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Opinion

Why should anyone trust Australia when it comes to climate change?

Politicians have been humiliated by lackluster response as country burns

Is this bush fire season presenting the kind of national crisis Australia needs to shake it from its climate malaise?   © AP

Australia's 2019-20 bush fire season, raging out of control for months now, has burned over 15 million hectares of land, killing at least 30 people and an estimated billion animals. The air quality in major population centers has been worse than in some of the world's most notoriously polluted cities.

So how has the government reacted? Prime Minister Scott Morrison was heavily criticized for holidaying in Hawaii at the height of the fires, and his government has struggled to craft a coherent political communication strategy in response to the disaster.

On a day of extreme bush fire emergency, for example, embattled Energy Minister Angus Taylor published an opinion article arguing that Australia had "strong targets, clear plans and an enviable track record" on reducing emissions, and that so-called "quiet Australians" do not accept the "shrill cries" of the government's climate critics.

The truth is that this government has ignored scientific advice and capitulated to the coal industry. One question remains: why should anyone trust Australia when it comes to climate change?

Morrison did, in fairness, postpone scheduled visits to India and Japan because of the fires. While the trip was aimed at strengthening defense ties, improving economic relations with India has also been a focus of successive governments. But in the context of the disastrous bush fires, it is important to consider what kind of trade Australia is pursuing.

An injured sulphur-crested cockatoo walks through the burnt ground, pictured on Jan. 11: bush fire has burned over 10 million hectares of land killing an estimated half a billion animals.   © Reuters

A recent report by the think tank Australia Institute found that the country is the world's third largest exporter of fossil fuels. The Morrison government has sought to boost thermal coal exports to India and diversify its trade as relations continue to deteriorate with China, and a recent official report argued that targeting India's "booming electricity market" would provide potential benefits of 4,000 jobs and $3.4 billion to the economy.

Reports commissioned by Australian governments have long predicted that its bush fire season would be longer and more catastrophic due to climate change. Although there is some hope that such a crisis would be a tipping point for political change, the Australian government has doubled-down on its false narrative that Australia will meet its international obligations in good time.

The 2019 Climate Change Performance Index in fact places Australia toward the bottom of the world's top 57 emitting nations for its greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and climate policy. While government ministers have argued that Australia's carbon emissions are comparatively low, it is one of the highest per capita producers of carbon.

Vapor rises from a coal-fired Loy Yang power station: Australia is one of the highest per capita producers of carbon.   © Reuters

The Morrison government has actively pursued a pro-coal policy agenda domestically and internationally. As treasurer, Morrison once brought a piece of coal into Australia parliament to mock concerns. The coal was supplied by coal mining lobby the Minerals Council of Australia.

Another example of Australia's climate heedlessness was its effort to reduce the emphasis on climate change as a security threat at the 2019 Pacific Island Forum. Small island developing states have consistently argued that climate change is the number one existential security threat facing them.

As fears of rising Chinese influence in the South Pacific grow, Australia has implemented a "Pacific step-up" policy in an effort to re-engage with its strategic neighborhood -- yet has continually sought to downplay climate change as a security challenge.

For over a decade, domestic politics has confounded substantive action on climate change. While studies suggest a majority of Australians are concerned about climate change, since 2007 successive prime ministers have been forced out in part due to divergent attitudes on the causes and extent of climate change and appropriate policy responses.

Australia's public discourse has fallen victim to a false dichotomy between mining jobs and lower electricity prices on the one hand and dealing with its environmental challenges and international responsibilities on the other.

Elements of Australia's media are also defending inaction as high-profile commentators continue to deny the reality of climate change. Widespread criticism of the role of the News Corp media stable in contributing to climate-change denial compelled The Australian newspaper to publish a defensive editorial justifying its journalistic integrity.

Is this bush fire season presenting the kind of national crisis Australia needs to shake it from its climate malaise? There is no doubt people are angry: footage of rural constituents in safe seats abusing the prime minister has gone viral on social media.

Yet misinformation campaigns disseminated by trolls and bots have also flourished. These include the manipulation of police figures to emphasize arson as a leading factor and downplay the role of climate change in the fires. The blaming of "greenies" ostensibly opposed to preventive burns has also provided an excuse for climate denialists.

Not only will Australia's policies undermine its responsibility to keep communities safe, but they will also fail to meet its international obligations. As former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted, Australia needs a green new deal, but that the opportunity is being squandered by a pro-coal government.

Changing Australia's climate trajectory will ultimately require escalating domestic and international pressure to make inaction and denialism an untenable option for governments.

Bec Strating is the executive director of La Trobe Asia and Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University.

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