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Where there’s smoke, there’s climate change

Dec 13, 2019 • 15m 05s

As fires burn across the east coast and Sydney suffers catastrophic air pollution, the Coalition government is arguing to do less on climate change.

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Where there’s smoke, there’s climate change

142 • Dec 13, 2019

Where there’s smoke, there’s climate change

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As fires burn across the east coast, Sydney suffers catastrophic air pollution, the Prime Minister wants to talk about anything else. Paul Bongiorno on the reality that’s filling people’s lungs and making their eyes sting.

[Music ends]

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Sydney's world famous skyline devoured by rust coloured smoke.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“More than half of the Sydney basin reached more than 10 times the hazardous level.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“That's right. I mean, at the moment we've got what’s equivalent, if you like, to a third of Australia's population just having taken up smoking.”

ELIZABETH:

Paul, let's start in Sydney on Tuesday.

PAUL:

Elizabeth, this was the day that smoke degraded the city's air quality to more than 11 times the hazardous level, worse than Beijing or New Delhi.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

The smoke's coming from hundreds of fires ringing metropolitan Sydney. But of course, there are fires across New South Wales on the border of the ACT and into Queensland. There's what they're calling a mega fire the size of greater Sydney, which is expected to burn until February.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“...with a resulting spike in ambulance call outs and people going to emergency departments suffering respiratory problems.”

PAUL:

Thousands of workers were forced to abandon construction sites. Schools were closed. Excursions and sporting events were canceled.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Mask selfies even becoming a trend. Hashtag: Smoky Sydney…”

PAUL:

Harbour ferry services had to be halted because poor visibility made them unsafe. The city has now had more days of health hazardous pollution in the past month than any previous six month period. It's made international headlines and was featured on television news bulletins worldwide.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Smoke from the fires blanketed Sydney turning the skies orange. A dense fog, smoke, flying ash has lingered over the city for most of the past week.”

PAUL:

And don't forget, the good citizens of Sydney have been suffering this for now a month. And Tuesday was, without a doubt, the worst day.

ELIZABETH:

And it was also the day that the prime minister held two press conferences but neither of them were about what was happening just outside the window.

PAUL:

That's right, Elizabeth. There was a brief doorstop from the prime minister early in the morning responding to the New Zealand volcano tragedy. And then out of the blue, the prime minister called a mid-morning or a late morning news conference, not to respond to the Sydney crisis, but to discuss another draft religious freedom bill.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“What people believe in this country or don't believe when it comes to the big questions of life, which is really what religion and faith is all about, is such a personal matter. It's hard to imagine something more personal.”

PAUL:

Well, half an hour into this news conference, Morrison did take a few questions on the fires. It was hard not to, of course, and said his government's actions on climate change were getting results they were intended to get. I don't think anyone could miss the irony of his remark.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I can reassure everyone that the nationally coordinated effort and that specific state efforts, which are leading the response in each of their jurisdictions, has been incredibly professionally deployed…”

ELIZABETH:

And Paul, in your time covering politics. Can you imagine another leader who wouldn't, by this point, have addressed the nation to say: this is going on. We see the fires, we see associated air pollution, and we're doing everything that we can.

PAUL:

Well, the answer goes to the fact that this prime minister and the governing parties he leads are, as Malcolm Turnbull said on Monday's Q & A, roiled over climate change. ROILED. So the political tactic is to downplay and minimize the catastrophe as much as possible.

ELIZABETH:

That, though, is going to become increasingly difficult, is it not? I mean, as you say, a month of smoke engulfing the largest city, that's going to be hard to keep saying: everything's fine here.

PAUL:

Well, exactly right. And the same day as Scott Morrison's press conference, the New South Wales Environment Minister, Matt Kean, a moderate liberal, told the Smart Energy Summit in Sydney that what was happening, and I'm quoting him, was not normal. And doing nothing is not a solution.

Archival Tape -- Matt Kean:

“Ladies and gentlemen, there's been a lot of talk since the federal election about ending the climate wars. I think that talk has been misplaced. It's not time to end the climate wars. It's time to win the climate wars.”

PAUL:

Keane said, no one could deny that climate change is to blame for the dense haze choking Sydney and the mega bushfires across the state. These conditions, Keane said, were exactly what the scientists have warned us would happen.

Archival Tape -- Matt Kean:

“Well, it's not just about decarbonising the grid. It's about decarbonising our entire economy. And that's why we'll be releasing our plan to achieve exactly that for New South Wales. If the Commonwealth doesn't want to do it, then New South Wales will go it alone.”

PAUL:

He said, if this is not a catalyst for change, then I don't know what is. King talked about the need to take urgent action and to have a meaningful discussion now about the causes and how to fix it.

Archival Tape -- Matt Kean:

This is how we will win the climate wars and I look forward to doing it. Working with you in this room. Thank you very much.”

ELIZABETH:

And Paul, how did the prime minister's office respond to Kean breaking ranks in this way and saying, you know, actually, look at what's happening out there, we've got to do something?

PAUL:

Well all of this have the prime minister's office flapping their arms and going into damage control, briefing journalists that ah there were previous occasions in which Morrison had, in fact, highlighted the link between bushfires and climate change. Highlighted, of course, I think was an overstatement, because their evidence for this only showed how reluctant the prime minister is to actually put “climate change” and “bushfires” in the same sentence. Morrison, when asked about it on the ABC AM program last month, said, “Well, in February, I acknowledged the contribution of those factors to what was happening in Australia, amongst other issues.”

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.

PAUL:

Notice no mention of climate change or bushfires there. On Thursday, Elizabeth, Keen announced New South Wales was preparing a new ambitious emissions reduction target of lowering greenhouse gases by 35 percent by 2030. That might ring a bell for you in the election campaign, Morrison slammed a similar Shorten Labor target as economic-destroying vandalism and reckless.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, from a political perspective, in a way, this just looks like a shambles. I mean, you have a Prime Minister in Sydney on this day of catastrophic haze pretending that everything is fine. His office is to these old bits of tape saying, look, look, he's acknowledged this some time ago. The link between climate change and bushfires, when, in fact, as you say he hasn't explicitly. And we know at the same time, he's spent months refusing to talk about this. What's happening?

PAUL:

Well, look, we have a federal government which for the past 10 years, the Liberal and National parties have made enormous political capital out of climate change denial. Reality has caught up. It's clear that that rational people can't deny what's up their noses. What's making their eyes sting? What's making it difficult to breathe? And the New South Wales coalition government, which, by the way, has never been denialist from day one. Well, not surprisingly -- given 20,000 marched in the smoke haze to protest in Sydney during the week -- well, it realises the time to hold its tongue and to kowtow to their Canberra colleagues is well and truly over.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So, Paul, at the same time as these bushfires are burning across the East Coast and Sydney is filled with smoke, the emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor is in Madrid at the U.N. climate conference. What's been happening there?

PAUL:

Well, Angus Taylor was in Madrid. In fact, still is in Madrid for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It's known as COP 25 because it's the 25th of these meetings.

Archival Tape -- Angus Taylor:

“Australia is committed to the Paris agreement. We are already on track to meet and beat the targets we have set for 2030.”

PAUL:

Taylor told those assembled at COP 25 that we, that is Australia, was world leading, especially in renewables investment.

Archival Tape -- Angus Taylor:

“...strong messages and targets alone won't address climate change.The world needs action to reduce emissions. And Australia believes technology is central to achieving this. We can only reduce emissions as fast as the deployment of commercially viable technologies allow.”

PAUL:

This means we need to get the right technology to the marketplace. When and where it is needed. He didn't say what we do in the meantime, waiting for this technology, which, by the way, didn't define what it was -- if it's carbon capture and storage, we'll be waiting til hell freezes over. Basically, he was refusing to acknowledge that Australia won't put a price on carbon. And Elizabeth, though, what would be embarrassing for most normal people, the government's own emissions reduction projections, which were released late last Friday by the Department of Environment and Energy, shows only a 4 percent cut in emissions for the entire decade of the 2020s. Taylor's intention at the conference is to argue that Australia be allowed to use so-called “carryover credits” for overshooting our extremely modest 5 percent Kyoto commitment. Earlier this year. Government officials admitted that they didn't know of any other country looking to use carryover credits. New work by the Australia Institute shows that they're not relevant or in fact legal at this point of time. So there's been opposition from almost 100 other countries at the COP 25 to allowing Kyoto units to be used in this way. Really for any of what Taylor was saying about Australia meeting its commitments to be true, you need dodgy numbers and manipulated timeframes. At the rate emissions are falling, Labor says it would take 217 years for the government to reach its modest 2030 emissions reduction target.

ELIZABETH:

In other words, we're not going to see in our lifetime.

PAUL:

Yeah, well, I'm not going to live for 217 years, I don’t know about you.

ELIZABETH:

So where do we actually see in terms of climate action, Paul, in relation to these other countries that are pushing back?

PAUL:

Well, while Taylor was in Madrid, the latest climate change performance index was released on climate policy performance. Australia is now ranked last in the world. Australia was given a score of zero point zero. The index says: “Australia receives the lowest rating in this year's climate policy rating. As experts observe, the newly elected government has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels.” And you know, Elizabeth, the thing that stuck out to me this week was a tweet from the economist Richard Dennis. I'm sure you know him. He’s a contributor to this podcast and to The Monthly. Well, he said this government isn't just post-troops, it's post-governing.

ELIZABETH:

Thank you, Paul.

PAUL:

Thank you very much, Elizabeth. Bye.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The federal government has announced changes to the regulation of tech giants like Google and Facebook in response to the ACCC’s digital platforms inquiry. On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government wanted to protect consumers and competition while ensuring a, quote, “level playing field” for all companies. As part of the reform package, the competition and consumer watchdog will have a new dedicated unit with enforcement powers, to investigate the activities of digital platforms.

And in New Zealand, local authorities are in the final stages of planning a body retrieval mission to White Island. Police plan to attempt a landing on the island today, despite the fact that the volcano’s state of unrest had increased and there was now a 50-60% chance of another eruption. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has confirmed that 28 Australian citizens or permanent residents were on the Island when the volcano erupted.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem.

Our field and features producer is Elle Marsh in a position is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. And Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

Today marks Emile Klein’s last day working with 7am. Emile, thank you. 7am wouldn’t exist without you. We will miss you very, very much.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you next week.

As fires burn across the east coast and Sydney suffers catastrophic air pollution, the Coalition government is arguing to do less on climate change. Scott Morrison all but avoids mentioning it. Paul Bongiorno on the reality that’s filling people’s lungs and making their eyes sting.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

PM's clouded judgement on climate in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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142: Where there’s smoke, there’s climate change