Disastrous, dark shadow, destroys our economy: five climate elders on Peter Dutton’s emissions stance

<span>Peter Garrett says Peter Dutton’s rejection of Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target is ‘a judgment disastrous in consequences and destabilising for his own party’.</span><span>Photograph: Kane Hibberd</span>
Peter Garrett says Peter Dutton’s rejection of Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target is ‘a judgment disastrous in consequences and destabilising for his own party’.Photograph: Kane Hibberd

Any sense of a ceasefire in Australia’s fractious climate wars was blown away this week after the Coalition said it would not back the country’s 2030 emissions reduction target at the next election.

Peter Dutton’s declaration would mean that, if elected, a Coalition government will seek to breach a central tenet of the global Paris climate accord that countries should not “backslide” on their climate ambition.

Dutton also said his party would not be taking any interim targets to the next general election, which could be as late as May next year.

Related: Dutton’s surprise climate policy proves he ‘can’t be taken seriously’, Albanese says

“I’m not going to sign up to an arrangement that destroys our economy and sends families and small businesses into bankruptcy,” Dutton said.

Speaking to Guardian Australia, veterans of international climate negotiations and public advocacy spoke of their anger and disappointment at the Coalition’s position, saying it would damage Australia’s economy and international reputation.

Peter Garrett

Peter Garrett, the frontman of rock band Midnight Oil and a former Labor environment minister, said the shift was astonishing and alarming.

“It’s a bitter surprise but it renders the Coalition unfit to govern,” he said.

“Mr Dutton has abrogated all responsibility as Coalition leader and decided to allow the narrow self-interest of the fossil fuel industry to overturn rational climate policy. This action means the Coalition has abandoned the field of rational policymaking altogether.

“It’s alarming in the sense we don’t have a foundation of bipartisan support for moderate but necessary action on reducing emissions.

“It has cast a really big dark shadow over the climate policy debate because we’re disappearing backwards into a pit of his own making with no rational assessment of why he did this, other than he seems to believe what the fossil fuel lobbyists are whispering in his ear.

“It’s astonishing a political leader in 2024 can make such a poor decision with a judgment disastrous in consequences and destabilising for his own party.”

Erwin Jackson

Erwin Jackson has been an observer at climate negotiations since the 1990s and is now the policy director with the Investor Group on Climate Change, whose members manage $35tn of assets globally.

“I remember these same arguments when [Paul] Keating was prime minister and when [John] Howard was prime minister,” Jackson said.

“It’s really really sad for me – the fact the body politic is going through these same old lines, and this lack of acknowledgment of how serious a threat climate change is to our communities, economy and people.

“We have so much to gain from action on climate, but we have so much to lose from inaction.”

Related: Then and now: what Peter Dutton and the Coalition used to say about a 2030 emissions target

Jackson said investor confidence in Australia had rallied significantly in the past two years.

“That’s why it’s important we stay the course. Investors over the last few days will be rolling their eyes, saying: ‘Why are we having to go through this again?’

“We will get to net zero. The politics will follow the economics. But the question is do we want to be a passenger or a prisoner in that process.”

Lesley Hughes

Prof Lesley Hughes is a pioneering climate scientist and a Climate Council councillor with decades of science advocacy behind her. She is also a member of the Climate Change Authority.

Hearing Dutton was risking Australia’s international climate credibility, Hughes said she “let out an enormous, frustrated groan, followed by some swearing”.

“It shows the current leadership of the Liberal party is as willing to deny and delay as the previous conservative government. They have not progressed and it is extremely disappointing that there’s an active push to reignite the so-called climate wars. We had hoped we had matured beyond that, but apparently not.

“It’s absolutely damaging to our international reputation. When Australia became a signatory to the Paris agreement, it was a condition that there was no backsliding and every five years you put up a more ambitious target.

“There’s no consistency at all with a politician saying they still want to be part of the Paris agreement and then backsliding. It’s just not on.”

Bill Hare

Bill Hare, chief executive and senior scientist at Climate Analytics, has been involved in international climate negotiations since the late 1980s.

Speaking from a UN climate meeting in Bonn, he said Dutton’s statements were “an incredibly wilful and destructive regression – the very idea we are not going to have a 2030 target and these arguments they’re making that it will destroy the economy are totally wrong”.

“I just feel a towering sense of anger because of the climate crisis unfolding around the world and in Australia. I wonder who Dutton is listening to. Who is it?

“Opinion polls say most people want more climate action, not less.

Related: Falling short of ambitious emissions targets isn’t failure – but rushing towards 2C of heating is | Katherine Woodthorpe

“We elect politicians to represent the interests of ourselves and our country and we know, to the extent that we know anything, that [Dutton’s position] is a dead end for the economy and the planet.”

Hare believes Dutton’s shift is a “convenient” distraction for the Albanese government, which he said continued to approve coal and gas developments while releasing weak policy reforms on climate.

“Climate policy isn’t a left/right issue. Look at Texas – that hotbed of Marxist bedwetters – that is exploding with wind and solar because it’s good business. Peter Dutton and his party appear to be opposed to those opportunities for Australia.”

Howard Bamsey

Howard Bamsey is a longtime national and international public servant on climate change and a former Australian government climate ambassador.

“This feels like a debilitating illness that you hoped had gone away but it keeps coming back,” he said.

“The solution [to the climate crisis] is changing the direction of investment and, if they take it seriously, this will only confound investors and boardrooms.

“If [the Liberal party] followed through, it would be devastating to the economy. It seems to me a reaction would be investors walking away from Australia.

“In the backrooms of political offices there are all these arcane calculations being made that are not based on any reality, or on the national interest.

“I’ve been a public servant most of my life and this sort of behaviour absolutely undermines the national interest. It’s a vacuous political move.”