Scott Morrison has rightly followed the science and medical advice in responding to COVID-19. If his government hadn’t closed our borders, and the states hadn’t enforced lockdowns and social distancing, imagine the catastrophe.

The Prime Minister quantified it recently when he said Australia had avoided 30,000 COVID deaths. That compares with the 910 deaths caused by the pandemic to date. “I’m not going to take risks with Australian lives,” Morrison said.

Priorities?

His government is not treating the hard climate science with the same urgency, although it has been developed over many more decades than the more rudimentary medical science it relied upon in responding to the pandemic.

Last month, the International Energy Agency, a long-time mouthpiece for fossil fuels, called for a global halt to new coal and gas ventures. At the same time, the Morrison government committed to spending $600 million of taxpayers’ money on a new gas-fired power plant in NSW’s Hunter Valley.

Inaction on climate change presents us with real costs – in lives, livelihoods and the lost economic growth that would come with sustainable industries and jobs. Economist Nicki Hutley has summarised some of the likely consequences of inaction: “The cost of extreme weather disasters in Australia has doubled since the ’70s, reaching $35 billion over the decade to 2018-19. Economic damages per person are around seven times the global average.”

 Expect massive debt from climate change

The recent Black Summer fires are estimated to have cost about $100 billion – 14 times the economic and social costs of the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

Health costs are just starting to be recognised and counted. Hutley reports that the 2011 heatwave “saw a 14 per cent rise in ambulance call-outs and a 13 per cent increase in excess deaths”. Particulate emissions from dirty petrol have been reported to kill multiples of the road toll each year.

Research from the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne suggests economic losses from climate change in a few decades could be like a COVID-sized economic shock every year. A similar prognosis has been suggested by modelling for the NSW government.

We’re Behind

Australia also runs the genuine risk that, as a global climate laggard, significant trading partners will levy carbon border taxes on our exports, costing billions in lost revenue and thousands of lost jobs.

The benefits of an effective and just transition, meanwhile, are supported by Deloitte, Beyond Zero, the Climate Council and many more in Australia, and by strategies adopted globally, including in the United States, Canada, Britain and Europe.

While Joe Biden and Boris Johnson push for greater emissions reductions, investor pressure mounts on fossil fuel companies. Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to slash its emissions; 61 per cent of Chevron shareholders backed a resolution to force an emissions reduction; and an activist hedge fund won two seats on the ExxonMobil board.

Australia’s Federal Court found, in assessing a new coal mine, that our Environment Minister had a “duty of care” to younger people to avoid causing them personal injury from climate change. Expect more class actions against governments on climate.

Disturbingly, Australia’s two major political parties are engrossed in a race to the bottom on climate change, seeing who can be less specific about targets and commitments.

John Hewson

Is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU,  and former Liberal Opposition Leader. 

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