Inside Story

Margaret Thatcher’s message to the future

The past is catching up with a climate-sceptical Australian government

Mike Steketee 10 October 2018 1418 words

Nothing to see here: prime minister Scott Morrison (left) and agriculture minister David Littleproud in drought-affected Quilpie in southwest Queensland in late August. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax Media Pool/AAP Image

Just over forty years ago, in 1977, the US National Academy of Sciences warned that average temperatures could rise by 6°C by 2050 as a result of burning coal. It wasn’t a bad stab at it, even if the figure now looks a touch alarmist. Not long after, in 1981, NASA scientist James Hansen predicted that burning fossil fuels would increase temperatures by 2.5°C by the end of this century. That figure now looks too cautious.

In Australia, Barry Jones raised the issue the following year in his book Sleepers, Wake! As science minister in the Hawke government he set up the Commission for the Future which, among other things, produced a report on the greenhouse effect that received international recognition. Later in the decade, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which produced its latest report this week.

Hawke’s environment minister, Graham Richardson, an archetypal NSW Labor-right exponent of “whatever it takes” (which was also the title of his memoirs), had much more political clout than Jones. But in 1989 he couldn’t persuade cabinet to adopt his proposal to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000 and reduce them by 20 per cent by 2005. Treasurer Paul Keating won the day by arguing that the economic costs were too high, and so the Coalition under Andrew Peacock went to the 1990 election with a stronger climate target than Labor’s.

In 1990, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher gave a classic exposition of the precautionary principle at the second World Climate Conference in Geneva. “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations…” she said. “Any of the precautionary actions that we need to take would be sensible in any event. It is sensible to improve energy efficiency… and to develop alternative and sustainable sources of supply; it’s sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it’s sensible to re-examine industrial processes; it’s sensible to tackle the problem of waste.”

True to conservative principles, Thatcher saw these policies as “a sort of premium on insurance against fire, flood or other disaster.” As she concluded, “It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later.”

Among other things, Thatcher set up the Hadley Centre, which became a world leader in climate research and much later became the target for a largely unfounded attack by climate sceptics. This was an era before climate science was hijacked by commercial interests, who recruited big “C” conservatives to turn the issue into a political and ideological crusade against change.

Like the boiling frog, we have become so used to the planet slowly warming that we barely notice the harm it has caused already and are oblivious to the accumulating evidence of much worse to come. “The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” says Debra Roberts, a South African scientist who co-chaired one of the working groups that produced the latest IPCC report. The context is the report’s finding that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Although we have left it very late, in other words, an unprecedented global effort could still avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change.

This is the considered view of the hundreds of scientists whose work has been distilled by a UN panel that critics say errs on the conservative side in its findings. The contrast with the nothing-to-see-here insouciance of our prime minister could not be starker.

In a pre-emptive strike a few hours before the release of the IPCC report, Scott Morrison assured Alan Jones that Australia would take no notice of its findings. “No, we’re not held to any of them at all, Alan, nor are we bound to go and tip money into that big climate fund [to help developing countries] — we’re not going to do that either. So I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that sort of nonsense.”

In a moment of rare courage for a politician under shock-jock fire, the prime minister resisted Jones’s urging that Australia follow the US lead and withdraw from the Paris accord. His reasoning was that it was the Coalition government, under Tony Abbott, that had signed up (“and when Australia puts its word to something, it means something”), that climate was an important issue for countries in the Pacific, and that our commitment to cut emissions by 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 would have no impact at all on jobs or electricity prices. For good measure, he repeated that Australia would meet its Paris commitment “in a canter,” despite the expert advice, including from his own energy department, that this is impossible under the present trajectory of rising emissions.

This is what passes for leadership these days: meeting the demands of an undisciplined Liberal Party and ignoring the national interest. Morrison no doubt figures he won’t be around in 2030 to be held accountable for his irresponsible statements and the lack of any policy to deal with climate change beyond 2020.

It is not that the world has done nothing to address the issue over the past twenty or so years. It is simply, as the IPCC report makes clear, that we have not done enough. Despite most countries committing under the Paris accord to limiting global warming to below 2°C, the actions they have taken would see temperatures rising by 3°C by 2100 and more thereafter. This would greatly increase the risk of reaching tipping points such as the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which would cause sea-level rises of many metres over hundreds or even thousands of years.

The report warns that these still could be triggered with temperature rises limited to 1.5°C–2°C. But a 1.5°C ceiling could reduce sea-level rises by ten centimetres by 2100, which may not seem much but which the IPCC says would protect ten million people in low-lying areas.

We need to take other comforting crumbs where we can find them. For example, coral reefs would decline by a mere 70–90 per cent with 1.5°C warming, compared to “more than” 99 per cent at 2°C.

The IPCC calculates that the use of coal for electricity generation would need to be reduced to close to zero by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5°C. That this is a bridge too far for the leaders of our main parties is clear not just from the outright rejection of such a target by the Liberals and the Nationals but also by the equivocation of Bill Shorten, who told journalists on Monday that “we are not saying that there won’t be fossil fuel as part of our energy mix going forward.”

But there is some good news: Australia has the capacity to meet not only its present 2030 target in a canter but also Labor’s more ambitious goal of a 45 per cent reduction. That is the view of a report last month by Monash University’s ClimateWorks Australia, which found that Australia has the potential to cut emissions by 55 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.

Between 2009 and 2013, the report points out, we reduced greenhouse gases at a rate close to what was needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. That included most of the brief period when Australia had a price on carbon, and a time of large reductions in emissions from land clearing.

“Australia enjoys world-leading renewable energy resources, along with potential to store carbon in the land,” says the report. For example, electricity-sector emissions could be cut by 68 per cent by 2030 with a renewable energy share of 70 per cent. Emissions from the land sector, mainly through revegetation and afforestation, have the potential to be reduced by 103 per cent by 2030 — broadly the rate between 2005 and 2016.

The ClimateWorks scenario looks optimistic on present policies and trends. To take just one example: unlike most developed nations, we still have no fuel-emission standards for vehicles, nor any government incentives for electric vehicles.

The success of far-right leaders, most recently in Brazil, doesn’t augur well for further progress. Countries that have led the way in the past under conservative leaders, such as Britain and Germany, have been backsliding or showing signs of it.

We can only hope that leaders will rediscover the art of leadership and the will to act in the broader interest. •