View from The Hill

Abbott has papal disconnect on fossil fuels, renewables

Pope Francis has made a strong call to action on climate change. AAP/Fabrizio Belluschi

Tony Abbott gets some lucky breaks. Imagine if Pope Francis had issued this week’s encyclical – with its clarion call for the world to address climate change – last year in the run up to the G20 hosted by Australia.

Then, the government was trying to limit the extent to which the issue became a major focus during the Brisbane summit.

As things turned out, the effort was considerably stymied by Barack Obama’s speech coinciding with the meeting. That was bad enough for the government – words from the Pope would have been extremely awkward.

The encyclical, in which Pope Francis casts the climate challenge as universal and pressing, with a moral overlay, comes as countries are releasing the post-2020 emission reduction targets they will take to the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris late this year.

Given his status, Pope Francis’ strong views will be a significant input to the international debate, although the document stresses “the church does not presume to settle scientific questions”.

The climate sceptics who try to discredit those arguing the need for robust action will have to make an assault on a formidable figure.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system,” the encyclical says.

“A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases … released mainly as a result of human activity…

"If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us…

"There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic, is out of step with his pope on the urgency of addressing climate change, and the relative merits of fossil fuels and renewable energy.

Abbott talks up coal, and talks down renewables. Recently he let fly about the ugliness of wind farms. Now the government is proposing a wind farm commissioner who would pass on complaints to the relevant authorities.

Given Abbott’s lack of enthusiasm for anything but minimalism on climate, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (who is responsible for the climate issue internationally) work around him to the extent they can. Australia has yet to release its targets for Paris – that will be the government’s next test.

Beyond Paris, the Coalition is looking to put Labor on the defensive over climate policy for next year’s election.

Bill Shorten has said the ALP policy will be based on an emissions trading scheme. But we don’t know the detail nor how much of the economy would be covered or what accompanying policies there may be.

We can be sure Labor will try to keep the scheme modest and unthreatening and perhaps rely on other measures to go on the offensive. Even so, the opposition will be vulnerable to a Coalition fear campaign that says an ALP government would bring back a “great big tax”. And we’re seeing, in the issue of citizenship, how ferociously Abbott can whip up a scare.

The encyclical is potentially helpful to Labor, in the sense of contributing positively to the general context in which the debate will take place.

Polling suggests the public is engaging more with the climate issue. The Lowy Institute’s annual poll, released this week, showed the third consecutive rise in people’s concern about global warming. One in two (50%) agree that it is a “serious and pressing problem” and “we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. This is an increase of five points since 2014 and 14 points since 2012, although it is well under the 68% of 2006.

The Climate Institute’s John Connor doesn’t over-estimate the Pope’s intervention but sees it as one element in what could be a gathering “perfect storm”, the way John Howard has described the 2006 combination of events, attitudes and overseas voices that led him to switch to an activist policy for political reasons – and helped Kevin Rudd to power in 2007.

Apart from a re-emerging public interest, Connor says the pools of private capital are beginning to become “much more aware of the risks of carbon assets” and “a number of companies are quite concerned at the poverty of policy tools here. There is a feeling that there needs to be a restatement of the direction of climate policy in Australia as well as a smarter policy toolbox than that in direct action.”

The earlier perfect storm abated under the pressures of the global financial crisis and the disappointment of Copenhagen. The success or otherwise of Paris will influence how the winds are blowing at election time.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, here or on iTunes.

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