The NEG and the 'idiocy' of COALition climate change wars

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Prime Minister Turnbull refers to energy policies of former Prime Minister Abbott as 'idiocy' (Image screenshots YouTube)

Some members of the Coalition are in a state of denial — denial in the face of the global consequences of climate change.

Heatwaves and wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere are killing people and drought is again ravaging rural communities in Australia.

Yet we are now in a surreal world where consequences and causes are disconnected, where science is ignored in the face of existential threats and where building coal-fired power stations is viewed by some in Government – such as former PM Abbott, Member for Hughes Craig Kelly and Resource Minister Matt Canavan, among others – as some sort of an answer to Australia’s future.

It is now viewed in Government as heresy to mention the drought and climate change in the same sentence, just as it is when bushfire strikes. Those who do so risk being accused of politicising the issue, or worse, of pushing a “green-left” agenda. So toxic are the climate wars that it is now taboo to discuss the possibility that we may be entering a dangerous new time in our “sunburnt country”.

When asked directly on ABC’s Q&A about the role of climate change in droughts, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud, Australia’s agriculture minister, ducked the question, choosing to ignore evidence from our respected scientific agencies.

Drought, as with bushfires, is a part of Australia’s harsh natural weather cycles. The problem is, however, that the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and all their data point in one direction — and that is a warming climate with more extremes of drought, bushfires, and floods. A long-term drying trend has been identified across the southern half of the continent. The result is an increased likelihood of drought and an extended bushfire season.

Denying a threat does not make it magically disappear, yet that is what this Government's policy amounts to. In the UK, a conservative government is meeting these challenges head-on, recognising the danger and implementing policies in energy, transport and agriculture to both mitigate the risk, and adapt to the inevitable changes wrought by a changing climate. In Australia, we push on Trump-like and ignore the risk.

This head in the sand attitude is not helping our farmers one bit. Beyond the drought, they will need help to build resilience and to know where the limits of viability are. They will need to know also what challenges and opportunities they face in reducing emissions from agriculture.

A recent series of advertisements in The Australian, placed by The Climate Study Group, made this claim (among others):

A reduction in livestock numbers by an estimated one third would be required to meet the Paris Accord emissions target’.

This statement is not just disingenuous, it is positively harmful, though perhaps not surprising coming from this group, The Lavoisier Group — also known for its long history of climate science denial and connections to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

The emissions challenge will strengthen our agriculture, not destroy it, as they would have us believe. Charles Massey, in his book Call of the Reed Warbler, describes the many changes farmers are making to build resilience — changes which will reduce emissions and increase productivity.

Unfortunately, the Government policy approach in agriculture is the same as in transport and electricity generation: that is business as usual, hope for the best and then react to a crisis. Long-term planning in the face of climate change is absent. She’ll be right mate!

Reductions in transport emissions should not be too difficult, you would think. The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was set up three years ago and progress amounts to zero. We know – oops! here comes science again – that emissions from motor vehicles and coal combustion kill people — about 3,000 per year in Australia. Emissions from transport are rising faster than in any other sector in Australia and further delay in reducing these is costing lives. We should follow California’s tough vehicle emissions and energy standards, which are supported by the people, if not by Trump.

Perhaps the most egregious denial of the climate emergency we face is in the electricity sector. You have to feel a little sorry for PM Turnbull. In 2017, after exploiting power prices, politically, by blaming renewable energy, he asked Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to review the national electricity market. All Finkel’s recommendations were accepted by the Coalition except one – the Clean Energy Target – which was shot down by the party room, thus ensuring no end to the climate wars.

What resulted was the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), a compromise put together by the Energy Security Board and destined to please nobody other than the coal boosters. The NEG will not result in reduced emissions and leaves Australia without a climate policy beyond 2022.

Electricity, transport and agriculture are three sectors without an adequate climate policy response. Little wonder that there are murmurings in Coalition ranks to pull out of the Paris Agreement altogether. The states and territories are under enormous pressure to agree to a scheme – now presented to them in a two-step process – which will lock in high emissions for potentially a decade. If they capitulate, they will fail the majority of Australians who want action on climate change.

Accepting that there is a cause is a first step in dealing with the consequence, just as a diagnosis leads to better treatment for the patient.

Our rural communities will be better able to cope if they have a government which recognises the danger for what it is, names it, and makes plans to adapt to it based on the best available science. The drought will break eventually, but that is not the end of it and Australia must face what could be worse to come.

We cannot endanger the next generation by ignoring the realities of a warming world. There is nothing "technology neutral" about coal. If we continue to burn it when better options are available we condemn ourselves and future generations to all the consequences of climate change, including droughts.

Climate scientist Dr Joelle Gergis in her book, Sunburnt Countryquotes Winston Churchill who in 1936, as war loomed, who said:

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”

We are now in the time of consequences.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. You can follow Doctors for the Environment Australia on Twitter @DocsEnvAus.

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