The Climate Crisis is an Integrity Crisis | Polly Hemming

by Polly Hemming


I am starting my address to this year’s summit in the exact same way that I started last year’s address. Because it is just over a year since I delivered these same words, which aren’t actually my words. They are the words of our Climate Change Minister, and they provide a baseline of sorts for what progress has been made in that time.

Polly Hemming, Director of the Australia Institute’s Climate and Energy program addressed the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit 2024.

In the Australian Government’s inaugural Climate Change Statement to Parliament, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, the Honourable Chris Bowen, said that failure to act on climate change would be an “unforgivable act of intergenerational negligence”.

For the international guests in our audience, you will be comforted to know that the minister also acknowledged that “while Australia has a lot to lose from climate change, as a good international citizen we care deeply about our region and the impacts of climate everywhere”.

And since the Labor Government won the election on a platform of climate and integrity, it has thrown its entire weight behind an enthusiastic PR campaign that certainly makes it look like we care deeply about tackling the impacts of climate change in our region and beyond.

An increased climate target for 2030, a steady stream of speeches, media releases, and budget announcements around vehicle efficiency, renewable energy, green hydrogen, green finance, and critical minerals have been welcome promises of what might happen in the future.

What is missing is the policy or substance behind them. What the Government is less vocal about is that, in the year to June 2023, Australia’s emissions increased.

What the media releases fail to mention is that renewable energy is lagging so dramatically that we are going to struggle to power our own grid let alone create an enormous green export industry.

A worrying track record

Unsurprisingly, the Government doesn’t like to draw attention to the fact that since the 2022 election:

  • It has approved four new coal projects.
  • It has approved the drilling of 116 new coal seam gas wells.
  • It has sat in court with coal companies and defended its right not to consider the climate impact of opening new fossil fuel projects.
  • The Government has passed legislation at the request of gas companies specifically designed to expedite their expansion. This is not hyperbole. The transcripts and documents are there in black and white.
  • The Government has stacked the agencies legislated to oversee and shape Australia’s climate policies — including the Net Zero Authority and the National Reconstruction Fund — with industry interests and surrounded them with a fortress-like bureaucracy, impervious to public scrutiny. It has left a former gas executive in charge of the Climate Change Authority.
  • The Prime Minister and various ministers have flown to India, Japan, Korea, and (just this month) Vietnam to lock in customers for our gas and coal. The media releases never mention that either. Australia is one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters, and the Government is subsidising, legislating, and using the full weight of our foreign policy to ensure we stay that way.  Because Governments are very effective at making very big things happen very quickly when they want to.
  • The Australian Government has lobbied UNESCO to stop the Great Barrier Reef from being listed as “in danger”. This is as it is in the grip of another mass coral bleaching event.
  • The Australian Government has refused to end native forest logging. Despite the carbon it would store and the very real risk of extinction to the koala and the swift parrot.  It has left the protection of our collapsing ecosystems to the market. It has put far more energy into talking about being ‘nature positive’ than doing anything about it.
  • The federal Labor government alone still gives over $9 billion in subsidies to fossil fuels. It has committed $1.5 billion to a gas export hub in the Northern Territory. One single gas export hub is getting half of what Australia has committed to global climate finance over five years.

The moral contradictions of Australia’s approach to climate

The Australian government gives far more in aid to the fossil fuel industry than it does to the entire Pacific region.

The Australian Government calls Pacific communities Australia’s ‘family’ and then, sure enough, treats them with the casual contempt of an older brother. It has rushed Pacific leaders into signing security pacts and turned a blind eye to the treatment of Pacific workers in Australia, yet it is relying on the Pacific — in the government’s own words — “to restore Australia’s reputation” by co-hosting COP31, the UN climate conference in 2026.

Minister Bowen last year promised “we will not sign a death certificate” for Pacific communities. Maybe not literally. But under current policies, COP31 is looking like a living wake for all of us.

If failing to act on climate is an act of “intergenerational negligence” then, using the Australian Government’s own logic, it must concede that the wilful exacerbation of climate change is something much, much worse.

The word “ecocide” springs to mind. The legal definition of ‘ecocide’ is “the unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

An “unforgivable act of intergenerational negligence”.

While it may not be captured by a legal framework, Minister Bowen’s own words have, perhaps inadvertently, revealed the heart of the issue.

The climate and biodiversity crisis is a moral crisis.

It is an integrity crisis.

It is not an economic crisis.

It is not a technological crisis.

It is not an information crisis.

It is a moral crisis.

If our democratically elected governments want to keep subsidising fossil fuel expansion, then, of course, they are constitutionally free to do so. But at some point, those same Ministers, and the senior public servants enabling them, will have to accept responsibility for their decisions one way or another.

Perhaps as soon as the next election.

The science has been clear on climate change and its impacts for decades.

The science has been clear on the impact of fossil fuel expansion for decades.

Yet we are gathered here now. In our Parliament House. In 2024. With global fossil fuel emissions and habitat destruction still accelerating, with people dying, with two million species at risk of extinction, with the fires and floods and sea level rise we were warned about already occurring, all because profit and self-interest was and, still is, more important than life.

And our leaders are still making the active choice to expand Australia’s fossil fuel industry.

We are victims of what I can only describe as the biggest and sickest pyramid scheme on earth. The pursuit of profit and self-interest by a few has corrupted and distorted our democracy, our politicians, our public agencies, our universities, and our media.

Years after bushfires and floods Australians are still living in caravans.

Separately, we are in a cost-of-living crisis that will only be made worse by climate change. Kids and their families are living in tents. People are choosing between buying food or medicine. If you can afford to buy a house, it’s unlikely you will be able to afford the insurance premiums.

Our governments give billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to mining and fossil fuel companies instead of spending it on the community — the ones making record profits and paying little or no tax.

Is that how strong a grip the fossil fuel industry has on our government?

Or is that just an indication of how weak our leaders are?

Moving from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’

There are so many good economic and environmental reasons to stop fossil fuel subsidies, stop fossil fuel expansion and start protecting biodiversity.

We don’t need any more reasons.

We have the technology we need to make rapid progress. Of course we need more research, but we have more than enough to get started on the biggest problems. We know what policies work. The endless bad-faith game of policy whack-a-mole is designed entirely to keep the so-called “debate” raging and protect the status quo. Debunk one myth: “Gas is a transition fuel”, (it is not) and another one pops up: “Gas creates jobs” (not many actually). Knock that one down and all of a sudden “gas is needed for regional security” (also not true).

The media breathes life into the deliberate, circular hysteria over nuclear power which suits both parties beautifully. The contrived conflict over nuclear solves a number of political problems but no real problems.

The Coalition use their unity over nuclear energy to create chaos, conceal their internal disagreements over renewable energy, and protect their friends in the industry.

The Labor Government uses the highly visible and performative conflict over nuclear energy to inflate their climate ambition and distract voters from the strength of bipartisan support for subsidised fossil fuel expansion.

But my overarching point is that, while there are plenty of them, we don’t need to provide economic justifications for ending fossil fuel subsidies and expansion. The former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sapoaga, and the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, both here with us today, know this better than anyone. Both have described the response to climate change as a “moral challenge to people of the world”.

In 2019 His Excellency Anote Tong said this is about “survival … it is not about economics, it is about people”.

It would be considered morally abhorrent to have an economic debate over whether to use child labour in Australia or what human trafficking could add to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Whaling was stopped in most of the world because we know whaling is cruel and unnecessary. Asbestos was banned in Australia because it was killing people.

Indeed, in Australia right now we are considering banning dangerous stone benchtops that kill workers while opening new gas and coal projects that will destroy entire countries.

The Australian government —a Labor government by the way — strenuously fought to ensure Antarctica was free from mining because it was considered unconscionable to desecrate something so fragile and intrinsically “precious”. In the erudite words of the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, “No bloody way”.

What would Bob Hawke think of the fossil fuel industry desecrating the Murujuga petroglyphs under the watch of our Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek? Over 40,000 years old, a sacred part of Murujuga culture, and some of the earliest known representations of the human face. Where do we draw the line? Do we have a line anymore? If they’re not fragile and precious I really don’t know what is.

What would Bob Hawke think about Minister Plibersek’s vision of Green Wall Street? Both science and economic theory say that leaving the market to save the environment will fail. But, beyond that, the fundamental idea that our environment — the thing that we are part of, that keeps us alive physically and spiritually — has no value until PwC has put a dollar figure on it is just obscene.

A moral compass?

Our government knows the difference between right and wrong.

Anthony Albanese’s justification for the redistribution of the stage three tax cuts was, in his words, because it was “the right thing to do”.

He went so far as to say, “We have a responsibility to do the right thing.”

The Prime Minister wanted to give a voice to First Nations Australians because — again, using his words — “it was the right thing to do”.

The problem is, when it comes to climate, the government seems to want praise for doing some right things while doing more wrong things.


  • We can keep exporting fossil fuels because we are building renewables.
  • We can ignore rising transport emissions because we have a plan for electric vehicles.
  • We can open a new gas basin over here because we didn’t cut down some trees over there.
  • We can subsidise fossil fuels because we are giving some money to sports teams in the Pacific.
  • We can tell Japan that we will sell it gas forever because one day we might sell it some hydrogen too.
  • We can keep logging native forests because the government is funding koala hospitals.
  • We can keep approving coal mines because we will let some people from Tuvalu live in Australia when their home is gone.

To be clear it is not OK to do things we know are bad because we do some it is somehow being compensated for by things that are good.

We wouldn’t accept this behaviour from our children, and we should not accept it from our leaders.

Australia Institute research has exposed the way carbon offsets are being used by government and industry to justify and greenwash fossil fuel expansion.

This ‘offset’ mentality — reminiscent of the Catholic church’s sale of ‘indulgences’ to sinners wanting to buy their way into heaven— seems to be the approach across the board when it comes to Australia’s climate policy. Our environment policy. And our integrity and accountability mechanisms.

More renewables are needed. Reducing Australia’s domestic emissions is an imperative. Electric vehicles are preferable to internal combustion engines. Our environmental laws do need reforming.

But no policy can be viewed in a vacuum. In the same perverse way that carbon offsets are making climate change worse by allowing the development of new gas basins that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to go ahead, the government’s small, “good” policy changes ultimately distract from, or facilitate, something much worse.

Better or Less Bad?

We are told this government is better than its predecessor when it comes to climate.

But, is it actually better? Or just less bad?

Because less bad doesn’t equal good. The science doesn’t recognise less bad.

Is less bad than Scott Morrison enough to save Pacific Island and First Nation communities?

Is less bad enough to save us from more catastrophic fires and floods?

Or is being less bad than the Coalition just enough to save a few seats at the next election?

In a utilitarian society like ours, when faced with a moral dilemma we usually weigh up a number of things. For many moral pragmatists, the ethical choice is usually the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

Even though this allegedly pragmatic lens, Australia’s subsidised fossil fuel expansion still computes as morally wrong. It harms many and benefits almost no one except a handful of gas executives, carbon offset developers, and the politicians that will end up on their boards (and even they will be victims of their own business model).

It is not for me to say where silence about the Australian Government’s fossil fuel expansion lies on the moral spectrum, but we have a responsibility to think about it. Silence is still a choice.

Good climate policy may not be easy, but it is simple. The science says we need to stop doing the harmful things and we need to invest in the helpful things. Not one or the other.

We need to see who is influencing our government and why. Policy in Australia has been subverted so industry sets the standards it wants from the government.

Ultimately it is the ambition of government that should determine the ambition of industry, not the other way around. Markets and voluntary action do not work for the protection of the public.

Telstra does not care about your kids.
Woolworths does not care about koalas.
Woodside does not care about anything except profit.

Let’s take a look back on progress

I started this speech in the same way I started it last year as a means of tracking how much has changed in those 12 months. And it might feel like not much after listening to me.

But things have changed.

The government was forced to drop its nature repair market, a senate inquiry into greenwashing has been initiated, and the government has suggested it will drop the carbon neutral claim from its carbon neutral certification program. And it’s thanks to all of us and the work we all do. Turning up here today is an act of support for good policy. If you want to do even more, scan the QR code at the door and sign our letter calling on the government to stop approving new fossil fuel projects.

Today we have an entire program of experts who know what works – who know that science, leadership, and independence are the foundation of good policy. You will hear, as they speak, the striking clarity that comes from having no vested interests and nothing to hide. You will hear what needs to be done and realise the only thing stopping it is leadership.

While we have politicians speaking today, this is not political.

This is not about politics.

This is about facts and evidence.

This is about right and wrong.

This. Is. About. Integrity.

Thank you.

Polly Hemming, Director of the Climate & Energy Program at the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit 2024

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