dutton
(AAP Image/James Ross)

So, let there now be no doubt or confusion: Opposition leader Peter Dutton has confirmed that his Coalition’s push for nuclear energy is inextricably linked with his party’s implacable denial of climate science. The pretence that it is anything else is now gone.

Dutton’s interview with The Weekend Australian published on Saturday makes two important concessions: That nuclear energy is very slow, and cannot feasibly be deployed in Australia before the mid 2040s. It also proves that he is ready and willing to rip up the Paris climate target – and sacrifice the country’s economic future – in the name of his energy dogma.

Australians should not be surprised, but they ought to be appalled, and terrified. The science is absolutely clear, the world is on track to blow the carbon budget that could hold average global warming below 1.5°C over the next five years. The world is already close to 1.5°C and the impact are being felt.

But Dutton wants to put off any serious action on emissions reduction for another two decades, using a re-heated scare campaign about the lights going out and a collapsing economy if the country pushes ahead with renewables.

He says there is “no hope” of reaching Australia’s 2030 interim target, still a relatively modest reduction of 43 per cent, mostly achieved through accounting tricks on land use. But he says the target of “net zero by 2050” will stand.

It always seemed inevitable that the 2050 target was going to be used by climate science deniers such as Dutton and legacy industries as an excuse to delay any action. It might as well have been invented by the fossil fuel industry, which uses it as a justification for business as usual.

The only significant corporate leader calling this out is iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest, who aims for “real zero” by 2030 for his Pilbara operations, no mean feat but one the world should be following. At least his ambition is in line with the science, which demands urgent action and most emission cuts to be delivered this decade, not in 20 years time.

The federal Coalition, however, has hitched its flag with what the UN secretary general described last week as the “godfathers of chaos”, helping the fossil fuel industry spread disinformation and delay climate action, and throwing the rest of the world under a bus.

Dutton’s comments about tearing up the Paris agreement make the questions about cost, waste and social licence of nuclear almost redundant. The key issue here is the Coalition’s express intention to do little or nothing about emission cuts in the short term, or even the medium term, blocking the roll out of renewables, tearing up contracts, and sacrificing the future of Australian and its economy in the name of fossil fuel supremacy.

The push for nuclear power in Australia has long been directly linked with climate denial, because in a country like Australia with such magnificent wind and solar resources, it is not about an energy choice but about climate delay. What better technology to serve those purposes than nuclear.

Even when it was promoted by so called “eco modernists” and self-described “critical thinkers” – meaning they thought they were smarter than everyone else – the links were clear.

If you thought their intention was to solve the climate crisis it was betrayed by the relentless attacks on renewables. Stop what can be done now to wait for something that may or not work in the future. Dutton’s position is to expressly support the burning of more coal and gas in the interim.

It makes no environmental sense, and no economic sense. And it makes no engineering sense because the coal fired power stations are old and unreliable. They need to be replaced. Gas and nuclear are the two most expensive options, and the most ill-fitted to fit into a grid where rooftop solar is low cost, popular and increasingly dominant.

It is instructive that many of those individuals who claimed to have been such “critical thinkers” and so concerned about the climate crisis have now signed up with coal and gas lobby groups, where they can catch up with former federal energy ministers also given shelter by the fossil fuel industry. The environmental pretence is long gone.

These actors have been supported by a collection of so-called “think tanks”, which are now quite obviously little more than propaganda machines for the fossil fuel industry – cheered on and amplified by deeply funded misinformation campaigns on social media – including by the Atlas Group – and by the Murdoch press.

Dutton’s words are taking Australia’s climate and energy divisions back to the dark ages of the Tony Abbott era. But it is much darker than that. Abbott could hide under the argument that UN climate talks had failed, and could plug into lingering climate skepticism, and the old zingers about $100 roasts and turning cities into ghost towns.

But we now have an international climate agreement, imperfect as it is, and more ambitious emissions reduction targets, still inadequate as they are. Dutton would have Australia rip these up and do nothing for decades in the face of the overwhelming science, and the momentous shift to clean energy around the world.

It would turn Australia into the global pariah that it was seen during the Abbott years, and deprive it not only of making its own contribution to the efforts to limit global warming, but also of protecting the future of its own economy.

It comes as South Australia – with its 75 per cent share of wind and solar in the past year, its 100 per cent net renewable target for 2027, and the overwhelming interest from new industry seeking to plug into this cheap and green power – makes a nonsense of the federal Coalition’s claims about the lights going out.

To be sure, Labor’s own policies and targets need ramping up and that might be difficult given the party machine that still encourages the gas industry. It might only be possible in a minority Labor government where the influence of the Teals and the Greens can come to bear. What Dutton’s comments make clear is that Australia cannot afford a lurch back to the federal Coalition.

These are deeply unsettling times, but the spreading of more fear, uncertainty and doubt is creating the opportunity for dangerous and destructive people like Trump, Dutton and others to profit the dark interests that they appear to serve. At least now it’s on the table.

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