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Climate Leadership Series: Brian O'Callaghan and Malcolm Turnbull

Climate Leadership Series: Brian O'Callaghan and Malcolm Turnbull

This is a podcast transcript from the Climate Leadership Series featuring Brian O'Callaghan and Malcolm Turnbull. You can listen to the podcast on Apple or Spotify.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Hello everyone at home. Thank you for joining us. Today I'm here with honorable, Malcolm Turnbull, to discuss rational environmental advocacy as one part of the Rhode's Climate Leadership Series.

Brian O'Callaghan:

My name is Brian O'Callaghan. I'm here at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and I also lead Oxford's Economic Recovery Project. It's my great honor to be joined as mentioned by the honorable Mr. Malcolm Turnbull, who is the former Prime Minister of Australia and Malcolm good day.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Good to be with you, Brian.

Brian O'Callaghan:

I know that your recent departure from politics hasn't quite meant a retirement and your schedule remains hectic, so thanks a lot for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

My pleasure.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Malcolm. We already know each other, but not all watching this from context around the world will be familiar with your story. So I thought I could give a brief introduction. You are an Australian from Sydney, like myself, who studied here in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the late 1970s, before working for a time in journalism, then moving back to Australia to find great success as a barrister.

Brian O'Callaghan:

From there, Malcolm, you shifted your career from law to finance, moving into investment banking. And I know reading your memoir, that you had an interesting time there involved with several high visibility transactions, covering communications and quite a bit more. Malcolm, you then turned your attention to politics, sequentially filling the roles of Australian minister for the environment and water, and then Australian minister for communication. And eventually the 29th Prime Minister of Australia. You obviously, Malcolm, have presided over a long history and several career changes, many brilliant twists and turns. I'm curious, where did your interest in environmental advocacy begin? And what spurred your focus on climate action or one of your focuses, which was climate action during your time in politics?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, just facing reality. I mean the reality of global warming and the causes of it and the consequences of it are becoming all too apparent. It's no longer a question for a debate as to whether it's real, other than in the lunatic echo chambers of the populist right, both in Australia and the United States in particular, but it's a look in to a real and present danger, right? I mean, I don't see how you can, how anyone in public life or public affairs or really line of work can afford not to pay the closest attention to it.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Yeah. I mean, you use quite strong words there to describe those who are not as pro-climate. For the broader context in the audience you operated as a politician from inside one of the most climate skeptical mainstream political parties of really any high income nation. In your memoir, there was a phrase through an opening to one of the chapters you described open hostility within the Liberal Party to the very concept of climate change.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Brian, just cutting to the chase, this is the problem. In the United States and in Australia in particular, the right has in many respects, turned the issue of global warming from something that should be a question of physics into a matter of identity or belief or values. And you see this particularly in the United States or the Republican Party.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, if you want to win a primary for the Republican Party in the United States for God's sake, don't say you take global warming seriously. I mean, that will be almost as damaging as saying that Joe Biden won the election. And here in Australia, while we're not quite at that lunatic extreme, the coal and fossil fuels and defending the fossil fuel economy has become an article of faith for many people on the right. And this has been largely informed by and amplified by - underwritten by many respects, not just the fossil fuel sector, which makes sense, but by the right wing media, which is in this country is overwhelmingly owned by Rupert Murdoch. And of course he has a big chunk of it in the United States. So another Oxford graduate, Mr. Murdoch, is probably in the English speaking world, at least, the individual that has done more than any other to obstruct effective action to address global warming. It’s a hell of a legacy.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Yeah, indeed it is. And I mean, Malcolm, in the political context that you were operating in, you surely weren't the only person who did, let's say believe in, (I know that's ridiculous terminology), but believe in climate change. And you weren't the only person in that party who was had ideological perspectives that were against the norm, let's say, but you were one, a few who took a stand on climate. Why do you think that was? And I suppose to take it a step back for the purpose of this series. What characteristics would you have defined there as climate leadership?

Malcolm Turnbull:

The really interesting question is the way in which this issue that should be one of physics was turned into an issue of political identity or belief. Just a few weeks ago, a great Australian politician, Andrew Peacock died. Now Andrew was leader of the Liberal Party on several occasions, leader of the opposition. He was never Prime Minister, sadly, but he was a very good foreign minister, had a very long political career. When Andrew led the Liberal Party to almost defeating Bob Hawke in 1990. In fact, they got more, a larger percentage of the national votes than Labour did, but didn't win a majority of the seats, which of course sometimes happens. The Liberal Party went to that election with a commitment to cut emissions, to address the concerns about it, global warming and climate change.

Malcolm Turnbull:

It was a Republican administration that led the charge on introducing in effectively an emissions trading scheme to deal with sulfur dioxide emissions and that became covered. And indeed... that was one thing they did. But the other thing that Bush Senior undertook was of course, the global action to address emissions of CHCs that obviously were destroying the ozone layer. So there has been this chain, where we've gone from having a rational debate about how to deal with a real problem to denying the problem exists. And, Michael Mann, very prominent American climate scientist and, and writer, has written a good book about this called The New Climate Wars, but it is very much a product of this... I hesitate to use the word crazy because it's overladen, but, what do you, how else do you describe such denialism?

Malcolm Turnbull:

And it is, here in Australia, man, gosh, it's only, the summer before last that we had the worst bushfires in our history. So we are seeing the real red raw consequences of a hotter, drier climate, but that's the fundamental problem. It is that political, it's that political problem. I mean, now we are in a position where, and well, I'll just step back a bit.

Malcolm Turnbull:

When I was Howard's Environment Minister in 2007. And at that time, the Howard government proposed an emissions trading scheme. Really, now only a few years later after that Tony Abbott turned that into the great sort of jihad against carbon pricing or emissions trading schemes, but, Howard was proposing an ETS and Labour was matching it - their policies were for all intents and purposes the same. At that time there was no question that we would have to pay more for energy if we wanted to reduce our emissions.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And so there was always a legitimate argument. How much do we want to pay to save the planet? We are now at the point where on any view, the cheapest form of electricity is renewables, variable, renewables backed by storage of one kind or another. And so we can have cheaper electricity and clean electricity, but still we have this extraordinary political opposition to it.

Malcolm Turnbull:

It is largely a function of right-wing politics in Australia and the United States. And in Australia's government, my successors, Scott Morrison's government position on this, which has actually gone backwards a long way since I was PM.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Is now a source of enormous, really enormous concern for our closest friends and allies. I mean, the Brits have been chastising Australia, and the Americans have been very blunt. I mean, The White House was actively briefing against the Australian government recently on this issue.

Malcolm Turnbull:

So... it's hard to explain other than as a, it's become an identity issue, but... you see in the hallowed halls of Oxford where you assume people are rational and by and large they are. You have to recognize you have to recognize, and I'm no longer there of course, but I have to recognize too, that there has been a market created for lies and crazy.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Lies and craziness has been normalized leaving climate to one side. The best example is that 70% of Republican voters in the United States presently believe Donald Trump actually won the last presidential election and Joe Biden stole it. Now, this is right up there with the moon landings were faked. Elvis is still alive, Hitler living in a Villa in the Andes - literally barking mad stuff. Historically we've assumed that conspiracy theories and craziness was sort of harmless.

Malcolm Turnbull:

You know, like Elvis is alive. Well, if you want to believe that, that's great – but you're wrong, but kind of doesn't matter. But we are now starting to see real, really existential consequences for this normalization of lying and anti-science BS, and you see with the delay, with the obstruction of climate action on the one hand, and of course politically - I attended the 6th of January. I mean, who would imagine that the U.S. capital would be stormed by mob wanting to lynch the Vice President and the Speaker. But they were, and what drove them to do that was that they had been told by Trump and Fox News and others that Biden had stolen the election.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Yeah. I mean, it's an appalling and dangerous reality and taking a step back, trying to draw together the different themes there. What I'm hearing on the climate leadership side is stick to what you believe in, even in the face of what seems to be crazy adversity from those who you may otherwise, be in partnership with, at least from my perspective, making forward progress in the climate arena is done with change from the inside as well. Right? So.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, what you need, Brian, you need - I used to say when I was Prime Minister engineering and economics, as opposed to ideology and idiocy, I mean, there are a lot of big things that you've got to grapple with. I mean, one of my concerns has been for a long time now, the problem that as we introduce more and more variable, renewable energy, wind, and solar, particularly into the grid. How are we going to firm that, how are we going to back it up when the sun isn't shining the wind isn't blowing? Now, I, obviously I took action on that in Australia, as you know, with the construction of a very large pumped hydro scheme in the snowy mountain, Snowy Hydro 2.0, which is under construction now, but there needs to be a lot more of that... We can have absolutely reliable clean energy and at lower cost, but we do have to plan it.

Malcolm Turnbull:

You know, you can't just snap your fingers and it'll happen. It's got to be thoughtfully planned. And you've got to recognize there are some temporal asymmetries, I'd call them in the sense that you can build a series of solar farms very quickly and they will generate electricity, but it'll be variable. And they will also dramatically undermine the economics of continuous thermal generators, for example, that burn coal. But obviously you do create, have that problem of how do you provide continuous electricity provision of electricity when the sun isn't shining and hence the need, for these other measures, I mean, there are things like green hydrogen that are on the horizon becoming very close and that's going to be a big part of it, but those people who suggest that we don't have the technology to get to net zero emissions are wrong. We do, we have that technology, will we have better technology in a decade? I'm sure we will. Absolutely no doubt, but we can get on with the job right now. And we should.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Yeah. Full agreement on this side and look as an engineer or perhaps former engineer now talking about the realities of asynchronous generation, we could go on for days. I do want to tie in though, to one of the comments you brought up, which is in relation to the action that you took while in government. And, I directly applaud a lot of the progress that you pushed forward on climate action, but you were also roundly criticized by climate advocates for not doing more. And I mean, you were the most powerful men in Australia, and some commentators suggested that you are not quite able to get all that you wanted to do done. So first and we're nearing the end of our time here, but first is that accurate? And second, what can climate advocates then learn from your experience? What does it take to push real change?

Malcolm Turnbull:

You need to get at the numbers in Parliament, right? I mean, politics is a numbers game. So, there are a lot of people, particularly in social media who criticize politicians for not doing this and not doing that. I encourage all of them to run for Parliament. I do. I mean, politics is hard. You know, it's only simple to people who don't understand it and have never participated in it. It's really hard. You have to bring people with you. You have to deal with people who... are cross grain, difficult, got contrary interests, contrary ambitions. You've got to deal with people that are very smart. You've got to deal with people that are not smart at all. It's complicated because people are complicated. So that's what, that's what building consensus and so forth in involves. I mean, you get people... Will often criticize politicians and Prime Ministers for compromising.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That is what politics is all about. That's what Parliament are set up to do, to bring people together so that they do. Hopefully, debate issues and come to some kind of consensus. So ultimately you have to, you have to win elections. That's what you need. You need leadership? Yes. You do need leadership. Of course you do, but you need... It needs to be leadership that, that has the sufficient support to get things done. You know, a leader without followers is just taking a walk. You know, you've got to be able to bring people with you and you can be very, it's very difficult. I mean, I got a lot more done as Prime Minister than I thought I'd be able to do. I would've liked to have gotten more done on energy. I am. What concerns me more than the fact that we didn't get as much done as I'd like to have done is that things seem to have gone backwards.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, the perversity, political perversity in Australia is this, but right now the economics in favor of moving into zero emissions has never been stronger. It's cheaper, right? That's a hell of a thing. It is cheaper. You can have your cake and eat it too. At the same time, the environmental imperative for doing so has never been more urgent. You know, we're seeing the reality of the consequence of global warming. It's no longer something off in the future.

Malcolm Turnbull:

So what's holding us up is crazy, literally crazy politics. And you, you see this everywhere in Australia at the moment you saw it with the Republicans in the United States. The Brits, I think are very fortunate that climate action has been by and large bipartisan. And that's a great credit to David Cameron. I know he's in the wars at the moment, but as a Conservative leader, David did an extraordinary job in getting the Conservative Party onto an environmentally progressive platform is to say, vote blue, go green. And that's very good. And Boris continued with that. So, that is among the big English speaking democracies. You know, Britain's really been much more consistent than, any of the others, including Canada and particularly the U.S. and Australia.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Well, we're pretty much out of time here, Malcolm, but maybe a final opportunity for you in just a couple of sentences. If you were to reflect on your time in politics and thereafter, how would you summarize the characteristics of good climate leadership?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, good climate leadership is leadership that's effective in getting change. There are, none so pure as the impotent. So people who want to be purist about things and allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good and attack politicians who are trying to affect change, but aren't going far enough. I mean, that's just, self-indulgent futile, ravings from the impotent, sidelines.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, ultimately history is made by those who turn up and if you're out of the room, you're out of the deal, there's no point being a theorist. What you have to do is if you want to affect action on climate, you've got to get in there and do something about it. Now that may involve getting involved in Parliament. It may involve being involved in an organization that puts pressure on big companies to move to net zero by, an early date.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But action is what is needed. Just sort of Tweeting and Facebooking away is fine. If that makes you feel good, but you know, never forget. You've got to, if you've going to get things done, you've got to get into the political process. So, that is the... This is where I give Boris great credit for, right. Boris is making the case and it's never been easier than it is today to make it.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And Patty Bureau made this point with a report from the international energy agency, just in the last 24 hours. It has never been easier to make the case because it's correct. That we can have lower, zero emissions, cheaper electricity and more jobs, right? Because technology has basically solved the problem for us. But, so technology, including Australian scientists on solar, The University of New South Wales, Martin Green and his team, they've basically put the tools on the bench, but what governments and business have got to do now is deploy them. And that is the challenge. Now, I think in most countries there's strong consensus to do that. In Australia and the United States, it's become a very partisan issue, and that is because of this way in which what should be a matter of physics has been turned into a effectively a matter of religion.

Brian O'Callaghan:

No, that's a brilliant summary to end on for goodness sake, stop just talking about it and do it.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Let's do it. That's that could be a good advertising slogan.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Okay.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Or a song.

Brian O'Callaghan:

I would love that.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay.

Brian O'Callaghan:

I'm sure you would also so include some of those social dimensions in that great climate leadership there too ensuring that others aren't left behind.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay.

Brian O'Callaghan:

But Mr. Turnbull, thank so much. 

Malcolm Turnbull:

Great to see you.

Brian O'Callaghan:

Hearing your thoughts and to our viewers at home next step for you is to go to the Rhode Trust YouTube channel for additional videos in the Climate Leadership Series and a whole lot more there. Thank you, Mr. Turnbull. Have a good night.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Thank you, Brian. Thank you. Good night.

 

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