The Great Australian Cop-Out

Australia’s conservative prime minister now accepts climate change is happening—but he’s casting it as inevitable.

Scott Morrison, in shirt sleeves, with his hands behind his back.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits a resident’s property in an area devastated by bushfires in Sarsfield, Australia, on Jan. 3.
James Ross/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Last month—days after I railed against the Australian government for its failure to heed various climate change–related bushfire warnings—I got out of bed to watch a highly anticipated TV event. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a leader in damage control, had agreed to sit down for a special one-on-one Sunday morning interview to address his government’s response to the bushfire crisis—a response many saw as severely lacking. The conservative government was tanking in the polls, and Australians seemed utterly fed up with “Scotty from marketing,” with protests calling for both his resignation and increased action on climate change.

Would he concede that he had been wrong on climate change? Would he admit that his government had ignored the warning signs and let the country down? Would he finally acknowledge the role played by global warming and admit Australia needed to do more to address it? It seemed, by now, impossible not to. The fires, one pundit noted, were Australia’s Sandy Hook moment: It was now or never on climate action.

Surprisingly enough, Morrison accepted the role of climate change in the fires—in fact, he acted as if his government had never denied it. Sitting facing interviewer David Speers, with his hands folded penitently in his lap, Morrison acknowledged he could have handled things better “on the ground” and that, “in hindsight,” he would not have taken a holiday to Hawaii while the fires raged. He suggested that his government’s climate policies would “evolve.”

But when Speers asked how he intended to meet Australia’s emissions reduction targets—which are both insufficient and far from on track—Morrison refused to make specific commitments. Instead, he just insisted we would “meet and beat” them.

So how, then, would his policies evolve? Here, he introduced his government’s new focus: “resilience and adaptation.” In other words, instead of agreeing more needed to be done to prevent climate change, Morrison was arguing that more had to be done to prepare for it.

In the weeks since, Morrison has continued to push the “resilience and adaptation” line, declaring that Australia’s focus needs to be on “practical” measures to address the effects of climate change. “I think we want to have a high level of confidence that as a nation we are improving our resilience and our adaptation,” he later told reporters—never mind the fact that as treasurer, Morrison actually cut funding to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. The prime minister has been light on details, repeating a few key ideas as to how we might bolster our resilience, such as building dams, native vegetation management, and land clearing. As the Guardian’s Greg Jericho notes, that means “doing the very things conservatives have been desirous of for the past century.”

The conservative government has refused to commit to any moves to further lower emissions or, really, any moves that might mitigate climate change. Morrison has simply repeated ad nauseam his line from the Speers interview, that Australia is on track to “meet and beat” its 26–28 percent on 2005 levels by 2030 emission reduction targets—which we are not. As debate heats up around the idea of adopting a target of net zero emissions by 2050—a target scientists say is required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and something the opposition Labor Party has now thrown its weight behind—the conservative government remains unmoved. Morrison slammed Labor for making the target part of its party position without offering a plan or estimated cost while the government is reportedly already looking for ways to avoid signing up to the target at this year’s U.N. summit. Just this month, Morrison announced $4 million in federally funding for a feasibility study into a new coal-fired power plant—making Australia “one of the last developed countries actively considering new coal-fired power stations.”

In doing so, the government has made its position clear: Adaptation matters more than mitigation.

Adaptation and mitigation are considered the two—sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting—main ways of addressing climate change. (Geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the climate, is the more controversial third.) While mitigation addresses the causes of climate change, seeking to prevent it by curbing greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation addresses the impacts of climate change, seeking to survive it. The Climate Reality Project compares adaptation to pouring buckets of water out of a leaking boat and mitigation to stopping the leak—one addresses the effects of the problem, the other the root cause. Mitigation is primarily an international issue, with a long-term focus, while adaptation is a local one, with short-term effects. There are disagreements worldwide over where the emphasis should be. The World Wildlife Fund calls them “equally important.” High-profile figures in the climate world have been arguing for a greater focus on adaptation, particularly in the developing world; considering how little progress has been made on curbing emissions, it doesn’t seem likely that mitigation will be successful anytime soon. But whether mitigation can or will ever succeed remains a choice—one that people like Morrison are responsible for making.

Australia certainly needs to think about adaptation, as the fires have made painfully clear. It’s too late to mitigate our way out of the nearly 1 degree Celsius of warming that has already hit Australia over the past century. With longer, hotter fire seasons already upon us, and with further warming more or less guaranteed, adaptation is a key part of the nation’s survival. As conservatives correctly point out, Australia can’t stop climate change—a global problem—all on its own.

Morrison has been clever enough to insist that Australia is doing both mitigation and adaptation. “They are not either/or; they are not one instead of the other,” he has said. But he’s made it clear which is his priority. When questioned in Parliament recently by independent MP Zali Steggall on whether he would commit to long-term plans to lower emissions, Morrison declared: “Hazard reduction is [as] important, if not more important, than emissions reduction when it comes to protecting people from fire.”

Morrison’s government isn’t alone in pursuing this new argument. News Corp, the Australian branch of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire and a soapbox for climate change deniers, has also begun to push adaptation in recent months. In September, high-profile Sky News host Chris Kenny argued Australia should “adapt to climate change rather than fight it”—a clip dutifully reshared by Murdoch’s Sydney papers. It also mirrors prominent U.S. climate skeptics’ strategic decision to adapt their messaging to one of resilience.

Without a doubt, preparation matters. But focusing on adaptation at the expense of mitigation is dangerous. The problems with leap-frogging straight from denial to adaptation and past mitigation here can perhaps be summed up as the five D’s of adaptation: deficient, distracting, defeatist, denial, and, well, kind of dumb.

Deficient: Adaptation alone is not enough to ensure our survival—or as MIT professor John Sterman argues, “adaptation without mitigation is futile.” In Australia, former Fire and Rescue New South Wales Commissioner Greg Mullins—one of many figures who tried without success to warn the government of worsening fire conditions—has slammed Morrison’s pivot on the same grounds as Sterman, writing, “Adapting to climate change isn’t enough.” For one thing, certain impacts of climate change will be especially difficult to adjust to, including ocean acidification, climate refugees, and—surprise, surprise—more dangerous wildfires.

Furthermore, there is only so far that an already hot, already dry Australia can viably adapt itself, and no amount of adaptation will be enough for worst-case scenario temperature increases. As climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann wrote in an email to Reuters, “There is no amount of adaptation that will allow Australians to contend with the impacts of climate change if we allow for a further escalation of the problem,” calling Morrison’s focus “ridiculous.”

Distracting: By making it look like some climate action is happening, adaptation can present a dangerous diversion from the need for mitigation. As climate engineering expert George Collins wrote in a 2016 Future Tense article on geoengineering, treating the symptoms of climate change may give people permission to ignore the causes, even as the symptoms get worse. Just by talking up its newfound focus on adaptation and resilience, the Australian government is giving the impression that it is working on its climate issues, even as its lack of mitigation measures will inevitably bring Australia even worse fires. “You talk about action on climate change, that’s what that is,” Morrison has said, speaking of hazard reduction strategies. “Building dams is climate action now.” It almost feels convincing, which is exactly the problem. As Sterman argues, if people believe they are protected from the effects of climate change, they may be even less inclined to support (or appreciate the need for) mitigation policies.

Defeatist: In January, I wrote that the government’s attempts to downplay the seriousness of the fires were not so much climate denial as climate dismissal. Now, it appears, we are facing climate defeatism. The Australian government has gone straight from “climate change isn’t contributing to these bushfires” to “nothing we can do, time to adapt,” breezing right past “reducing emissions.” A focus on adaptation feels like giving up on even the possibility of mitigating climate change. Morrison’s repeated use of the word reality (ensuring Australians are “protected against this reality,” responding to “the reality of the environment in which we live”) suggests there isn’t anything that can be done to avoid it. Morrison has not just accepted that climate change is making fire seasons dramatically worse. He’s accepted the inevitability of it.

Climate change is inevitable now, to an extent. But there is still room to decide what we are adapting for—a 2 degree Celsius increase, a 4 degree increase, an 8 degree increase—and the consequences we face can and must be limited. Every reduction matters, but turning to adaptation feels like giving up on even the possibility of mitigating climate change.

Denial: While the focus on adaptation can in some ways treat climate change as an inevitability, in other ways, adapting to the effects of climate change allows governments to subtly continue to deny it’s happening—minimizing disaster-related risk without acknowledging where the heightened risk is coming from. While the Australian government is no longer officially denying the link between climate change and the fires, the politically palatable path of “adaptation” is one that can satisfy even the climate change denying members of the Morrison government—of which there are many.

Dumb: “Prevention is better than cure” seems one of the most logically straight forward aphorisms there is (if you could even call adapting a “cure”). It seems obvious that Australia should attempt to prevent hotter and drier summers, to avoid experiencing deadly 50 degree Celsius days, to limit worst-case scenarios, rather than learning to live with them. Acting now, and acting ambitiously, will help avoid the future costs of adapting—with the added bonus of not having a warmed climate.

But it’s not just that prevention is preferable to cure—it’s also expected to be cheaper in the long run. Much like forking out for prescription toothpaste to avoid a root canal, mitigating climate change will be cheaper and easier than adapting to it. We don’t really know how expensive learning to live with climate change would be, but recent research from the World Wide Fund for Nature suggested that climate change under “business as usual” would cost Australia around $19 billion a year by 2050, making it the nation fifth worst affected by inaction on climate change. The U.S. came first in the World Wide Fund for Nature’s calculations, at $80 billion a year.

This final D might just be the most infuriating element of the adaptation argument. Conservatives like Morrison claim they are being prudent by taking a “measured” response to climate change, as though they are the reasonable ones here. But while the government insists it doesn’t want to raise taxes or energy prices, or unduly burden anyone with the costs of dramatically reducing emissions, the sad truth is that the Australian economy is already suffering, both from the cost of reacting to the (totally foreseeable) fires and from lost tourism revenue. As Australia Institute chief economist Richard Denniss writes, fiscal conservatives are usually stronger on the long-term cost saving logic—just not when it comes to the climate, apparently. “When it comes to climate change, Australian conservatives opt for suck it and see,” he writes.

Why would a fiscal conservative be so reckless, so forgetful of the idea that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Perhaps it’s because a pound of coal looks to be worth a hell of a lot more than either. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and climate adaptation may seem cheaper than mitigation when you add in the profits Australia expects to reap from its continued relationship with coal, which is worth around $48.3 billion to the Australian economy. Morrison has continued to talk up the importance of coal, telling reporters that coal “is important to communities across the country.” It may not just be about the benefit to the country, however. Several of Morrison’s senior staff are ex-coal executives, while a couple of his ministers have coal links. As Bernard Keane writes in Crikey, “emphasising adaptation only—rather than mitigation—is the fossil fuel industry’s preferred framing of climate policy.” Like Donald Trump’s new tree-planting climate plan or Republicans’ push for innovation as a solution to climate change, Morrison’s adaptation strategy plays right into the hands of the all-powerful fossil fuel industry.

Australia’s “coal now, pay later” approach—pursuing coal now and worrying about the damage later—is frustratingly shortsighted. But what’s more, it’s selfish. We are helping ourselves prepare rather than helping the world prevent. Focusing on the symptoms and not the cause of global warming leads to individualized, nationalistic strategies, benefiting local constituencies over global ones—Australia First. It’s time for Australia to stop focusing on how it can use coal to protect itself and focus more on how its coal is hurting the world.

It bears reiterating that preparation is important. Australia must now adapt, but even as we do, it’s important to acknowledge what a dodgy sidestep it is to use it as an excuse not to pull our weight on mitigation. No, Australia can’t stop climate change on its own. But it can be a part of, even a champion for‚ the global effort to do so. Conservatives love to claim that little Australia can’t do much, when actually, as the world’s top coal exporter, it can do far more than it lets on

The Morrison government is indeed showing remarkable “resilience and adaptation.” It is resilient enough to keep rejecting calls for increased emissions reduction targets, to continue pushing for new coal projects, even as Australia burns before our very eyes. And it has adapted its messaging, just enough, to make it look like it’s doing something.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.