Better make sure that Canberra bubble is fire and smoke-proof


NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said now was not the time to be having “philosophical debates” about what caused the fires. In Canberra, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher hedged by saying he didn’t “pretend to be an expert” in the area.

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Opposition leader Anthony Albanese chose the same week to re-state Labor’s commitment to coal exports, and the new drought co-ordinator Shane Stone, a former Coalition politician, told the ABC’s Hamish Macdonald that a question about climate was “the wrong question”, “really quite irrelevant to what I’m doing”. Stone became quite hostile, accusing Macdonald of trying to score “a gotcha moment”.

The paranoia underlying that charge tells you everything you need to know about the politics of climate change within the Coalition. The anxiety and the sense of unreality was acute in Sydney, where thick smoke choked the city, filling its residents with what I can only describe as a sense of foreboding – of exactly what, we didn’t know, and that just compounded the distress.

My four-year-old bounded out of the house every morning proclaiming, “It smells like barbecues!” and her optimism made me want to weep.

By Thursday, when Kean spoke, it had begun to feel like our politicians were gas-lighting us – the term used to describe the way abusers undermine their partner’s sense of reality, manipulating them into doubting their own sanity.

What Kean said was actually pretty unremarkable – that we had to “stop making climate change a matter of religion … and make it a matter of science” and that “we need to do our bit to abate carbon and reduce the impact of climate change”. Basic stuff, but the relief was nearly as sweet as rain itself.

Illustration: Reg LynchCredit:

And then, the reaction – as swift as it was predictable. The Daily Telegraph devoted a front page to lambasting Kean as a “hose poser”, a Rural Fire Service volunteer who had, the paper reported, never attended a fire. There was also a spread inside, an opinion piece and a mention in another column by shock jock Ray Hadley.

The message was well rehearsed because the same switch has been flicked so many times before, against so many other politicians, ever since the war against the so-called carbon tax was waged.

Morrison was eventually forced to come out again, and on Thursday he said “climate change, along with many other factors, contribute to what is occurring today”.

Notwithstanding this tiny concession, the government appears immovable on the issue of emissions reduction, insisting Australia will meet its Paris targets, while failing to mention that if we do, it will be because we have used the dodgy accounting method of carry-over credits.

When pressed on emissions, the Coalition line is that Australia is only a small global contributor, so what we do will have a small impact. As was pointed out by others: imagine if politicians applied this logic to individual voting habits. The way one person votes will make no difference to the outcome. So why should any of us bother?

The cost of emissions reduction to the economy is already large. According to economist Henry Ergas, writing in The Australian, we spend as much on emissions reduction as we do on national defence.

It is often hysterically claimed that more ambitious emissions targets will “wreck” the economy, but the counter-factual is never addressed: what are the economic costs of not cutting further? And what are the economic benefits of shifting away from coal?

Matt Kean believes these potential benefits are enormous, and it is the province of a Liberal government to promote them. Australia could be a lead exporter of renewable energy, a growing market, rather than being overly dependent on coal.

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Kean is no political fool, and he is no bleeding heart. He made his climate change comments because he knows there is a political constituency that will lap them up. That constituency, within his party and outside it, is currently being ignored.

But here’s the thing: increasingly the science indicates that abatement and aversion of grievous climate risk is already too late, although it is counter-productive to say so too loudly, for fear it will be leapt upon as a reason to throw up our hands and do nothing.

That leaves us with the practical and political problem of adaptation.

Sydneysiders have grappled with this problem in the past week. We have stayed indoors and purchased face masks. Asthmatics and the parents of newborns have taken extra precautions. On Tuesday the offices of The Sydney Morning Herald were invaded by smoke so heavy the fire alarm sounded and we were evacuated. None of this was anything compared to the fear and devastation of those directly affected by the bushfires, but it felt significant.

If the politicians do not acknowledge the burning elephant in the room, how can they prepare the country for practical adaptation? I hope the Canberra bubble is fire and smoke-proof. It will need to be.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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