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Climate change in Paris, thunderstorms in Canberra

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Bill Shorten nearly got it right when he proclaimed on ABC radio: “Malcolm Turnbull and I are both in Paris, but the person who is running Australia’s climate change policy is Tony Abbott.”

A more accurate summation would be Tony Abbott and his allies are trying to run that policy as the battle for the heart and soul of the Coalition government remains unresolved.

It is not only the Monkeypod room lunchers – the conservative Liberals who join Immigration Minister Peter Dutton for lunch on parliamentary sitting Tuesdays – but also the Nationals who are on alert for the old orthodoxy.

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A headline in The Australian sent the alarm bells ringing. It boldly stated: ‘Paris climate summit: Malcolm Turnbull eyes carbon target lift’.

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta last week. Photo: AAP

That was based on the Prime Minister telling the newspaper there was scope to change Australia’s commitment of a 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction when it was reviewed in two years.

Intensifying conservative heartburn was Environment Minister Greg Hunt claiming ownership of five-yearly reviews. The French proposed this months ago as a check on how countries were implementing their committed targets on the way to containing global temperature rises to two degrees.

Not unreasonably, innocent bystanders as well as sceptics and deniers in the Coalition read all of this as opening the way for a more ambitious effort from the Turnbull government.

The PM, after all, is literate when it comes to the science and well aware of the advantages of a market-based mechanism to cut dangerous greenhouse gasses.

But it seems Mr Turnbull is not being quite this brave. His office says the government’s preferred broadsheet got it wrong.

Greg Hunt says Australia could make more cuts to its carbon emissions.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who will be our chief negotiator in Paris, says she will not be pushing to change our targets because cabinet has not authorised her, or indeed the Prime Minister to do so.

The only chink of light is the ditching of Mr Abbott’s outright rejection of any carbon trading internationally. Ms Bishop says this could be utilised following a review in two years.

The Foreign Minister also explained the five-yearly reviews would not be to increase targets but merely adjust behaviour to achieve what is being promised in Paris.

That’s a pity because what Australia and everybody else has put on the table so far will see temperatures rise by 2.75 degrees and go catastrophically higher unless the 2050 goal of zero net emissions is met.

Of course, 98 percent of the world’s scientists could be wrong about the almost 100 per cent certainty humans are making any natural climate change much more severe.

This is where the government’s, and this includes the Prime Minister’s, attacks on Labor’s 45 percent aspirational target is either totally misguided or cynical.

Bill Shorten
Bill Shorten has floated the idea of a 45 per cent cut in Australia’s carbon emissions by 2030. Photo: Getty

If we give Mr Turnbull the benefit of the doubt that he accepts the science, the only conclusion left is cynicism born of internal political necessity.

There is no way Australia will get to net zero emissions, something Mr Turnbull in Malta repeated as the goal without a higher target and range of measures experts at the Climate Change Authority say are needed.

Labor agrees. It admits there will be a cost but it is nowhere near as high as the government and its right wing supporters in the media are claiming. And of course there are trade-offs as California is proving in new jobs and technologies.

Perhaps Mr Turnbull is playing for time to convert his current high support in the opinion polls into a thumping mandate at the next election. Nothing less will check the resistance movement on his backbench or the naysayers in the National Party.

Maybe the planet can wait. Many don’t want to bet on it.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

Read all of his columns here


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