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image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionAustralia has seen weather extremes in recent years – from devastating bushfires to record floods

In my first week as the BBC's new Australia correspondent in 2019, a state of emergency was declared in New South Wales. Bushfires blazed and came very close to Sydney.

The orange haze and the smell of smoke will forever be etched in my memory.

As the country woke to pictures of red skies, destroyed homes and burned koalas in smouldering bushland, the climate change debate came to the fore.

But this wasn't a scientific debate. It was political and it was partisan.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not answer questions about the issue, while then Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack dismissed climate concerns as those of "raving inner-city lefties".

That was my other big memory of my first week in Australia. The leadership – after years of drought and as blazes raged across the east coast – openly throwing doubt on the effects of climate change.

This was a tussle at the heart of Australian politics.

Climate change is a hotly charged issue here. It draws in the powerful fossil fuel industry and regional voters fearful for their livelihoods.

It's a subject that has ended political careers.

'Vacuum of leadership'

Throughout those months of the Black Summer fire season, Mr Morrison would face fierce criticism about how his government handled the situation – and how it continued to avoid the climate crisis.

The science around climate change is complex but it's clear. Yes, it was not the cause of any individual fire but experts agree it played a big role in creating catastrophic fire conditions; a hotter, drier climate contributed to the bushfires becoming more frequent and more intense.

An inquiry following the Black Summer fires said further global warming is inevitable over the next 20 years – and Australians should prepare for more extreme weather.

  • A visual guide to Australia's bushfire crisis
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Still, Australia's government refuses to pledge net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This refers to balancing out any emissions produced by industry, transport or other sources by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

In his address to US President Joe Biden's climate conference in April, the prime minister said Australia will "get there as soon as we possibly can".

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionClimate change remains hotly contested ground in Australia

"For Australia, it is not a question of if, or even by when, for net-zero but, importantly, how," Mr Morrison said.

That is at the heart of the problem. The "when" is as crucial as the "how" when it comes to climate change. Scientists and global leaders say Australia is not doing enough, and not going fast enough.

The country is embracing new green technologies, but that's often spearheaded by a frustrated private sector in the absence of central leadership.

"You have many businesses banding together and taking matters into their own hands," says Dr Simon Bradshaw, researcher at the Climate Council, an independent advisory group.

"Almost all of Australia's states and territories are committed to net zero emissions by 2050. It's really just that vacuum of leadership at the federal level," he says.

Dr Bradshaw says while much of the world pushes ahead with action on climate change, Australia is becoming "increasingly isolated".

The power of industry

As it resists tougher emissions targets, the Morrison government also continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry.

Last month it said it will fund a new gas-fired power plant in New South Wales' Hunter Valley, despite experts warning the plant makes little commercial sense long- term.

Mr Morrison recently told a conference of fossil fuel executives that oil and gas will "always" be a major contributor to the country's prosperity.

If you're watching this from the outside, you'd be forgiven for being surprised. But it makes sense from a domestic political perspective.

Australia is among the world's biggest exporters of coal, iron-ore and gas. This is the bedrock of the country's wealth and its thriving economy. It's proven to be political suicide to go against that.

"The fossil fuel lobby continues to be very powerful in Australia," says Dr Bradshaw.

With a slim majority and a looming election, Mr Morrison is aware of what a poisoned chalice climate action is here. This issue has ended the careers of leaders before him including predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, whose efforts to bring back a carbon price policy – a tax on polluting fossil fuels – led to his downfall.

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionScott Morrison (L) is under pressure from his UK and US allies to impose tougher emissions reduction targets

Mr Morrison also faces pressure from his coalition partners – the National party – and their block of voters.

Many National MPs, who represent rural Australia, have been public about their opposition to the government formally embracing a net zero emissions reduction target.

While still refusing to commit to a target, Mr Morrison has said he wants Australia to achieve net zero emissions "preferably" by 2050. That was enough to anger the Nationals and worry their constituents especially in regional mining communities.

The 'cost' of action

Part of why the politics around climate action is so toxic here is the way the narrative around it has been framed, says Australian National University climate scientist Dr Imran Ahmed.

"The message to the people [has been] that action on climate change is a cost, not an investment," he says.

"It is not jobs or the environment, it is both."

Dr Bradshaw says the country's concentrated media landscape has also shaped views around the climate emergency.

"It's been dominated by largely right wing, and conservative media, and particularly the Murdoch press that's had a heavy influence on public opinion and understanding of the climate crisis."

For regional voters, the messaging around a transition to cleaner energy has been confusing and unconvincing at best – or a cause for fear and anxiety about their future at worst.

"We have to be mindful of existing coal communities and the people that have jobs [in the fossil fuel industry].

"They need to be prepared with the necessary skills to transition into the new industries," says Dr Ahmed.

media captionSome koalas were rescued from Australia's bushfires but many perished (report from September 2020)

Mr Morrison has been adamant that "technology not taxes" is the way forward – knowing the backlash he would face if he were to impose carbon pricing.

But scientists say technology on its own is not enough and that what is needed is a combination of all measures; reduction targets, new technology for clean energy and a carbon tax.

Mr Morrison is stuck between two unrelenting pulling forces; his own party and his governing coalition partner standing firmly behind the country's fossil fuel industry – and an increased international pressure from strategic allies like the UK and the US for tougher emissions reduction targets.

The first is about the prime minister's domestic political standing. The second is about Australia's standing in the world.