Hewson's View: Australia not waiting for the government to lead on climate change

Ignored: Businesses and households are no longer waiting for the government to lead on climate change. Picture: Shutterstock
Ignored: Businesses and households are no longer waiting for the government to lead on climate change. Picture: Shutterstock

If we were to believe Prime Minister Scott Morrison and some of his mates in the Nats, it seems that it is never a good time to discuss climate.

In commenting on the worst drought in memory, and in the midst of severe bushfires occurring now even before the summer, they struggle to even acknowledge climate as a cause, and certainly don't address it in any of their so-called "policy responses".

They simply hope to capitalise on their visits to drought and fire stricken areas mostly as "photo ops", ducking any substantive questions, even in the face of challenges from fire and drought experts, and from those who have lost their homes and their farms.

Morrison hasn't even agreed to meet a contingent of very experienced, ex fire chiefs, over several months, who predicted the risks, and has simply ignored one particular couple who lost their home in the fires, and who took a can full of the ashes of their home to dump outside the NSW Parliament, arguing that they believe that climate, and the government's failure to respond effectively, were an important cause of their loss.

Of course, while Morrison's responses have been ignorant, irresponsible, embarrassing, and totally inadequate, the inflammatory and ridiculous comments by Nats such as McCormack and Joyce, calling out inner city "lunatics", and suggesting a couple who died in the fires were "Greens voters", have clearly emphasised their failure over many years now to understand and respond to the needs of regional Australia.

Morrison's responses have been ignorant, irresponsible, embarrassing, and totally inadequate ...

A rural/regional voter could reasonably expect that the National Party would have effective policy responses to make their communities more drought resilient and resistant, and to reduce the likely occurrence and intensity of bushfires, rather than just bleat "sympathy" and offer some cash support.

Their failure to deliver is particularly difficult to understand and accept when, say in respect of droughts, proven regenerative agriculture policies are waiting on the shelf. These policies significantly improve the quality of our soils, making them much more resilient and drought resistant, while offering farmers an additional income, by being able to sell the carbon credits these policies create, reducing the need for welfare assistance.

However, while the government dithers and abrogates its responsibilities on climate, there is mounting evidence that households and business are not prepared to wait for a government lead and policy framework. They are acting, and with a sense of urgency.

Households have been working hard to reduce their dependence on the electricity grid - we now have the highest rollout of rooftop solar per household in the world - and seek opportunities to improve the efficiency of their energy use. While the roll-out of hybrid and electric vehicles has been slow to date, watch for the rapid take up when the major auto manufacturers release a full range of affordable electric cars, which is not far away.

Somewhat surprisingly, the major miners such as BHP, Rio, Glencore, and Woodside, have called for decisive action on climate. For example, BHP has announced that it plans to move out of thermal coal, recognising the future realities for this industry, and has committed to spend some $500 million on its climate strategy, while doing what our government should be doing as a major exporter of fossil fuels, namely putting what are called "Source3" requirements on those to whom they export coal.

Moreover, our leading businesses are signing up to various compacts and agreements to manage their carbon footprints, such as RE100, committed to move to 100 per cent renewable energy use in their businesses by as early as 2025.

All this is good for their business bottom line, as well as doing their part in the inevitable collaborative transition to a low carbon society.

This week we also saw the announcement of what will be the early stages of Australia developing as an "energy superpower" with the announcement by Michael Cannon-Brookes and Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest of initial funding for the Sun Cable Project to build the world's largest solar farm -10 gigawatt capacity covering some 15,000 hectares - in the Northern Territory to export electricity to Singapore. This comes on the heels of a similar project in northern Western Australia also planning to export power to Asia.

Hard to believe our government has a "tin ear" to all of this!

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.