Our world is facing irreversible destruction – and still there’s no urgency in Australian climate policy | Lenore Taylor

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For Australians, the national trauma of fires burning through 18 million hectares of bushland earlier this year is raw and ongoing. But since then the US west coast and Siberia have also burned. China, Bangladesh, India and parts of Africa have suffered catastrophic flooding. Death Valley recorded possibly the highest ever temperature on Earth, at 54.4C. In February the Antarctic temperature rose above 20C for the first time. In March the Great Barrier Reef suffered its third mass bleaching in five years. In June it was 38C inside the Arctic Circle.

None of these events can be attributed entirely to global heating, but scientists are clear that their frequency and ferocity are signs of impending climate catastrophe, of irreversible destruction. What they have warned of for decades is coming to pass.

But there’s still nothing urgent about Australia’s policies on climate and energy. We persist with the great pretence that we can continue to power industry and manufacturing with our abundant fossil fuels, ambling along with plans for a “transition” at some unspecified future time.

With business rationally resistant to the government’s urging that it invest in new coal-fired power, the government has now shifted its focus to gas as a “transition” fuel. Business isn’t rushing to invest in that either, so the prime minister is threatening to use taxpayers’ money to build a power station that will lock in gas use for 30 years. He’s promising to push through the development of five huge new gas fields, including the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory, which alone contains gas reserves sufficient to power Australia for 200 years. Little wonder he is reluctant to put a date on when we might finally reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Gas, the prime minister Scott Morrison insists, is a fuel that “chose itself”. But of course it didn’t. It was chosen by a manufacturing taskforce comprising executives with strong links to the gas industry.

These choices – a gas-fired recovery, a government picking technologies, no pricing mechanism to drive private sector investment – are not what most in the business community want. That these policies are not what anyone concerned about the environment wants goes without saying.

The Australian Climate Roundtable, comprising peak business groups such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group, as well as farming organisations, unions and environmentalists, has begged the government to commit to the net zero target now adopted by more than 100 countries around the world. They’ve pleaded with governments to use the Covid-19 recovery to speed up change, and warned that inaction will lead to unprecedented economic, as well as environmental, damage.

But federal policy appears more concerned with the impact of short term electricity price rises on a small number of highly energy-intensive manufacturers, businesses the Grattan Institute calculated between them employ about 1,000 people.

As energy analyst Tristan Edis wrote in Guardian Australia recently, this government used to argue against a carbon price because renewable technologies were too expensive. Now that solar and wind are clearly the cheapest means of new electricity generation, they say we don’t need a price because renewables are too cheap. Instead they insist we need government-funded research into other technologies, ones that might reduce the emissions from continued use of fossil fuels, to some extent, some day.

Meanwhile we try to disguise our inaction with accounting tricks to claim we are meeting our 2020 greenhouse gas emission targets and are on track to meet the patently inadequate goals we have set ourselves for 2030, hoping this might disguise our failure to make the actual economic changes those goals are supposed to drive.

Once we were told an Australia carbon price was tantamount to “exporting jobs” to China, which was allowed to increase its emissions under international agreements, albeit at a decreasing rate. Now we are balking at a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 while China claims to be aiming for net zero emissions by 2060.

Our laggard transition might be less internationally disastrous if President Trump is re-elected in November and makes good his intention of withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate pact, but it’s unlikely to sit well if Joe Biden becomes president, with his promise of a “clean energy revolution”.

These issues are complex and some in the media are content to report on them as a “he said, she said” story, to make no connection between climate science and climate policies, or to go along with the political game of asking whether a party is “for” or “against” coal, or gas, rather than whether they have a plan for affordable and reliable power with net zero emissions.

Guardian Australia has prioritised climate journalism since its launch in 2013. We analyse and scrutinise what is being done. We write about how things might be. We hold policy-makers to account. When the government suggested the bushfires were nothing out of the ordinary, we fact-checked the claims and found them false. When conservative politicians suggested the fires were due to “green” opposition to backburning, we fact-checked that too.

We’ve documented how global heating is changing the lives of Australians from every walk of life in our Frontline series. We’ve explored what could be done in a series on the Green Recovery.

Now, the Guardian is renewing a pledge made to all our readers around the globe, promising to prioritise the environment, not just in our editorial decisions but in our commercial decisions too.

Guardian Australia is proud of these commitments. We seek to reflect them in our reporting every day. We understand the situation is urgent. We know the worst consequences might yet be averted.

Reader support helps us produce quality, independent environmental journalism at a time when it has never been more vital. It enables us to keep our reporting open and free, so everyone can read it. If you can, show your support for our work today by making a contribution or subscribing.

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