Government's arrogant and irresponsible response to IPCC report

Don't worry, be happy: Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack (left) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have downplayed the IPCC report on the threats of climate change. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Don't worry, be happy: Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack (left) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have downplayed the IPCC report on the threats of climate change. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

This week we saw the release of the latest findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), what has been described as a “nightmarish tale” – significantly worse than their previous assessments – documenting the climate change impacts we’re already experiencing with one degree of warming, and the likely severity of the impacts to come once we surpass 1.5 degrees of warming. 

The report, the sixth by the IPCC, cites some 6000 scientific references, written by 91 authors and review editors from 40 countries. It is a very significant document. It predicts that even if every country met its Paris Agreement emissions reduction commitments, the global temperature would still increase to 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

If the world continues to burn fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases at the current rate, it could rise by 4 degrees, with extreme consequences in terms of vanishing ecosystems and species, including the death of coral reefs.

It was alarming that the off-the-cuff response from the Morrison government was to fob off the report as a ”global study” of no particular relevance to Australia, even though we are one of the world’s highest polluters per capita, and one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels – coal and LNG. They also said that Australia would be spending no money on climate change conferences and “all that nonsense”.

The Nats went further to claim that we can “have our cake and eat it too” – Australia can continue to burn coal for decades to come, and encourage other counties to do so, while still enjoying a vibrant tourism industry on the Barrier Reef.

Moreover, without any whole-economy emissions reduction strategy to even meet our inadequate Paris commitments, and no energy policy after a couple of decades of short-term political point scoring and blame shifting, the LNP nevertheless asserts that we can relax as we are “on track” to meet our Paris commitments.

This response is grossly irresponsible, and merely shoves the climate challenge down the road to be handled by future generations. Given the evidence on the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge, I suggest a government forfeits its right to govern without a climate action plan.

It is very difficult to understand the government’s response against the background of a host of polls and surveys that record that a clear, and increasing, majority of the electorate want a decisive, government-led response to the climate challenge, along with very widespread support for more renewables as a source of our power.

This is also surely quite “dumb” politics, as the government is vacating the field to the opposition, who are polling as “better able” to handle climate, while not being too far behind the government on “best to handle electricity prices”. 

I suggest a government forfeits its right to govern without a climate action plan.

The government’s failure to develop a complete climate action plan to transition to a low carbon society, coming on the heels of the indefensible “madness” that resulted in Turnbull being replaced as PM, could easily cement their electoral demise.

What staggers many voters, what they simply can’t understand, is that on longer-term structural issues, such as climate, it is surely important to step beyond the day-to-day political point scoring to create a multi-party process to develop and implement an effective climate action plan in the national interest. 

So much of politics/government has today unfortunately come to be dominated by selfishness and arrogance. This certainly characterised Morrison’s response to the IPCC report. His response was all about his perception of what would be to his short-term political advantage, desperately attempting to reposition himself by “spinning” issues and challenges, hoping to duck any discussion of the detail or consequences.

Morrison would also claim, of course, that he is in politics “to make a difference”, to govern in the “best interests of our children and grandchildren”. This is clearly nonsense, when he clearly abrogates his responsibilities on the climate challenge, pushing the issue to be handled by future generations, even though it will increasingly be more difficult and disruptive for them to do so if, indeed, they can.

The IPCC report should have been a wake-up call for all our politicians. It may already be too late to avoid the most disastrous consequences of global warming.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.