How much of our country has to burn, how many lives have to be lost, homes destroyed before we resolve as a nation to act on climate change?
Have we now reached the point where at last our response to global warming will be driven by engineering and economics rather than ideology and idiocy?
Our priority this decade should be our own green new deal in which we generate, as soon as possible, all of our electricity from zero emission sources. If we do, Australia will become a leader in the fight against global warming. And we can do it.
The cheapest new generation is from wind and solar. And every year they are getting cheaper. That is a fact. But they depend on the wind blowing or the sun shining. That’s why it is called variable renewable energy.
So we have to plan to store the energy when it is abundant so that supply is maintained when it is not.
This is why I prioritised pumped hydro when I was prime minister and started the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project and the Hydro Tasmania “battery of the nation”. Apart from pumped hydro, there are other storage opportunities including batteries and using renewable energy to make “green” hydrogen, itself a fuel, which brings with it huge export opportunities as well.
But the bottom line is that today in Australia we have the means to decarbonise our entire electricity sector. At the same time we electrify the economy such as by moving to electric vehicles and trucks and using electricity, rather than gas, for heating.
We need to plan this carefully – we have to keep energy affordable and reliable as we make the transition. My government’s policy for a national energy guarantee (Neg) integrated emissions reduction and reliability, and would have enabled us to continue to make the switch to renewables without compromising the reliability of the electricity network.
Today we need common purpose, leadership and planning. We can demonstrate that abundant zero emission energy will create thousands of new jobs that will vastly exceed those lost as coal burning comes to an end.
Take the Hunter Valley. It has enormous transmission capacity which need not be wasted as its coal-fired generators close. The degraded landscape of old mines could be covered with solar panels. Pumped hydro can be created, including around Glenbawn Dam. And that is only one form of storage. The Hunter could become a green energy hub.
The children in Muswellbrook and Singleton will not have to breathe in coal dust and sulphur dioxide from the mines and power stations, and their parents will have jobs in industries that thrive with cheap, green power.
Planning is essential. A practical reality is that it takes much less time to construct new solar or windfarms than it does large-scale pumped hydro for storage. And so we have to plan the storage now.
As we replace big centralised coal-burning generators with many more distributed renewable generators, we will need more and differently designed transmission. A more distributed generation system creates resilience in the face of natural disaster with fewer single points of failure.
And those concerned about fuel security would recognise that the most reliable strategy is to use less imported fuels. Far from threatening the Australian weekend, electric vehicles make Australia more energy independent and thus secure.
But above all we have to face this fact; coal is on the way out. It is, as we are seeing today, a matter of life and death. Whether we like it or not, demand for our export coal is going to decline and expire.
The world must, and I believe will, stop burning coal if we are to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. And the sooner the better. The good news is that thanks to technology we can have abundant energy which is both green and cheap.
The cost of solar per watt is declining every year – by 13% last year alone and over 90% over the last eight years. And thanks in large part to research at the University of New South Wales we will soon see a standard solar panel increase its energy efficiency by another 50%. Batteries are seeing similar increases in efficiency and thus affordability. Aemo’s latest estimates show by 2030 new solar backed with six hours of pumped hydro as being more than $40 a megawatt hour cheaper than new black coal even without a carbon price.
And most importantly of all solar and wind are zero marginal cost generators. So they complement storage, like pumped hydro, perfectly.
There are simply no more excuses. We cannot allow political prejudice and vested interests to hold us up any longer.
If ever there was a crisis not to waste, it is this one. Morrison has the chance now to reinstate the Neg with higher targets. Both he and Josh Frydenberg were among its strongest supporters when I was PM. They abandoned it in the lead-up to an election, to pacify the right wing of the Coalition that sabotaged it in the first place.
The election is won, and the fires have surely demonstrated that an integrated climate and energy policy is vital if we are to be serious about cutting emissions.
At the same time as we move rapidly to deliver clean and affordable energy we need to make sure that we can respond to the consequences of global warming that cannot be avoided. That too will require careful consideration and planning. The time for spin and bluster is over.
We will need to substantially enhance our firefighting resources, which will have to be done in close consultation with the state firefighting agencies not by dictation from Canberra. Respect, consultation and collaboration are the keys here.
There are many other implications from a hotter, drier climate. Water will be scarcer, droughts more frequent and longer.
But there will be rain again, and good seasons too, so we must not become complacent when the immediate crisis abates. The global warming trend is clear, and it is not our friend.
We can adapt to a hotter drier climate. But the lies of the deniers have to be rejected. This is a time for truth telling, not obfuscation and gaslighting. Climate change is real. As real as the fires that only a month into summer have consumed nearly 10 million hectares. And our response must be real too – a resilient, competitive, net zero emission economy – as we work to make our nation, and our planet, safe for our children and grandchildren.
• This essay was originally commissioned as part of Guardian Australia’s forthcoming 2020s Vision series, in which we are asking prominent Australians for ideas that will make Australia better in the next decade. It is published today because of its relevance to the current debate.