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Scott Morrison’s climate change leadership fail

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing criticism for not keeping up with other world leaders on climate issues (Screenshot via YouTube)

While other nations step up to zero-emission targets, Scott Morrison is still falling behind on taking action and being a responsible leader, writes David Ritter.

THE PHRASE “the buck stops here” was made famous by a sign that sat on the desk of the 33rd President of the United States, Harry S Truman.

The point of the sign was that, unlike everyone else, the leader of a nation cannot pass on difficult obligations to someone else.

In his farewell address to the nation in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that:

“The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.”

“The buck stops here” is an idea of ultimate political responsibility and leadership that could not be more alien to the champion buck-passer who is forever seeking to lay blame on others’ that serves as Australia’s current Prime Minister. “I don’t hold a hose, mate”, spoken in the midst of the unprecedented 2019-20 bushfires as the PM holidayed in Hawaii, was more than a gaffe — it was a pure expression of the living creed of Scott Morrison’s prime ministerial leadership. He is the man who does not take responsibility.

Global warming is the greatest threat to Australia’s security and prosperity, as well as an immense national opportunity to transition to becoming a clean energy superpower.

In the face of the challenge, the buck that stops with the Australian Prime Minister is to take the actions that are necessary to protect the common heritage of the nation, to protect the lives of citizens and to secure the conditions for the flourishing of future generations.

Right now, Scott Morrison is failing all three tests. Where is the serious planning for resilience in the face of severe climate damage? Where is the urgent systems-level action to preserve our ecosystems, rivers, farmland and our species from extinction? Where is the transition plan to shift from the death-fuels of coal, oil and gas which are the greatest driver of global warming, to the clean future? Where is the active diplomacy to support our Pacific “family”? Where is the plan to ensure that no Australian, regardless of who they are or where they live, is left behind? Where is the target consistent with the science – Australia needs net zero emissions by 2035 – and the political will to get there?

Australia is full of people with vocational responsibilities who don’t have the option of passing the buck. Company directors have non-delegable duties. Doctors and nurses, teachers and educators all have duties of care. Plumbers and sparkies have trade standards. Parents look after their kids.

So what about our Prime Minister? In order for Scott Morrison to reach the conclusion that it is okay to take no real action on the climate emergency, he must be either failing to know what a reasonable prime minister should properly know about the damage already occurring and the scale of risk in the future, or he is well aware of these things and is ignoring them.

It is egregious negligence and a gross failure of leadership either way. And fake solutions, empty slogans and bogus progress simply do not cut it. Morrison’s coquettishness around zero emissions target dates is just another dimension of the emptiness.

In a world of Trump, Morrison was less likely to be found out. As political historian Frank Bongiorno noted in the piece quoted above, Morrison’s ‘leadership is very much a product of the Trump era and its pathologies’. But Trump is gone and there’s a new team in the White House. And here’s the thing — Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are taking responsibility. In one sense, the whole of the Biden-Harris two trillion-dollar infrastructure Bill is a commitment to taking responsibility.

The Biden searchlight is now squarely on Morrison.

The nations of the world are a long way short of the commitments necessary to achieve the agreed Paris climate goal, but the momentum is decisively shifting. As I type, it is being reported that this week, President Biden will commit to cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by 2030.

As leading U.S. climate scientist and author Michael Mann – who has been a welcome visitor to Australia on multiple occasions – tweeted:

Events this week are crucial. Scott Morrison’s track record on climate change is appalling, but the obligations upon him are not obviated by his history of inaction. And a good leader will learn in the job. A decisive turn to the clean energy transformation from Morrison would not only be exactly what Australia needs and deserves but would also be a great contribution to achieving global progress.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western Australia. You can follow David Ritter on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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