There are times when our Prime Minister get mugged by reality. But it doesn’t mean that he has to like it.
He has, reluctantly, accepted that there is nothing he can do to prevent Vladimir Putin from attending the G20 summit in Brisbane. The rest of the world (and in particular the heavies, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel) has spoken.
And this gave way to his petulant threat to shirtfront the Russian president – we bet he will, or perhaps he bets he will. Well, I can’t speak for him, but I’ll bet he won’t.
In a way it is a pity; a bare-chested bout or two of punch and judo would certainly liven up what is likely to be predictable sort of talk fest. However, a spokesman from Putin has said dismissively that there is no likelihood of confrontation between the two – no appointment is scheduled, and the clear implication is that that none will be.
Like the weekly Skibereen Eagle of County Cork in the 1860s, Abbott’s portentous and pretentious warning ‘we warn the Tsar of Russia…’ seems destined to be treated with disdain. Julia Bishop, whose more courteous and measured approach to Putin was both more conciliatory and more productive, will probably be the end of it.
But this, in spite of Abbott’s major preoccupation, was the sideshow. The main event at the G20 looks more likely to be whether or not climate change gets a guernsey and here again it appears that Abbott is on a loser. Obama and the Europeans have announced they are on board, and China’s Xi Jinping is bound to want his two yuan worth if things get interesting.
Abbott wants to limit any discussion to ‘energy efficiency,’ but it is almost certainly going to range more widely, and will, to our Prime Minister’s discomfiture, likely include emission targets and, by implication, their effects on fossil fuels – coal. Abbott has rediscovered Australian coal not only as an economic panacea, but as some sort of secular sacrament.
At the opening of the Queensland Caval Ridge mine, he proselytised that coal was not only essential for prosperity, both at home and abroad – it was ‘good for humanity.’ It appears that he is in a humanitarian mode at present; dropping bombs in the Middle East is, after all, a humanitarian mission, although not, of course, to those they kill.
But coal? In the early days of the industrial revolution it may have been seen as some kind of endless resource leading to a promise of Utopia, but that was a century and a half ago, and even then the critics saw drawbacks: William Blake wrote of ‘dark, satanic mills’ and the miners – and especially the children – who laboured in the pits would hardly have considered their conditions humane.
These days we like to think that we have moved on; at best coal is a necessary evil, an energy source whose limitations and adverse consequences are well known and which should be replaced as fast as economically feasible. It will neither be simple nor painless, but the change is inevitable.
The majority can see this, even in Australia; the latest move came from the Australian National University to remove fossil fuels from its investment portfolio, to the fury of Abbott and his mates. Just stupid, scoffs Abbott. Sure, just stupid like the Rockefeller family, who have done the same – not purely on moral grounds, but because they think it makes financial sense. They can see that coal prices are falling, demand uncertain and restrictions likely to apply more widely, such as the Chinese tariff on dirty coal. And they foresee renewables as the future.
These, of course, are derided by the Australian government; Treasurer Joe Hockey not only hates windmills as eyesores, but praises Australian coal as the cleanest in the world – well, all things are relative and some bits are less dirty than other bits, but none of it is exactly Persil white.
And Hockey rebuts the premise that Australia is, per capita, the world’s worst polluter. Hello Treasurer – which part of per capita do you not understand? Hockey explains that we have a big land area and a small population, but that’s precisely the point. And we buy our exports not because they are clean but because they are profitable – for the moment. Abbott and Hockey are not just swimming against the tide; they are pretending it does not exist, or worse still, ordering it to turn back. And we all know the result of that exercise.
But on a wider front, Abbott is still clinging to his widely discredited direct action policy, and hoping that something will turn up – if global warming exists, then it will be fixed by technology, or maybe by God. And of course we can always hope it doesn’t exist; since 1998 there is some evidence that surface temperatures have plateaued (though not fallen) so there is really no cause for alarm.
But the problem with the so-called global warming pause, spruiked by the sceptics beloved of The Australian, is that it doesn’t make sense; the heat has to go somewhere. The sun is still pumping energy out, and increasingly it is being trapped by the growing levels of carbon dioxide and other emissions in the upper atmosphere. This is the most basic and irrefutable science, not some hypothetical model.
The extra heat is not going away; the question is just how and where in the land, sea or air it is being stored – possibly in the deep oceans, possibly through some other method we have not yet discerned. The pause may be no more than statistical blip, that will come back and burn us when we have been lulled into the security desperately hoped for by the miners and Abbott.
As the UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon has pointed out, this is the big challenge: the one that will go on after ISIS, Ebola and the other crises. This is reality. And it will need a little more than gung ho rhetoric, wishful thinking and shirtfronting to deal with it.