So now’s the time to talk about climate change and the fires? Sounds good. Let’s go!
Let’s start with this harsh little truth: Tony Abbott was right about climate change. And you’re about to agree with him. But not in the way you might think.
You see, contrary to what has been repeated at least a billion times, the former PM (and long-time volunteer firefighter – remember when he was mocked for fighting the fires as PM? Ah, good time) didn’t actually say “climate change was crap”.
What he actually said was “The climate change argument is absolute crap“. Big, big difference. And is there anyone in Australia who would disagree after the ridiculous to-and-fro we’ve endured since the fires started two months ago (no matter where you stand on the issue?)
Unfortunately, the crap arguments have come from some unfortunate places such as the retired fire chiefs who have risen to prominence again in recent weeks and enjoyed their time in the sun just a little too much. Which isn’t to suggest that all they’ve said has been lamentable. Some has been essential. Let’s start there.
In a crisis, we turn to experts. As the average person knows nothing about how to fight a fire (tactics or resourcing), it is right that we listen to our fire chiefs, especially the retired ones as they aren’t restrained by fears of unemployment or fealty to politicians.
So when they say volunteers need more resources, they should be listened to.
But the ex-chiefs should also know that a call for more resources such as “large firefighting aircraft” in April (when the fires traditionally start eight or so months later) was absurd.
Government doesn’t work that quickly. Major procurement takes time – especially when buying expensive equipment, which is often easier than ensuring we have crews to man them (see Navy, submarines). Without the crews, you’ve just paid millions for a dust collector. They knew they were setting a task government couldn’t fulfill. But the equipment was never the point.
The government would also have seen that the chiefs were linked to Tim Flannery’s Climate Council, speaking under the banner Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA).
The ex-chiefs were never really talking about equipment. That was the ruse. What they wanted to do was start banging the drum on climate change. It was a setup. How do we know? It’s in the name: Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. They’re not Emergency Leaders for Buying New Firefighting Aircraft and Trucks.
And climate change is where the argument gets tricky.
Logically, hotter, longer drier summers will make firefighting harder (you don’t need to be an expert to appreciate that). If you have a fireplace or wood stove you’ve seen the proof. Dry burns better than wet.
But the ‘diagnosis’ is easy. The ‘cure’ is the tricky bit.
One of its most prominent spokespeople of ELCA is former ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) commissioner Peter Dunn.
Mr Dunn told Region Media: “Unless we stop burning fossil fuels to reduce the risk of climate change then every year we are going to see the same thing again and again and again, getting bigger and bigger.”
To many, this is exactly what they wanted to hear. It means the fires can be blamed on “deniers” and Rupert Murdoch and the Institute of Public Affairs and maybe even some writers at RiotACT. But especially the current PM who famously, as Treasurer, held a piece of coal in the House of Representatives and wouldn’t meet with ELCA in 2019.
And Mr Dunn’s claim falls neatly into the mantra of 2019 that governments around the world (but especially in Australia) are doing nothing to fight climate change (which is simply not true). But it presents a handy mental equation because if doing nothing has wrought this firestorm, surely it could be averted by doing something?
It certainly sounds attractive. Who wouldn’t swap a coal-fired power plant for a solar panel (or a bird-murdering turbine of terror) if it meant we never have to go through the weeks and months of Mother Nature’s fury that Australia has endured?
But unless Mr Dunn is proposing that the world (yes, that means the entire world) stops “burning fossil fuels” – which ain’t gonna happen – he is simply playing politics. And proving Abbott’s observation that “the climate change argument is absolute crap”.
Here’s the depressing reality: if Australia reduced emissions to zero tomorrow, it would make zero difference to Australia’s climate and the world’s. Yes, zero. Promise.
But here’s the really depressing bit: every scientist and every ex-fire chief knows it.
This has nothing to do with Australia only emitting 1.3 per cent of the world’s emissions, which is just an interesting factoid. It has to do with other factoids like this from China.
Read it slowly and let it sink in: “China is set to add new coal-fired power plants equivalent to the EU’s entire capacity, as the world’s biggest energy consumer ignores global pressure to rein in carbon emissions in its bid to boost a slowing economy.”
Here are the numbers: “Across [China], 148GW of coal-fired plants are either being built or are about to begin construction, according to a report from Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit group that monitors coal stations. The current capacity of the entire EU coal fleet is 149GW.”
In other words, China will add coal-fired power equivalent to Europe – about 150 GW. Which is far more than Australia’s capacity or less than 25 GW, and which is falling not only with the increased use of renewables but also the retirement of coal-fired power.
Liddell will likely shut in 2022-23 (2 GW), Vales Point around 2028-29 (1.3 GW), Gladstone around 2029-30 (1.7 GW) and on it goes.
Here’s another statistic for some unpalatable perspective. In 2018/19, Australia exported a total of 385 million tonnes of thermal coal. That’s a lot right? Sure, if it’s in your lounge room. But step back a second. This year, China has forecast coal demand of 4100 million tonnes. Up from 3830 million tonnes in 2019. Yes, up. And that’s only what’s being admitted to.
It gets worse.
You’ve been told China is going green, right? That China is the great friend of green power. You better tell China, because in addition to its own coal-fired power, it’s financing a quarter of all the new coal projects in the rest of the world, including in South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
So when we’re told Australia needs to reduce emissions even more – independently of the rest of the world – it is right to ask “why?”
Because Australia is moving to green energy. Australia is becoming more efficient. In fact, for every unit of economic output, we are emitting less greenhouse gas.
Our population is growing so our emissions might rise as a total, but we are emitting less per capita.
Source: Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: June 2019. Page 3.
But we emit a lot, per capita, right? Sure, if you count the coal and the gas we export. But if we don’t export it, someone else will. Should we have clean hands and a pristine soul? If you like, but the reason countries like India buy our coal is that it’s better and cheaper. So it burns cleaner and costs less. Take us out of the market and the dirtier coal will replace us because the market won’t have Australia setting a benchmark. How’d Mother Nature feel about that?
Would it show global leadership if we cut off our nose to spite our face? It might earn some politicians a round of applause at the UN but it will do nothing for the planet. And isn’t that the point? And one last thing. Next time someone says Australians want climate action, refer them to the ABC’s Australia Talks. They asked a climate question. Here it is:
Maybe these numbers will change in light of the fires, but it seems Australians don’t want to spend money on climate change. And when they see what other countries are doing, the argument for unilateral or agenda-setting action becomes harder to advocate because the argument is absolute crap.
Told you Abbott was right.