Australia’s fires this summer—unprecedented in the scale of their destruction—are the ferocious but inevitable reality of global warming. A hotter, drier climate means more and longer droughts and more and fiercer fires.
So if Australia is on the front line of the climate crisis, why are we not also a world leader in climate action?
In most countries, asking people whether they believe in the science of climate change is like asking them whether they believe in gravity. It is a simple matter of physics. The more greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere, the hotter our climate will become.
But in Australia, as in the U.S., this issue has been hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media (much of it owned by Rupert Murdoch), as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.
As Prime Minister, I tried to ensure that our climate and energy policies were governed by engineering and economics, not ideology and idiocy. Tragically, the climate-denying political right in Australia has turned what should be a practical question of how to respond to a real physical threat into a matter of values or belief.
Even as the fires rage, Murdoch’s News Corp. newspapers and television networks have been busy arguing that arsonists or a lack of controlled burning are the real causes of the fires. This has been refuted point-blank by the chief of the fire service in New South Wales, but the misinformation campaign continues in both mainstream and social media.
Climate-change denial has also infected our politics. Australia is currently governed by a center-right coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party. I led the coalition twice—first as opposition leader from 2008 to 2009 and then as Prime Minister from 2015 to 2018. Both times, my efforts to take concerted action on climate change were followed by my losing my job.
In 2018, my government introduced a National Energy Guarantee (NEG), which combined emission reductions with reliability standards as a means of ensuring a smooth transition to a lower-emissions electricity sector while maintaining reliability of supply. It was supported by business and unions as well as state governments on both sides of politics. A majority of coalition legislators also backed it, but a right-wing minority, supported by their allies in the media, sabotaged the bill and then brought down my government.
In the chaos that ensued, Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, and one of his first acts was to formally abandon the NEG. Since then, the government has had no coherent, integrated climate and energy policy.
These fires show that the wicked, self-destructive idiocy of climate denialism must stop. The world must drastically cut its greenhouse-gas emissions. Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.
Australia, rather than being a laggard, should be a leader in climate action. Not just because our country is on fire. Not just because we are a wealthy, advanced economy that can afford to lead. But also because we have formidable wind and solar resources that can enable us to generate all of our energy from renewable sources and at the same time enjoy cheaper electricity. Renewable resources are already the cheapest new power sources in Australia, and new developments in storage technologies are making renewables reliable 24/7.
That’s why I started Snowy Hydro 2.0, a project that will use pumped water to create energy and, like a battery, store enough power for 3 million homes for a week. The latest estimates show that by 2030, power from solar panels, backed with storage from pumped hydro, will be more than $40 per megawatt-hour cheaper than power from new black coal, even without a carbon tax.
Australians no longer need to sacrifice economic growth to reduce emissions. We must not waste this climate crisis. There are no excuses and not much time left. Australia and the world need a Green New Deal now.