Why certain Liberals can't believe in climate change
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Why certain Liberals can't believe in climate change

I was asked this week why the right/centre right/conservatives in the Turnbull government, as they are variously called, don't believe in climate change, and/or don't accept the need for urgent and decisive action.

Is it ideological (that is, anti-government; anti-regulation; a view that if it mattered the private sector would have addressed it, and so on); or is it merely politically opportunistic, an effective issue on which to score short-term political points on opponents, mostly the Opposition and the Greens; or is it because they assume that any transition from fossil fuels to renewables will cost jobs and growth; or is there a genuine denial of the science; or some awkward combination of all these?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is beholden to the right. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg was rolled by the right and the Nationals.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is beholden to the right. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg was rolled by the right and the Nationals.Credit:Andrew Meares

John Howard, widely lauded by these "conservatives" as a "conviction politician", has answered this question from his personal perspective. Speaking at a climate deniers' meeting organised by the ex-British Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, in late 2013, while admitting that he had consciously played short-term politics on the issue, Howard stated that he was an "agnostic" on climate, and preferred to rely on his "instincts".

This, of course, ignores the fact that none of us non-climate scientists would even know that there was an issue except that some 97 per cent of peer-assessed climate scientists (now joined by a host of non-climate scientists) have, atypically, agreed on the magnitude and the urgency of the challenge. I say "atypical" because it is the very essence of scientific endeavour that they disagree, that they contest each other's hypotheses and research conclusions.

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So, John Howard, it is not a question of "religion", but of science, and "instincts" are irrelevant when it comes to matters of scientific "fact".

There is certainly considerable evidence to support the view that it is little more than political opportunism. For example, when Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 he did so by criticising Turnbull's support for, and handling of, the ETS negotiations with Rudd, even though he had previously supported an ETS.

Similarly, he seized on Gillard's decision to price carbon in 2010, breaking an election commitment not to do so, and used it to run a national scare campaign against a "carbon tax", as a fundamental element of his strategy to bring down her government, succeeding to do so in the 2013 election, and then moving immediately to abolish the tax. He then broadened this anti-climate attack by attempting to scrap the renewable energy target, and close down the renewable energy industry.

Abbott was only able to lower the RET, and failed to get parliamentary support to abolish ARENA, the CEFC, and the Climate Change Authority. However, the "win" in abolishing the carbon tax has convinced many on the "right" that they have effectively tapped the mood of the electorate, a view now supported by the resurgence of Hanson, who wants a royal commission into climate science, and Trump's commitment to withdraw from the Paris accord.

The broad-based electoral expectation that Turnbull would stand against all this by continuing with his "principled position" on climate was soon thwarted, as it became clear that he had sold out to the "right" and the Nats to gain their support for him to replace Abbott as PM.

The "right" and Nats have since not missed an opportunity to hold Turnbull to account, and have run, dragging Turnbull along, a very high-profile opposition to any further development of climate policy – blaming the SA blackout on renewables, attacking Labor states over their renewable energy targets, supporting new coal mines, and now rolling Josh Frydenberg over his desire for the promised Climate Review to consider an "emissions intensity scheme for the electricity sector", which they painted as a "dumb" attempt at a limited carbon price.

Of course, this attack on Frydenberg, and indeed the whole Direct Action Strategy, reeks of hypocrisy over carbon pricing. In "buying" emissions reductions Direct Action itself puts a price on carbon, so much per tonne, at about $11 in the last tender. People in glasshouses merely scoring cheap political points!

The review should be substantive and comprehensive. It should form the basis of a deliverable strategy to achieve, not only our Paris target, but beyond to net zero emissions by 2050. This is our most significant and urgent structural policy challenge

The "right" love to speak of the debt and deficit problem as a form of "intergenerational theft", yet they fail to see the climate challenge in the same terms, even though the consequences of failing to address it substantively, and as a matter of urgency, would dwarf that of the debt problem.

The "right" is simply "wrong". It's political opportunism of the worst sort, and their children and grandchildren will pay the price.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.