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Australia's Chance To Lead The Way On Climate Change Is Going Up In Smoke

On the day 4000 people in Mallacoota had to run into the sea to escape fire, an article from Angus Taylor was published in The Australian newspaper saying Aussies should be proud of our climate change efforts.

Sure, the minister for emissions reduction wasn’t to know his article -- probably written days or weeks earlier -- would be published the same day the town of Mallacoota was blanketed in smoke and haze so thick it blocked out the sun itself, turning summer day into darkest night.

But the fires have been going for weeks. At best, it's bad timing -- at worst, writing such an article in the middle of an unprecedented fire emergency is little short of a responsibility dodge, a sidestep as homes burn and lives are ruined.

Taylor’s opinion piece didn’t generate that much attention -- coming as it did on New Year’s Eve, as many Australians had more important things to worry about. But it adds to a growing list of instances where ordinary Australians have felt their leaders have failed to properly understand their concerns.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Energy Angus Taylor during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, December 5, 2019. (Image: AAP)

How can we forget Scott Morrison’s controversial Hawaiian holiday, hastily truncated as he returned home amidst a storm of controversy. Morrison copped further heat when footage of awkward encounters with locals in Cobargo went viral. NSW emergency services minister David Elliott was slammed for taking his own vacation, another minister standing in during horror conditions in the state.

Morrison has responded to criticism by saying he "understands" the worry and anger of fire-affected communities. But if a leader truly did understand -- or wanted to -- why turn away from the young woman in Cobargo, pleading for help, instead of listening?

It got more heated later, with others swearing and yelling at the PM, but this woman wasn't nasty -- she was crying, and asked for help. Morrison turned and walked away. He later claimed he “stood there” with her and “talked about what she was asking”, though the video evidence doesn’t seem to support this.

But back to Taylor and his NYE article. Just weeks ago he got up at the COP25 international climate conference in Madrid to say the same thing, that Australia was doing enough, more than enough.

Of course he couldn’t say Australia hasn’t done enough on climate. He can’t turn around and bag his own government. But what he and the rest of the government can do -- right now, this minute -- is help pave a new path forward.

Angus Taylor shouldn’t have gotten up at COP25 and tried to explain -- as Morrison did at the United Nations last September -- through controversial accounting and tricky maths with “carryover credits”, how Australia was already doing its bit.

The best thing he could have done is say very little at all.

The best thing he could have done -- and what Australian politicians now have a golden opportunity to do -- is walk up and show some photos; show world leaders and diplomats and global forums some photos of bleeding red skies, of skies that look borrowed from a Mad Max or Blade Runner movie, of torched paddocks and destroyed shells of homes, of blackened faces and exhausted fire fighters, of singed koalas and dead kangaroos.

The best thing they can do is forget "carryover credits" and "we'll meet and beat our commitments," and say one sentence:

'This is happening to us -- please help us try to turn the dial back on this.'

Yes, as the government points out, Australia only accounts for 1.3 percent of emissions. Yes, even if we turn off all the lights and shutter every power station and impound every car and block every freeway, 98.7 percent of emissions would still exist. Nobody disputes that.

But why is that an impediment to us standing up and setting an example for others? Why can’t Australia, rather than being the quiet weird second cousin at the family gathering who only talks to a few people, take the lead? Why not march to the front and say "hey guys, it’s happening at our place, how about we get a wriggle on?"

Mallacoota in East Gippsland, Victoria, on Jan 4. (Image: AAP)
Near Nowra, NSW on Dec 31. (Image: AAP)
Near Nowra, NSW. (Image: Getty)
East Gippsland, Victoria. (Image: AAP)

As Matt McDonald, associate professor in international relations at the University Of Queensland, said in a June article for The Conversation: “As a nation so proud of “punching above its weight” in fields such as sport and technology, Australia is missing a big chance to show global leadership on climate.”

Often forgotten in the climate debate is the fact we do punch above our weight -- in emissions. The government often spruiks the fact that Australia is  only responsible for 1.3 percent of world emissions, but that figure is higher than the United Kingdom, Italy and France -- all much larger countries.

Australia's Climate Council says on a per capita basis, Australia has the highest emissions in the developed world, and in 2017 was the 14th highest emitter on the planet -- despite being 55th in terms of population.

We have a bigger footprint than we deserve, and it’s nothing to be proud of. Real action on our part -- a developed nation, a rich nation, a popular nation -- could be the impetus and encouragement other feet-draggers need.

Let's take a different example. Big public health campaigns don’t work by waiting for each individual person to get around to changing habits in good time -- for people to wake up one day and realise they should drink less booze or eat more vegetables or wear sunscreen. They work by the government doing lots to spread the word, making TV ads and billboards, getting experts talking to people.

Why can’t we do the same with climate -- but on a global scale? Why can't we decide to start encouraging others to do more, to lead by example?

Scott Morrison or Angus Taylor or any of those frighteningly well-paid career politicians should be chasing their foreign counterparts around the room, poking them in the eyes until they sign up to stronger targets, more meaningful action.

Scott Morrison at the UN General Assembly in September 2019. (Image: Getty)

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop, until recently a colleague and partymate of the PM, agrees.

"We should be showing leadership on the issue of climate change," she said on Today on Monday.

She claimed countries "look to Australia for direction" at international conferences, where our leaders "should be putting forward a cogent, coherent case for an energy policy."

While Bishop is not much in a position to throw stones at the current government, considering she herself was in charge of Australia's diplomatic efforts from 2013 to 2018, she added "if a country like Australia fails to show leadership, we can hardly blame other nations for not likewise showing leadership."

But her point remains -- that the world could do with a larger country like Australia making a strong case. The hellish fire pictures beamed around the world provide us an opportunity to talk about this.

Tragedy should not be exploited, but this is our foot in the door to lead the discussion.

The Gospers Mountain Fire as it impacts near Bilpin, NSW on Dec 21. (Image: AAP)

Consensus has to start somewhere, and other countries are already taking firm action. Australia wouldn’t even be out on a limb to embrace some of the burgeoning global reforms around renewables and electric cars and scaling back fossil fuels.

Hell, if you don’t want to talk about the unprecedented natural effects -- for unprecedented, they are -- let’s talk cash.

At some point there will be analysis of how much this fire season cost. It'll be mind-boggling.

It's cancelled holidays and lost revenue for tourist town businesses; cancelled music festivals and fireworks; there will be calculations of work hours and productivity lost as firefighters left their jobs to volunteer on the frontlines; of homes lost and businesses burnt to the ground; of clean-up efforts and renting firefighting aircraft; of disaster relief payments to victims and running evacuation centres; of potential tourists overseas looking at those hellish pictures and saying “f**k that, we’ll go to France for a holiday instead”.

It will run into the billions.

That’s for one fire season. And it’s not even over yet.

Looking at the scale -- it must be cheaper to act than to not. That’s before we even factor in death tolls, homes destroyed, people’s entire lives turned upside down, whole towns razed.

Surely prevention is better than cure.

So Angus Taylor, Scott Morrison, whoever -- next time you’re at a summit, don’t just complain loudly from the back that Australia is already doing its bit.

We’d like you to get up the front and lead the way instead.