Nancy Pelosi’s praise for Scott Morrison should terrify Labor

Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House, last week inadvertently gave Labor a preview of its worst nightmare.

Standing next to our Prime Minister, Pelosi delivered a fairly bland statement about working on “critical priorities”, including “so many other things in terms of cooperation on security but also strengthening our relationship with regard to trade and commerce”. On this list she included “climate change – and thank you for your leadership in that regard”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, shakes hands with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.Credit:Bloomberg

It was a ridiculous thing to say, as Pelosi’s colleagues would have known – in recent months the Biden administration has made clear Australia’s inadequacies on climate. But Pelosi went even further the next day, citing Morrison’s slogan of “meeting and beating” the Paris targets as proof Australia, along with Britain, was “leading the way”. Whether Australia was doing enough (it’s not) and whether those targets still mattered (they don’t) didn’t seem to come into it – Morrison had a slogan and that was enough.

That Pelosi could say such things should terrify Labor, because of how closely it reflects the likely position going into the election. There is a very good chance Morrison will not have done much more on climate than he has now. He will, however, have a slogan, which will be accepted, by a remarkable number of people, as an acceptable substitute for reality – just as it was in America last week.

Australia’s climate debate has, for some time now, been conducted in a series of parallel universes. As the implausibility of each becomes too large to ignore, we don’t return to reality – instead, another is brought in to take its place.

The first of these fantasies, ushered in by Tony Abbott, was the idea that nothing at all really needed to happen. As the absurdity of this became obvious, it was replaced by the fiction that the costs of acting on climate change were huge and terrible, while the costs of not acting could largely be ignored. This was the parallel universe in which the 2019 election campaign was conducted.

This year’s major climate change meeting, in Glasgow in November, set a use-by date on that fiction. Much of the world is now moving faster than Australia. This means the costs of not acting are adding up quickly, as we get left behind on investment, on technology, on opportunities.

Last week, Josh Frydenberg delivered a speech on climate in which he made this case. The Treasurer did not, as was widely reported, directly support net-zero emissions by 2050 – and so in one sense this was another in the long line of tiny shifts in language from the Morrison government that are reported as more significant than they are. In fact, Frydenberg didn’t even really focus on the costs of inaction – instead, he said there were risks if markets “falsely assume” Australia is not acting. He had to say this because the government’s line is that it is acting already.

But the tenor of Frydenberg’s speech was important nonetheless. In essence, he was announcing that Australia was now ready to exit the parallel universe that dominated the 2019 campaign.

The problem is that we are leaving one parallel universe behind and heading straight into another.

Imagine how much fanfare Frydenberg’s speech would have received had he actually said something clear – something that did not require detailed forensic analysis to extract meaning. The media attention would have been overwhelming and intense – just as it will be if the Prime Minister finally commits to a plan to reach net zero by 2050. (Barnaby Joyce has lately been sounding less hysterical about this, which increases its chances of happening.)

Unfortunately, the idea this new shift will matter much is also a fiction. 2050 is (obviously) three decades away. What we need, to have any chance of avoiding catastrophe, is for nations like ours to make sharp cuts in emissions right now. The focus should be on what we plan to do by 2030.

Politically, the government has now begun its shift away from the COVID-present to a focus on the future.

The week before last, the AUKUS agreement was announced. In some ways the agreement is significant, but it is also worth noting that its main effect is to bind us more closely to Britain and the US – nations to which most Australians would have assumed we were already pretty closely bound. It does so on the basis of submarines that should be delivered around 2040.

In both cases, this is a particular version of the future we are being sold. We have our eyes on it, the government says – but don’t worry, we can prepare for the future by continuing to do pretty much what we were already doing. Any concrete action can wait a few decades.

This is implausible, of course. But like many fictions, it’s quite appealing, isn’t it? The sort of thing that might be reduced to a comforting slogan and then accepted by a remarkable number of people as a substitute for reality itself – just in time for an election.

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