Scott Morrison looks for wriggle room on climate as he detects the whiff of backlash

Sarah Martin
Photograph: Marc Tewksbury/AAP

It’s too early to say whether the prime minister, Scott Morrison, is speaking with a forked tongue when he says the government will “evolve” its climate change policy.

What appeared on Sunday to be a shift in rhetoric on the government’s emission reduction targets may be meaningful – or it may yet prove to be deliberately duplicitous.

Morrison is clearly under pressure on the government’s unambitious climate change policy, an issue that may have remained conceptual for some if not for the horror bushfire crisis that has laid bare the consequences of a warmer planet.

Related: Scott Morrison can't afford to waste the bushfire crisis when Australia urgently needs its own green new deal | Malcolm Turnbull

For months, the prime minister has refused to yield on calls for more ambitious action, saying the government was doing enough and would “meet and beat” its Paris target of reducing emissions by 26% to 28% of 2005 levels by 2030.

But as the cries for action have become louder – including from a group of former fire chiefs who have clearly linked the fire crisis to the effects of climate change in Australia – Morrison is detecting the whiff of backlash.

Despite his ill-judged family holiday to Hawaii, and what was arguably a tardy national response to the fires, Morrison is not politically naive.

He knows that the political pressure over climate change is only becoming more intense, and will be most profoundly felt in inner-city seats held by moderate Liberals, particularly in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Like a verbal Rorschach test, Morrison’s media appearances on Sunday were open to interpretation, but designed to give the government wriggle room.

A conservative Queenslander who works in a coal seat? Morrison wants you to hear the message that he won’t be changing course.

But a moderate Liberal in Victoria? Morrison’s message for you is he plans to “go further” on emissions reduction.

Does climate change cause bushfires?

The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity. 

What is the evidence on rising temperatures?

The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.

What other effects do carbon emissions have?

Dry fuel load - the amount of forest and scrub available to burn - has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth. 

So is climate change making everything dryer?

Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.

What do recent weather patterns show?

The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 has been the fifth driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970.

Morrison’s allegiance to the party’s centre-right faction has given him more rhetorical flexibility in his response to climate change than conservative MPs ever allowed his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

But conservatives will become suspicious – and unruly – if the man they believe to be one of their own actually wants to back up this latest change in rhetoric with action or substantial policy change.

On the other flank of the party, there is an emerging view – from a clutch of at least a dozen MPs – that climate anxiety can no longer be ignored. These MPs will be demanding more.

Moderates are hoping that Sunday’s rhetorical shift is the first sign of a pivot – that of a pragmatic prime minister attempting to turn around the Queen Mary.

But conservatives will be hoping that Morrison is all talk, no action.

Related: Scott Morrison flags bushfires royal commission and says Coalition could bolster emissions reduction

Morrison has been attempting to paper over the cracks within his partyroom by insisting that there is “no dispute” within the coalition that climate change is linked to the bushfire crisis, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

It was no accident that Morrison told his MPs last week in a phone hook-up to shut their collective trap on climate change policy until after the fires abated.

Climate change policy has dogged the conservative side of politics for more than a decade, and there is no reason to expect that Morrison will be left off the hook.

But he is not Tony Abbott, and nor is he Malcolm Turnbull; he carries none of the ideological baggage of his predecessors. This could prove a great strength for Morrison as he seeks to navigate a new policy path through such politically dangerous territory.

Shifting course is, as the prime minister said on Sunday, “a challenging task”.

But it’s now clear that the status quo is untenable.