Australia Isn't Doing Enough to Address Climate Change | Opinion

Australia should receive a mighty "F" for its failure to confront climate change—our churlish government is in denial. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's blustering, factually questionable presentation at the recent Leaders Summit on Climate exposed to the world how embarrassingly ill-prepared Australia is for the social, economic and environmental impact of its reliance on coal and water-intensive agriculture.

Likely, the forests won't burn down, sea levels won't swallow up our neighbors in the Pacific and lead to major wars over scarce resources in Morrison's lifetime nor in the lifetime of his government, so who can blame him for being so disinterested in the plight of Australians now, and for generations to come?

A report by think tanks including the NewClimate Institute, the Climate Action Network and Germanwatch measured emissions, renewable energy, energy use and policy across 57 countries in 2019. The resulting 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia as one of the worst, rating 0.0, on climate policy. The yearly report, published since 2005, is an independent monitoring tool used to track countries' climate protection performance.

The report noted the urgency of meeting targets, plans to reach those targets and genuine commitment to phasing out harmful use of fossil fuels—all relating to rising temperatures and increasing lack of predictability of seasons and weather.

Extreme weather in 2019, including Cyclone Idai which overwhelmed Mozambique, a record-breaking heatwave in India months later and the destructive bushfires in Australia all provide evidence of fundamental change in climate.

Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, made up of various emergency service agencies, departments and non-government organizations around Australia, said it will take decades to appreciate the economic costs of the 2020 bushfires on the economy.

"What we can safely say, with weeks left to go, is that these fires are by far Australia's costliest natural disaster," researchers Paul Reid and Richard Denniss said on Australia's academic editorial site, The Conversation. According to them, the cost of the bushfires was close to 100 billion Australian dollars.

Australia does not exist as an island though, if you'll forgive the pun. Our policies and actions—or inaction—on climate has direct consequences for other nations. The Pacific islands, our closest neighbors, are extremely vulnerable to climate change.

According to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the direct results of sea temperatures rising due to ice caps melting include loss of coastal infrastructure—many islands in the Pacific are low-lying. More intense storms, floods, cyclones and droughts are predicted, along with the failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, loss of coral reefs and the spread of diseases like cholera, typhoid, malaria and dengue due to saltwater and floods contaminating freshwater supplies.

Morrison's speech at the Leaders Summit included the claim, "We are also providing $1.5 billion in practical climate finance focusing on our blue Pacific family partners in our region." This amount was already factored into the existing aid budget. It is not an additional amount.

In 2019, Australia ended its contributions to the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund, designed to enable richer nations assist low-income countries to cut their emissions.

Demonstrators hold up placards outside the Australian Open venue during a climate protest rally in Melbourne on January 24, 2020. MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

Morrison's speech (and the dubious accuracy of his claims) did not impress Australian academics who focus on climate issues.

"[The prime minister should] stop misleading citizens and perplexing climate diplomats about Australia's climate policy performance by making up numbers that bear no relationship to the international recognized system of measuring national emissions under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change," said Robyn Eckersley, a political science professor at the University of Melbourne.

She shared how Morrison should address climate change.

"Acknowledge that Australia is especially vulnerable to climate change, and that the cost of early and aggressive action is cheap—with many co-benefits—when compared to the cost of not acting."

Eckersley said that Australia should stop subsidizing fossil fuels, develop a transition plan for all coal mines and coal-fired plants, enact climate legislation that includes interim and long-term targets based on advice from an independent statutory committee and commit to a target of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035. She also recommended Morrison reinstate contributions to the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund.

Professor Hilary Bambrick, head of school at the School of Public Health and Social Work at the Queensland University of Technology, shared similar thoughts. Her research focuses on the health impacts of climate variability and change.

"Australia is continuing to fail in climate leadership," she said. "Addiction to fossil fuels, demonstrated to the world by PM Morrison at the climate summit, is bad for climate and it's bad for our health. We need to urgently ramp up our investment in clean renewable energy to have a healthy, livable future. Australia continues to spruik its woefully inadequate reduction targets and at the same time promote new fossil fuel developments in coal and gas. If we don't make deep and urgent cuts to fossil fuel emissions, we will increasingly see catastrophes of the scale of, and beyond, the black summer fires."

As other nations rise to the challenge and intend to meet ambitious targets set by President Joe Biden for 2030, Australia's prime minister missed his opportunity to show the world that Australia is serious when it comes to combating climate change. If only Australians voted leaders in on their policies beyond the next election. Next year may be our chance to elect someone who is serious about addressing climate change.

Cat Woods is a freelance writer based in Australia. She writes on art, culture and travel for international publications, and regularly writes on music for both U.S. and Australian publications. When not writing, Cat teaches yoga, Pilates and barre, listens to podcasts, binge watches anything with subtitles, and walks her two highly intelligent, very bossy dogs around her beachside home in the inner south of Melbourne.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.