Scott Morrison today stared down critics of his management of the summer bushfire crisis, betting that Australians don’t want a radical shift on climate policy by outlining an approach that argues that Australia needs to be economically strong to remain resilient in the face of what he acknowledged would be the new normal of more extreme weather conditions.

In a National Press Club address, he outlined a new strategy, Climate Action Now, underpinned by policies that stress “technology, not taxation” in managing the expected harmful effects of climate change on Australia in the future.

It appears to be a “triangulation” political strategy, trying to rise above the left-right conflicts through adopting the Climate Action Now slogan popular with climate activists to sell what the Government regards as a practical, pragmatic approach to the unique environmental and economic issues Australia faces with climate change.

While there were no policy u-turns on climate in his speech, what was new was that Scott Morrison shed any vestige of climate denialism and appeared to be warning Australians to prepare for some tough times ahead, stressing only a wealthy country could afford the resilience and adaptation measures that would be needed to protect its citizens.

The Federal Government is putting its faith in technology and markets, arguing there will be government support to commercialise new technologies that could see Australia take global leadership in markets like hydrogen and solar.

It was an unashamed pitch to middle Australia, which the Coalition is still convinced is not prepared to take on a higher cost burden on climate change. Significantly, though, it offers more immediate policies that can deliver personal and property protection.

New national disaster strategy, push for an end to gas bans and dam go-aheads

The PM’s strategy will be underpinned by:

  • Greater Federal powers to call a national disaster emergency and activate the defence forces, who will need to be retrained and resourced to carry out disaster response and management;
  • Stronger national accountability and standard setting on hazard reduction, land planning, building management and protection;
  • Taking on the environmental opposition to dam building to allow greater “drought proofing” of Australia’s water resources;
  • A stronger push to overturn exploration bans in Victoria and NSW that would release more low-emission gas supplies, that is seen as an essential transition fuel that had driven strong emissions reductions in the US market;
  • Greater backing for pumped hydro, batteries, hydrogen and carbon sequestration with the release of a new technology strategy; and
  • Also imminent was a new strategy on Electric Vehicles (EVs) and their role in reducing emissions in Australia’s transportation sector. 

No changes to policies on carbon tax, emission reductions or coal

Morrison also ruled out a carbon tax, or changes to emission reduction targets or policies on coal, mounting a strong defence of Australia’s policy record on climate change, arguing that it has met all its global agreements on emission targets in the past and will “meet and beat” the Paris target of 26% cuts by 2030.

He pointed out Australia’s current record of investment in renewable energy was outstripping its global peers – a 26% increase forecast this year — with 2.2 million Australians already having installed rooftop solar panels, highest per capita in the World.

The Federal Government is focusing on using COAG as a process to drive change with the States, where they can expect resistance as they hold their own internal inquiries into the bushfire response.

Australia needs a better international climate change narrative

There is a risk that in failing to give any real ground to its critics, Australia will remain entrenched in “climate wars” that is both dividing the nation and harming its international image, with a range of potential consequences in trade, tourism and other sectors.

The challenge for the Australian Government will be to seek to better sell its climate change policies to trade partners, particularly the environmentally conscious European Union, where it is trying to strike a new Free Trade Deal.

The Government’s position will also disappoint the energy and resources sectors, which want a carbon tax which they believe will both encourage new investment in low-emission technologies, and reduce pressure on the resources majors in global markets.

Politically, Labor’s not in a strong position to challenge Morrison on climate policy until it resolves its own policy position after its electoral wipe-out in the coal-rich state of Queensland, which is currently experiencing once in a decade drought-busting rain. The main opposition will continue to come from the Greens and a range of climate activists, with the financial markets also playing a role particularly in energy technology and coal markets.

What’s next?

The next steps for the Federal Government will be to seek to reassure middle Australia shaken by the catastrophic summer bushfires in south-east Australia that its policy approach that takes into account the nation’s unique environment and strategic economic interests can build resilience to more extreme weather conditions in the future.  

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