UK Markets closed

We need politicians to have the guts to admit it's going to hurt to fight climate change

Greg Jericho
Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

One of the toughest things for those of us who actually accept the science on climate change is to maintain optimism that anything will be done.

After weeks like the one we’ve just had, I sometimes wonder how long it will be before our major political parties shift from talking about reducing emissions and instead arguing over how to best deal with the impact of climate change.

You know the sort of thing – “Should we means-test free access to P2 masks?” or “Should there be a mutual obligation regime for climate-change relief?” – and before you know it the Australian and the other climate change-denying News Corp media outlets will be running editorials about how “we need to get more people off climate change welfare”.

It is a shift we need to fight against – the war to prevent disastrous climate change is not lost, but it will be if we allow political parties to raise the white flag.

Related: Australia ranked worst of 57 countries on climate change policy

Of course climate change has already affected our lives in a way that requires governments to adjust. This is most obvious regarding the need to alter projections of how much money we need to allocate for fighting fire.

In the space of two days this week we saw the prime minister completely contradict himself on the issue of extra funding for firefighting services.

On Tuesday he said more support was not needed because “the commonwealth puts $15m a year into that and we put an additional $11m this year in, in response to what we knew was going to be a very difficult fire season”.

On Thursday he said more support was needed, telling reporters: “Today we have announced a further $11m that we’re putting into the aerial firefighting fleet. That is on top of the $15m that we already put in on annual basis.”

Apparently this is a new $11m, not the old $11m promised this time last year, although it is passing strange that Scott Morrison in announcing the new funding did not reference that this was on top of an already extra $11m.

But then there’s not a lot of sense in any of these things. We live in a time where climate change denialism is a safer route for a conservative than is acknowledging reality.This is mostly because the main media company in this country, from its editors through to its leading columnists, has an approach to climate change denial that is impervious to logic, reason and basic maths.

This week the New South Wales environment minister, Matt Kean, stated the obvious when he noted the link between increased severity of bushfires and climate change. On Friday the Daily Telegraph responded by smearing him on its front page.

A conservative stating reality on climate change is now considered a betrayal, and a progressive stating reality is portrayed as an extremist.

And you can thus see why the Labor party has chosen to largely dissociate itself from the climate change movement, a movement which saw 20,000 people take to the streets this week in Sydney despite next to no notice.

Labor has instead decided it is more sensible for Anthony Albanese to pick this week when his own electorate has been covered in smoke from bushfires and the UN is holding a climate conference at which Australia has been declared the pariah of the world, to tour rural Queensland to visit coalmines and aluminium smelters and talk up “practical” solutions.

It’s pretty horrific when you think about it that the main strategy to doing something on climate change is to pretend that any change will have a minimal impact on people’s lives.

It is also pretty horrific when you think that a progressive party has decided it does not need to use the mass support of people desperate for action. Surely some form of progressive populism should actually involve trying to be popular?

Because the problem is at some point we are going to need to do more than just the “practical” solutions, and doing that will require a lot of support.

The latest projections show that in 2030 Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions will be 99 megatonne (Mt) lower than in 2005 (the base year for Paris agreement targets). And all of it is accounted for by a drop in land use: ie less land clearing and a few more trees being planted.

Of actual emissions there is no change.

And yet by 2030 we are projected to get 50% of our electricity from renewables.

The problem is while electricity is the biggest producer of emissions, it only accounts for 30% of the total. By 2030 other areas such as direct combustion from industries, transport and fugitive emissions (which occur during the production, processing, transport, storage, transmission and distribution of fossil fuels) all will have risen by enough to offset the fall in electricity emissions.

This is the crux of climate change: if it was as easy to solve as politicians would have us believe then it would not actually be a problem.

Yes, people love renewables, but we are going to need to do more – and any political party that wishes to actually do real action will at some point need to be honest with the public that the change is not going to be pleasant for many and it will be costly.

We are for a start going to need to keep coal in the ground – even our glorious cleaner-than-others coal.

The government’s fraudulent Paris target of 28% below 2005 levels, which includes land use, would require actual emissions to fall from the current level of 551Mt to 440Mt.

Related: Angus Taylor sidesteps Australia’s carryover credit plan at UN climate talks

But that target is a complete joke.

The science requires cuts of at least 45% in actual emissions by 2030, not a reduction through offsets, or by counting things we are are no longer doing.

To achieve a 45% cut in actual emissions we would need to reduce our annual emissions to 287Mt by 2030.

Or to put it another way, in 2030 we would need to remove the equivalent of all emissions produced this year from direct combustion, transport, fugitive emissions and waste (ie land fill).

That is a scale well beyond anything that current policies will achieve. It is an amount that will require changes in how and what we consume and produce.

In effect, a change in how we live.

And it will require a political party able to persuade voters it needs to happen, because the low-hanging fruits of climate change reduction have all been picked.

• Greg Jericho writes on economics for Guardian Australia