Morrison’s roadmap to emissions reduction could turn out to be pap – but it’s not a terrible idea

Katharine Murphy
Photograph: Omer Messinger/EPA

Given the Coalition’s unconscionable track record, it is very, very hard to assume the Morrison government will approach anything in climate change policy from a position of good faith.

But brace yourself, because I’m going to say something that might surprise you. I don’t think it’s dumb for Scott Morrison to be arguing that the Coalition should develop a roadmap before settling on a long-term emissions reduction target.

Before anyone chokes on their Weetbix, I think it is entirely possible the Morrison roadmap, expected sometime in the coming weeks, will be pap – either more vacuous window dressing or yet another stick to beat political opponents with. It could easily be a script for doing nothing, or not nearly enough, or a tedious apologia for outright target avoidance.

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It would be idiotic for me to forecast triumph in advance of the facts, so I’m not high-fiving a roadmap I haven’t seen, I’m just saying the core concept of having a roadmap leading to a target isn’t intrinsically terrible. If there is any good faith attached to the exercise, this could be a way to thread a needle.

Humour me while I step you through my thinking. Once upon a time, before Tony Abbott weaponised climate change to win elections, it would have been possible for Australia to have just ploughed on with this transition without the endless handwringing and mud wrestling. There would have been a sensible policy mechanism to drive decarbonisation, with governments working around the edges to ensure the transition was as fair as it could be. No fuss, just steady progress.

But the Coalition broke the debate. The Liberal and National parties deliberately injected unreason into the polity. Having rendered an entire discussion radioactive in order to re-elect sufficient numbers of Nationals in Queensland to hold on to government, the challenge now arrayed before the Coalition is how to reverse engineer their own bastardry. Given the epic scale of that bastardry – unpicking it takes some doing.

Obviously, there is zero prospect of achieving any course correction if the Coalition doesn’t want to change direction. Sadly, it is entirely possible our government will pretend to care about climate change in places where it is electorally advantageous to do so while doing absolutely nothing of substance to arrest the danger. It is possible they are that cynical, even after the terrible portents of the summer.

But some inside the government really do want to shift, and Morrison, for now, is leaving that option open. If we accept for a rash moment that the key people do want to pivot, if we accept there is any underlying sincerity or scintilla of national interest consideration going on here, then the case for action will need to be built in increments from the ground up.

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It has to be built in increments, for two reasons. The first is about internals. If the government pivots too quickly, it will blow up the Coalition. Poor Mathias Cormann made the mistake on Friday of saying the government would be finalising a longer-term target for the next UN-led meeting in Glasgow, only to find himself corrected by Angus Taylor, who declared it would be a long-term “strategy” (because the word target is equivalent to an improvised explosive device. I mean good God, spare us).

The second is about external perceptions. The Coalition has been telling Australians for 10 years that ambitious emissions reduction targets are terrible, and nothing has to change. Now it has to contemplate how the opposite can also also true. There is only one way for the opposite to be true that I can see, and that’s to make the case that Australia can make a transition to lower emissions in an orderly way where people aren’t left behind, and in fact, are given new opportunities.

So now we are back at the roadmap not being a dumb idea. In a strange way, the Coalition having to navigate its fraught internals, and having to workshop how it might gradually stop lying without losing all credibility, creates opportunity for politicians to tell a story that has only been told fitfully.

For more than a decade, the climate debate in Australia has been either a wonkish seminar about carbon pricing, emissions trading, clean energy targets, renewable energy targets, national energy guarantees, safeguard mechanisms, abatement targets, carryover credits, and the like – concepts that are vitally important but carry absolutely no practical meaning for most people – or it has been a slasher movie replete with surround-sound alarmism, hyperbole, intrigue, betrayals and bouts of regicide.

The policy is arcane, the politics has been absolutely rancid, and frankly, a lot of the reporting of this issue has been execrable too, and in many places, the reporting goes on being terrible, either deliberately as a corporate mission, or because reporters confuse balance with false balance. It is entirely understandable, given these realities, that voters now don’t know who or what to believe.

When everything is a stinking mess, it makes sense to me to retreat to first principles, and build a case for action by, wait for it … telling people what action looks like. What are the new technologies? Are they job-creating or job-destroying? What is the role of government in rolling them out? What will be the consequences of the change for jobs, growth and living standards?

Perhaps that story can be a reassuring one.

Because what’s before us is more multidimensional than the Coalition, shambling, in fits and starts, towards reality; a government wondering, in its cups, how to market an implicit mea culpa. I think a number of progressive people who are now fully sold on the need for climate action fail to grasp something that is now pretty obvious. The truth is many voters remain unpersuaded.

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Australians report they are worried about climate change. Poll after poll tells us Australians are becoming more anxious about a lack of action. But a majority are not voting for climate action. They are prioritising other things. This seems a strange kind of dissonance.

The election result last May tells us most voters prioritised their immediate economic security over climate action, which leads me to an obvious conclusion: climate action will not happen in Australia unless the debate shifts, and shifts compellingly, to an economic frame. Logically, that process starts with mapping out how decarbonisation intersects with future job prospects; it starts with answering a basic question – what options does this transformation give me?

The climate debate in Australia has of course touched on these themes, but there has been no cut through narration by either of the major parties, largely because nobody in major party politics has the guts to say the safety of the planet means fossil fuels are on the way out, and because the whole system has been obsessed with either targets and mechanisms, or with gothic intrigue, like whether the latent communist Malcolm Turnbull has somehow snuck back in to lead the Liberal party, or whether Anthony Albanese looked sideways at a coalminer.

So targets are really important. Policy mechanisms also remain critically important. But nothing lasts if voters fear the future.

So here is my question: who in politics has the guts to navigate Australia out of climate change Groundhog Day by being honest about what this transition actually means?