Scott Morrison opened the door to “evolving” the government’s policy on climate change in the future and to reduce emissions further than has been committed to.
In an interview on Insiders yesterday, amid continuing criticism of the Coalition over its response to the bushfires emergency and its track record on climate change, the Prime Minister seemed to indicate he’s open to a rethink.
And that largely means “preparing for the new normal”. What does that mean though?
“What I’m saying to you is that in the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area, to reduce emissions even further,” Mr Morrison told the ABC program’s host David Speers.
“And we’re going to do it without a carbon tax, without putting up electricity prices … without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend for their very livelihood. That’s what I took to the Australian people.”
He continued: “The Cabinet and the government will continue to evolve our policies to meet our targets and to beat them – that’s what I’m saying.”
When pressed on his apparent willingness to increase Australia’s emissions reduction target, Mr Morrison said: “What I’m saying is we want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it.”
But he stressed the need to do the best job the government could within “a balanced policy” that protects the country’s broader national economic and social interests.
It’s something of a turnaround, albeit vague, from the position Mr Morrison expressed on December 22 after returning home from his controversial family holiday to Hawaii during the bushfires crisis.
He ruled out any changes, at least in the midterm, to climate change policy – 24 hours after his deputy, Nationals leader Michael McCormack, indicated a need to “absolutely” do more.
“What we will not do is act in a kneejerk or crisis or panicked mode. A panic approach and response to anything does not help,” Mr Morrison said at the time. It puts people at risk.”
“There is no argument, in my view and the government’s view, and any government in the country, about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world,” he said.
“But I’m sure people would equally acknowledge the direct connection to any single fire event is not a credible suggestion to make that link. We must take action on climate change and we are taking action on climate change.”
After the interview, in an analysis piece for the ABC, Speers wrote that the word “evolve” used by Mr Morrison is significant.
But he also described it as “deliberately vague”, in a sign of how contentious the issue of climate change remains within government ranks.
“Some conservative backbenchers continue to dismiss links between this bushfire season and climate change,” Speers wrote, adding: “Just ask Malcolm Turnbull what happens to a leader who ventures too far on this issue.”
WHAT MORRISON SAYS NOW
Yesterday, Mr Morrison plainly said that the issue of how climate change is impacting the environment we live in is “not an issue of dispute” for his government.
He explained the three elements of the government’s response to climate change – emissions reduction, short to midterm resilience and long-term adaptation.
“The first one, which is most talked about, is emissions reduction, and Australia is taking action on emissions reduction,” Mr Morrison said. We are a signatory to the Paris agreement.
“The second one, is our climate change action in relation to resilience. Our emissions reduction targets can be higher or lower but the fact is the next ten years, and beyond, we are going to be living in a very different climate and we need to improve … in a range of measures.
“The third is the climate change adaptation. These are the areas of climate change action that I think need greater attention because they’re the things that are practically affecting people’s daily lives here in Australia, where we can do practical things that will make us more resilient and ensure that we’re safer.”
The government has been criticised for exploiting a so-called “loophole” in meeting its emissions reduction targets by carrying over credits accrued under the Kyoto agreement.
No other country that’s a signatory to the Paris agreement is using carry-over credits. Australia’s use of them has effectively allowed it to increase its emissions.
“Emissions today are 50 million tonnes less on average each year under our government than under the previous government,” Mr Morrison said.
“By 2030, we have a 26 per cent reduction target. It is my intention, and this is the key point, to meet and beat that target.”
But Mr Morrison opened the door to not relying on carry-over credits to meet targets “if we’re in a position where we don’t need them”.
He added that such an evolution of climate change policy would need to be “within the policy framework that I took to the last election, which was without putting a tax on people’s living, without increasing people’s electricity prices, without writing off $70 billion dollar industries (that) regional Australians depend on for their livelihood”.
VOTERS ARE DISPLEASED
An extraordinary Newspoll released on Sunday night indicates discontent among Australians over the government’s handling of the bushfires.
Labor is in front 51-49 on a two-party preferred basis in the poll conducted for The Australian, a significant turnaround from the last Newspoll in early December when the Coalition led 52-48.
The Coalition’s primary vote has dropped two points to 40 per cent, while Labor’s has increased from 33 to 36 per cent since early December.
Approval for Mr Morrison tumbled from 45 to 37 per cent, while Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s rating leapt from 40 to 46 per cent.
Last week, a poll commissioned by the Australia Institute found two-thirds of respondents agreed the country faces a climate emergency.
“This polling was conducted in November before the worst aspects of the current bushfire disaster had hit, but the results are still very clear,” The Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett said.
“It will be interesting to see if the current crisis shifts opinions.”
The survey of 1424 people found 66 per cent agreed Australia was facing a climate emergency and should take emergency action, with only 23 per cent disagreeing.
When asked whether governments should mobilise all of society to tackle climate change like Australians were mobilised during the world wars, 63 per cent agreed and only 22 per cent disagreed.
WON’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT
There are three possible scenarios when it comes to what might happen with climate change policy in the aftermath of the bushfires crisis, Chris Wallace, a fellow at the Australian Research Council at Australian National University, believes.
In an article for The Conversation today, Dr Wallace explained that those three outcomes are: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.
A radical change of direction was unlikely, Dr Wallace said, and the chance of something different occurring was “slim”.
“Everything (staying) the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton,” she said.
As Speers pointed out yesterday, a challenge for the PM is those within his party who don’t accept the science of climate change.
“Our party room has a broad array of views just like the Australian community has a broad array of views,” Mr Morrison conceded.
“You have got to take everybody with you. Climate change, it is the Government’s policy, has obviously impacted on the longer, hotter, dryer, summer seasons. That’s the advice we’ve received. That is not contested.”
The PM will take a proposal to hold a Royal Commission into the deadly bushfire season to Cabinet.
Part of its scope will be the impact of climate change and, as a consequence, the government’s policies.