Opinion

Time to stand up

Australia is in need of genuine political leadership on climate policy.

By George Browning

October 10 2018There are crucial moments when individuals, families and nations must decide whose side they are on. Now is such a moment in relation to the future of the planet and its climate. It appears that our government has decided not to be on the side of future generations and their right to economic and social stability, stability dependent upon climatic stability. For this reason, John Hewson, former leader of the Liberal Party, is absolutely right to have entered the Wentworth by-election with the mantra ‘‘vote for anyone other than the Liberals’’.
 
No matter what policies the Coalition might have that can be deemed superior to their opponents, their abject failure to secure a climate policy renders them unfit to govern at this crucial juncture of human life on this planet. The Prime Minister’s claim that we will ‘‘meet our Paris commitment in a canter’’ would be comical if it were not so serious. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to back that claim, indeed the evidence is clearly the reverse.
 
Of course, if we achieved zero emissions tomorrow we would not, on our own, save the planet: this is absolutely true. But that is to entirely miss the point. The globe will meet the necessary goal if and when there are enough nations pulling in the right direction and putting pressure on those who are not. By our inaction we are giving solace to all who are not pulling their weight, and we are doing it from one of the most advantaged positions on the planet. We have the skills and resources to more than pull our weight and we can do it without placing an impossible financial burden upon our citizens. Why do politicians scare people with the thought of legs of lamb costing more than $100, etc? Because they are obligated to powerful and cashed up lobbyists – that’s why.
 
The latest IPCC report, released this week, should scare everyone. That it does not is due to several factors. Chief among them is that the mining industry, like the tobacco industry before it, pours enormous amounts of money into ‘‘think tanks’’ that demand their arguments be taken as seriously as the overwhelming weight of the world’s scientific community. This is trading on the important principle of there being ‘‘two sides to every story’’. But this principle is not universally applicable. We rely on a justice system that weighs evidence. If an alternative view were allowed no one would ever be convicted. A person is found guilty or innocent on the basis of evidence. The world’s scientists, from a range of disciplines, examining the evidence before them have consistently come to the same diagnosis in relation to the climate, and have provided ameliorating options. To ignore, or worse belittle, their findings, or suggest there is an alternative view, is recklessly irresponsible.
 
From my days as a theological student in the 1960s I have sought to comprehend what is meant by truth and how its application shapes the direction of one’s life.  I have come to understand the notions of ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘evil’’ to be ethical applications of universal or absolute truth. Universal human rights depend upon this principle. We cannot pick and choose. These rights apply to people of all ethnicities, all religions, all cultures. What is life giving must be life giving for all, what is life denying diminishes all. For good to be good it must also be common
 
It is this fundamental understanding of good and evil that makes populist nationalism and patriotism so dangerous. While tyranny and dictatorship are on the increase, not in decline, just as serious is the increasing trend in western democracies to put themselves first. Such rhetoric emanating from the President of the United States and mimicked by others including members of our own government, works on a false premise. It is entirely wrong to assume that Australia’s best interest is somehow different to, or independent from, global best interest. 
 
We human beings are utterly dependent upon the health and wellbeing of the planet we share with 7.7 billion others. It is extraordinary that politicians like Craig Kelly can be so utterly dismissive of this fundamental reality. It is a universal good to put the health of the planet above most other considerations because (apart from the rights of the nonhuman world) the continuation of our species depends on it. Climate action is not lowering priority for human need. It is taking human need, dependent on climatic stability, very seriously.
 
The flip side of truth as an absolute verity is its relational application known morally in the expressions ‘‘right’’ and ‘‘wrong’’. Right and wrong are not absolutes but circumstantial. Let me give an example from Australia’s ‘unfinished business’. All Australians are equal, and all have the same rights under law. However, the circumstances of Australia’s Indigenous people are such that it is right that provision be made constitutionally to address that uniqueness. Equally it was very wrong of the government to be so dismissive of the Uluru statement from the heart.
 
There are several circumstantial factors in relation to climate that make Australia’s position morally indefensible - wrong.
 
- Per capita we have been among the world’s worst polluters. This is coming down. It should.
- Our continent is very vulnerable. Climate change consequences to farmers alone are almost incalculable. The long drought is warning enough. We cannot fix this on our own, but not to be in the front line of those who want to is inexcusable
- Our most iconic natural asset is the Great Barrier Reef. It is World Heritage listed, meaning we are this asset’s custodians for the whole world. While science is about diagnosis not prognosis the writing is clearly on the wall. That the government is so non-committal (notwithstanding the very controversial $.5B splash) and seeks to support a provably corrupt Indian mining company, is beyond the wit of my limited intellect to understand. Barrier Reef dependent employment will always outnumber employment in an increasingly automated industry by multiple factors.
- Sources of renewable energy in Australia are abundant and the technology necessary to develop them is both proven and cost effective in comparison with fossil fuel. In addition, renewable energy will provide a flood of employment opportunity in regional Australia.
- Climate sceptics bang on about the need for base-load which, they argue, only coal can provide. In an energy sector which is increasingly diverse baseload is no longer the key, dispatchable energy is the key. SA’s mega-battery and the development of stored hydro will provide this flexibility far more cheaply than previous reliance on costly baseload.
- We have the intellectual, economic and technical capacity to move much more quickly in the right direction. Not to do so is morally wrong.
 
Australia has never been in greater need of genuine leadership. Malcolm Turnbull did not lose the Prime Ministership because he wanted to move on climate change, he lost the leadership because he did not act and as a consequence allowed a conservative rump to fill the space. It seems most unlikely that Prime Minster Morrison or Premier Berejiklian will offer any leadership. It is up to the Australian people, especially people of faith, to take the lead and to express it at the ballot box.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 8 October 2018. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au/