The national bushfire emergency has broken hearts, destroyed homes and livelihoods and taken lives; it has made heroes of otherwise modest men and women and it has sent spirits soaring as neighbours, strangers and communities come together as one in their determination to overcome.
The catastrophic fires – an enduring name for which has yet to be coined – have also achieved what years of scientific warnings and activist protests have failed to do: they have forced Prime Minister Scott Morrison to acknowledge the fact of climate change.
That said, acknowledgement should not be confused with a change in policy or the prospect of informed action, and certainly there is no admission of having brought Australia into international disrepute as a climate-change recalcitrant.
But Morrison is for now professing himself, and his government, to be fully mindful of the impact of climate change. More than that, he even claims that he has been a champion of climate-change action. Which of course is arrant humbug, not to say bullshit. Until Morrison’s hand was forced he could not even bring himself to utter the c-words.
Morrison is first and foremost a marketing man who believes catchy slogans can solve anything. Thus he has been profuse in his references to climate change. Unfortunately, Morrison was never a particularly good marketing man so it is not surprising that his slogans are falling on disbelieving ears.
Voters who have not been asleep since the last election know that the prime minister, delivered unto them by divine miracle, has the tendency to say one thing while meaning something completely different.
More weasel-speak from the PM
Accordingly, Morrison has introduced some new jargon to divert attention from the policy imperatives posed by the bushfires and his own avowal, albeit through gritted teeth, of climate change. His posturing suggests action, but amounts to inaction.
“I have set out what I think we need to do in terms of the future and…I think, more significantly [than emission reduction targets], that resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” Morrison says.
“We must build our resilience for the future and that must be done on the science and the practical realities of the things we can do right here to make a difference.”
If Morrison believes that “resilience and adaptation” is the catchphrase that will galvanise the nation, we are some way to understanding why marketing was not for him.
As for the reference to “practical realities”, that is the key to what we might expect of the Morrison government on mitigating the effects of climate change: nothing. Observing “practical realities” is weasel-speak for not disturbing the status quo, it is a dishonest caveat that precludes any action that would purportedly affect jobs, regional prosperity and wider economic well-being.
The cost of weaning the Australian economy off coal exports or setting higher renewable-energy targets is too great, the Morrison government argues, blind to the evidence that not acting will come at an even greater cost.
If the current national bushfire emergency does not make that point to the Morrison government, then what will?
Morrison’s bumbling response to the bushfires – starting with the infamous Hawaii holiday – has been so damaging that even he recognises that he can no longer pretend that climate change is a conspiracy theory.
The grudging concession by the prime minister that climate change is real is not without significance. It starts the new year with a shift in the political narrative with both government and opposition agreeing on the existence of climate change.
But that might be the extent of Morrison’s epiphany. He might say “climate change” a lot but “practical realities” will continue to determine policy settings. Morrison all but winks conspiratorially whenever he utters the words “climate change”.
Enter the bubble-headed booby
The prime minister has not discarded his lump of coal; he just knows it’s prudent, for the time being at least, to keep it in his top drawer out of harm’s way.
When the bubble-headed booby – to quote Dr Zachary Smith – Craig Kelly appeared on British television to dismiss the impact of climate change on Australia’s bushfires emergency, the purpose of the exercise was clear. Permitting the Liberal backbencher and outspoken climate-change denialist to voice his nonsense was a clear message to Liberal MPs that whatever Morrison was obliged to say in public about climate change, denialists in the party room would not be silenced.
It’s going to take some doing for Morrison and his government to maintain this posture.
The bushfires and their unprecedented severity should spell the end of the spurious argument that Australia’s globally insignificant carbon emissions entitles Australia to make a proportionate response to climate change.
But the bushfire emergency, which has destroyed unprecedented swathes of countryside, coming off the back of record droughts, shows that climate change does not observe the proprieties of proportionate responses.
The world has watched aghast as Australia burns, presenting an overwhelming climate-change reality that is here and now, as well as being a harbinger of much worse to come. At the same time, Scott Morrison has become a global pariah for his climate-change inaction; no Australian prime minister has ever attracted international scorn and condemnation on such a scale.
Morrison has taken a potentially significant step in recognising the science of climate change, but now it remains to be seen whether he has the commitment and resolve to stand up to the climate-change recalcitrants in his party room. He knows better than most the political cost of taking a principled stand on climate change.
Morrison has declared what his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was in effect gagged from saying: that climate change is real. So what is he going to do about it? Every indication so far is that Morrison intends to rely on the bogus mantra of “meeting and beating” emission reduction targets, while yielding to political self-interest by taking a “practical” approach to climate policy.
For Morrison, conceding that climate change is real was just a necessary political manoeuvre. Like his idol Donald Trump, Morrison believes in saying whatever it takes to get him out of a tricky situation. Morrison, like Trump, treats words as ephemeral and disposable.
Now that Morrison has dared to utter the c-words it may fall to people-power to maintain the pressure and convince Liberal and National party MPs that Australia’s negligence on climate change can no longer be justified or tolerated.
If there are any Liberal MPs left with a spine this is their time to insist that the prime minister must act on climate change. It may get ugly in the party room, but it will be nothing compared to what shattered communities around Australia have endured.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher