Mathias Cormann wants to be a chameleon on climate change when we’ve got a bin fire instead of a plan | Katharine Murphy

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The window for attaining net zero emissions by 2050 and holding temperature increases to safe levels is “rapidly closing”. Evidence is mounting that the world is closer to abrupt and irreversible changes, “so-called tipping points”, than previously thought. Without further action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “the planet is on course to reach temperatures not seen in millions of years, with potentially catastrophic implications”.

This commentary is not from the annual general meeting of the Wild-Eyed Leftists Association, or the board minutes from the Suspicious Progressives Cooperative of Lower Bermagui. It’s from the International Monetary Fund, a fortnight ago, in the World Economic Outlook.

Deeply depressing, obviously. But rather than plunging us all into existential anxiety, the IMF presented a plan, and the plan was a green recovery from the coronavirus-induced global recession.

A combination of carbon pricing and an “initial green stimulus” would turbocharge recovery, put the global economy on a sustainable growth path post-pandemic, at the same time dealing with a problem escalating dangerously on our watch. The suggested policy architecture was a carbon pricing regime that compensated households, subsidies for renewable energy production, and a 10-year green public investment program.

These ideas probably sound familiar, because Australians have seen them in action.

The Gillard government legislated a similar framework in the 43rd parliament before Tony Abbott rebranded the package a “carbon tax”, and proceeded to drive a riven Labor government out of office. Peta Credlin, Abbott’s then chief of staff, later reflected: “It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know … but we made it a carbon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics and it took Abbott about six months to cut through and, when he cut through, Gillard was gone.”

So let’s summarise what’s happened: Australia had a viable policy framework to execute a transition that is both necessary and increasingly urgent, and that framework is gone, because the Coalition in 2013 persuaded a majority of people to elect Abbott to repeal a “carbon tax” that didn’t exist.

That’s where we are.

It’s a bin fire folks.

Emerging from this bin fire requires two things: being honest about what has happened, and learning from that failure.

This year I spent months writing a Quarterly Essay documenting how Scott Morrison – the shape shifter par excellence – did what was necessary during the opening months of this pandemic, whether or not that action conformed with the prevailing ideology of his political movement. Lashings of income support. Free childcare. Double the Newstart payment.

The point of noting this is Morrison has agency. He could implement a green recovery if he chose to. He has significant internal authority. He could use it to do what the country needs. But he’s not doing it.

Morrison has used the cover of the pandemic to creep very marginally away from coal. But the price of that tentative unshackling is Australia transiting through the Coalition’s much vaunted “gas-led recovery”.

I still don’t know if Morrison’s “gas-led recovery” is a bit like Abbott’s “carbon tax” – and by that, I mean a marketing slogan invented for electoral purposes. Perhaps Morrison just wants to pretend he wants to lock Australia into fossil fuels for another couple of decades to hold seats in the West and regional Queensland, and to hold the blue collar constituency the Coalition has been courting since the Howard era, without doing terribly much.

But the signs aren’t great. We learned this week that in July, the Climate Change Authority told the government Covid-related stimulus measures could be calibrated to “build Australia’s resilience to the economic impacts of a changing climate and position Australia to take advantage of our abundant clean energy resources and emerging low-emissions technologies”.

Much like the IMF, the CCA said this would be a “win-win-win opportunity for economic recovery, resilience and prosperity in a low-emissions world”. But the authority’s chair, Wendy Craik, told a Senate estimates hearing she did not know if Angus Taylor, the energy minister, had even read the report. There was no official response.

Also from the week. One of the architects of the “gas-led” recovery is Nev Power, the former Fortescue executive who was drafted by Morrison to lead coordination efforts during the pandemic and plot the path to economic recovery. Power was asked by the Greens senator Larissa Waters at Senate estimates whether he’d applied a climate lens to his various deliberations.

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean by a climate lens,” the businessman replied, which might be funny, if it didn’t make me want to slam my head repeatedly against a wall.

In fairness to Power, perhaps his confusion related more to Waters’ terminology than the substance of her question, but in August, Power was asked whether he had recommended a green recovery to the government. “No,” Power said. “We haven’t recommended a green recovery per se.”

Or, at all.

Let’s be honest.

Seated at estimates next to Power was Mathias Cormann, the outgoing finance minister. Cormann is on the campaign trail to be the next secretary general of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an outfit that has previously criticised Australia for its performance on climate change.

Startlingly, at the start of the week, Cormann told a conference organised by the German government he was on board with a green recovery.

If you were inclined to being droll, you might say Cormann broke out his inner green girlie man. The pandemic, he said, created “opportunities like the pursuit of an inclusive and future-focused recovery, including a green recovery with an increased reliance on renewables, improved energy efficiency, addressing climate change and accelerating the transition to a lower-emissions future”.

I say startlingly because Cormann has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to green recoveries with increased reliance on renewables.

The record shows the finance minister was opposed to the Liberal party supporting emissions trading in the absence of a global agreement when Malcolm Turnbull was shown the door by colleagues the first time in 2009.

Cormann prosecuted the Coalition’s opposition to the “carbon tax” in media interviews and on social media. Cormann then moved against Turnbull in 2018 when the Liberal party was again convulsed by a policy that would have mandated a not very ambitious level of emissions reduction in the energy sector – although more recent events are multifactorial.

I need to pay proper respect to these propositions: people’s views are often more complicated than daily news reports suggest; a politician’s private view may be different than a cabinet position they are obliged to defend; people can be committed to emissions reduction consistent with what the science recommends, and have differing views about the best policy mechanisms to achieve that end (which is how Cormann prefers to frame the shameful debacle of the past decade).

Also, this: if Cormann, one of the most powerful figures in the right faction of the Coalition – the political clique that stands with the resources industry and some thinktanks in doing the most to frustrate progress on emissions reduction – now genuinely believes we need to pursue a green recovery with increased reliance on renewables, then hooray. Good times.

But from what I read, the OECD is going to use the current selection process to reflect on its mission for the coming decade.

Once the world recovers from the Covid recession, and the OECD will be an influential voice in shaping that recovery, humanity will be back into the battle to keep the planet habitable for our kids and grandkids.

Tracking back to where we started this weekend, as the IMF says, we should use this opportunity to combine both imperatives. We should make this recovery from Covid green.

In that spirit, if I were the heads of delegations at the OECD in Paris, rather than indulging in the conventional networking and horse-trading, I would be looking very closely and clinically at Cormann’s record on climate action.

I would be asking myself this question: does a late conversion somehow void the Australian candidate’s previous statements, and his political movement’s decade of shame?

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