Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is at his least comfortable when a moment calls for quick, decisive, morally and economically clear-headed action.
It certainly feels like ages ago, but I’d argue the first clear moment of this was the Black summer bushfires of early 2020, a flashpoint only days before the rapid emergence of the Covid19. First, Morrison acted as if the crisis wasn’t even happening, travelling to Hawaii for a relaxing beach holiday. When he returned, and the public demanded to know how he’d address the climate change and fossil fuel burning elements of the disaster, he dismissed any responsibility: ‘you can’t link any government’s policy’s to these bushfires’, was the plea. In January 2020, when Morrison was asked about the government’s net zero policy, the line was to put off the task:
“What I’m saying is I’m not going to put someone’s job at risk, a region’s, town’s future at risk, I’m not going to put up electricity prices to do it, I’m not going to put a tax on them to do it. I’m going to achieve it in the way we’ve met our Kyoto 2020 targets, meet and beat, and we’ve done that through better technology, through the policies we’ve put through the emissions reduction fund, and we’re going to continue to do that because it is really important”
When faced with something you don’t want to do, create a necessary condition that you design so that it can be never, ever fulfilled. “I won’t clean my teeth until you can promise me a bristle won’t stick in my teeth”, is something my kid might want to try out in the future.
Today, climate change has noticeably dropped off the agenda. It is only really mentioned either in the context of political leadership squabbles, or in the context of international events. Covid19 has inflated to fill all spaces, but Morrison’s attitude towards this issue is very much a perfect analogue of his long-running attitude towards climate change. When asked about Australia’s incredibly slow vaccination roll-out back in March, Morrison said:
“It’s not a race. It’s not a competition for the sake of people’s health – you get it right. And that’s exactly what we’re doing and, where we are, our October deadline is the one we’re absolutely working to – there’s no change to that.”
The lines and arguments around Australia’s climate policy are incredibly circular – designed to be so conflicting and confusing that everybody trips over their own feet trying to understand the government’s pleas. No net zero until there’s a pathway, but there won’t be a pathway until a net zero target is set. The same confusion gets applied to the vaccination program – going slow is the only way to ‘get it right’. It’s demonstrably untrue – many other countries have gone fast and furious in an effort to be safe.
The fundamental problem – for both COVID19 and for climate change – is that going slow comes at a cost.
For climate, it means the addition of avoidable megatonnes of greenhouse gases. Imagine, for a moment, if Australia had begun phasing out coal in the year 2007. It would almost be a luxurious and barely-noticeable slope to an emissions-free grid, certainly by 2030 or even sooner. But that didn’t happen – and the climate damage caused since is essentially irreversible.
Ditto for COVID19. Lockdowns remain a vital tool for managing disease spread, but they come at a very serious cost. Greater levels of vaccine protection could reduce the severity of required lockdowns, but that opportunity has been squandered. And in the worst case, surges in the COVID19 virus can lead to severe illness and death.
COVID19 will not be the last crisis. The climate change locked in due to the prior burning of fossil fuels will hit, and hit hard. The only way lives will be saved is with a leader who understands the importance of urgent action.
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