Originally published in The Guardian on January 9, 2020

by Richard Denniss
[Originally published by the Guardian Australia]

If only Scott Morrison was as willing to spend money preventing climate change as he is to spend it on disaster repair.

The idea that a “stitch in time saves nine” and “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” was once central to the conservative approach to politics and economics. But while deterrence still lies at the heart of Australia’s $38.7bn defence budget, when it comes to climate change, Australian conservatives opt for suck it and see.

Of course, this radical approach to ignoring risk is neither “conservative” nor widely practised around the world. As the climate science denier and Liberal party MP Craig Kelly found out when interviewed by a British conservative, Piers Morgan, the bizarre arguments that rightwing commentators spew out in Australia just don’t cut the mustard in the old country.

It seems that while every rightwing commentator knows that the best way to fight a bushfire is to prevent it, when it comes to the climate crisis the same idea appals them.

Hazard reduction burning before the bushfire season costs money. It causes smoke, inconvenience and it sometimes gets out of control – causing the very bushfires it seeks to prevent. Those costs don’t make hazard reduction burning a bad idea, they just prove that conservatives are more than happy to spend money upfront to avoid bigger costs down the track. Except when it comes to investing in renewable energy.

How depressing it must be for Australian conservatives to hear statements from the royal family warning that Australia is contributing to a global “ecocide”. But, if the right to be monarch (and Australia’s head of state) is so-called God-given, does that mean God isn’t talking to our future kings and queens any more? Doesn’t Scott Morrison talk to God too? And doesn’t the Pope think we should take urgent action to burn fewer fossil fuels? It’s confusions like these that, back in the 1700s, gave science a good name.

Just as a fish can’t tell you how the water is, most Australians seem unaware just how detached from reality our debate about the climate emergency is.

As the graph below shows, most of the richest economies in the world have managed to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Many grow their economies at the same time. Yet in Australia we have been told that reducing emissions and reducing jobs are one and the same thing.

The bushfires that have ravaged Australia for the last month, and are likely to burn for at least a month more, haven’t just burned up our forests. They have burned up the last shreds of the curtain that Australia’s climate deniers hide their wilful ignorance behind.

Scott Morrison’s claim that Australia is “meeting and beating” our emissions reduction targets is as misleading as it is meaningless. Leaving aside the fact that Australia is relying on accounting tricks to meet our Paris targets and to cover up our rising emissions, even if Australia was “on track”, that track still leads us to a world that is at least 3C warmer than it was 100 years ago.

Australia is now experiencing the early symptoms of what climate change looks like. While conservatives have trolled the public debate, saying “there is no climate emergency” and that “CO2 is plant food”, Australians have now had their first clear look at what an “extreme weather event” is.

This summer’s fires were so fierce they made their own lightning, which started new fires. This summer’s fires were so intense they created a wind storm that flipped over ten-tonne firetrucks and killed a firefighter. This summer’s fires were so vast that we have no chance of extinguishing them all. They will burn for at least another month unless heavy rains show.

Those commentators who, for years, have obsessed about the “costs” of avoiding climate change while telling their audiences about the benefits of a heating planet, will probably never hang their heads in shame. But perhaps the news outlets that provide a platform for their dangerous denialism will. Or, perhaps not.

There is nothing in our constitution that says for-profit companies must act responsibly or in the interests of their readers. And most Australians with an instinctive support for free speech and freedom of the press are willing to accept that it’s hard to regulate against fake news.

But it is no coincidence that the same voices who once denied climate change, and then denied that climate change is caused by fossil fuels, are now the ones declaring that climate change doesn’t make bushfires more frequent or more ferocious.

And it is no coincidence that the prime minister is far happier to fund disaster repair than he is to invest in disaster avoidance. Just as the climate-denying commentators burned up their credibility when they focused on the “upside” of climate change, the Coalition burned up its policy credibility when they ripped up the carbon price.

There was a brief moment after the last election when the prime minister and some in the press gallery thought climate policy could be put on the backburner. But reality bites. Hard.

The people who told us that the quiet Australians weren’t that worried about climate change, and that December’s fires were a “state issue”, are now in charge of developing a national plan to repair this disaster and prevent the next ones. What could go wrong?

Richard Denniss is chief economist at independent thinktank the Australia Institute, @RDNS_TAI

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