Opinion: Australia’s last-place ranking on climate action is the result of endless self-sabotage

Protestors calling for climate action (self-sabotage)
Image: Shutterstock

Tim Flannery, Climate Council chief councillor and Australia’s chief climate commissioner from 2010-13, says Australia’s dismal ranking on climate action is a clear case of self-sabotage in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

It’s not often that wealthy, sunny, tech-savvy Australia is beaten in a development-goal ranking by countries such as Uzbekistan, Fiji and Albania. But this month, the United Nations ranked Australia last out of more than 170 UN members surveyed for action on climate change. It’s a result made possible by the nation’s seemingly endless capacity for self-sabotage.

The destruction of proactive climate policy in Australia has taken climate deniers decades to achieve. But most of the heavy lifting began in September 2013, when Tony Abbot—who famously quipped that the science of climate change was “crap”—was elected prime minister.

He swiftly led the push to abolish the nation’s pioneering carbon price (which had seen carbon dioxide emissions drop significantly as the economy expanded), demolished the Climate Commission (which I headed) and filled his government with climate skeptics. For Australians interested in climate action, the eight years of conservative government that followed has felt like living through two terms of a Trump presidency on steroids. Unfortunately, those positions endure, even as the Australian public increasingly comes to a consensus on the need for climate action.

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Following the catastrophic megafires of 2019-2020, which burned 21 per cent of the mainland’s temperate broadleaf forest, the subsequent floods and the ongoing degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, 70 per cent of Australians want more action on climate change. Australia’s state governments, regardless of political stripe, have acknowledged the shift and are strongly pushing climate action. But in the cavernous echo chamber that is the federal government, entrenched climate denialism prevails.

The fossil fuel industry is used to getting its way in Canberra, and with around AUD$300 billion invested in the gas export industry alone in recent years, much is at stake. In fact, Australia is now the largest exporter of gas and coal (by calorific value). For decades, ex-fossil fuel lobbyists have been writing government energy policy and retiring federal energy ministers have joined fossil fuel companies or lobby groups. To such people, the growing renewables sector challenges the status quo and must be opposed at any cost.

But there’s more to the federal government’s recalcitrance than lobbying by the fossil fuels industry. Today, more and more of Australia’s leading corporations and business leaders are calling for a swift transition to clean energy so the nation can take advantage of the potential of green hydrogen to power new industries such as minerals processing.

The federal cabinet’s deafness to both the electorate and wider industry interests seems extraordinary, especially in light of the conservatives’ wafer-thin majority. Australia’s conservatives have clung to power through a combination of slick marketing and luck, at times mouthing platitudes about climate action, but then doubling down on a gas-fired economic recovery from COVID-19. Lose their clannish adherence to climate denialism and the hollow shell that is conservative politics in Australia today would be revealed to all.

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Former conservative prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described the conservative denialists in the cabinet as behaving like “terrorists” by threatening to blow the government apart whenever their views are challenged. And it’s not just Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s party that is behind this. The National Party (the junior member in the coalition government) is now led by a climate denialist. Once that party represented farmers, but it has become captive to coal and gas. While the National Farmers Federation calls for climate action, the “Nats” boost fossil fuels, holding onto their dwindling constituency with the falsehood that if voters haven’t got gas and coal mining, they’ve got no future. But coal mines and gas wells are destroying some of the nation’s best agricultural lands, which when well managed yield enduring wealth. Farmers are “locking their gates” to these industries, and protesters have been arrested as they oppose gas and coal.

It’s a tragedy that this government will represent Australia at the next UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November. All indications are that—with our pathetic national target of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and no declared year to reach net-zero emissions—Australia, along with the likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia, will play a blocking role on greater climate ambition. Only the fear of carbon border adjustment tariffs—taxes by nations on imported carbon-intensive goods—seems likely to shift conservatives’ view.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope. Despite its dismal ranking by the United Nations, things are changing Down Under. Individuals now overwhelmingly embrace clean energy. One in four Australian homes generates its own electricity through rooftop solar arrays. And New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has legislated an ambitious plan to transition from coal to renewable energy.
If Australia were represented by its people or state governments on the international stage, the world would see a very different nation.