The climate canary in the coal mine

An Extinction Rebellion protest in Brisbane on October 12.
An Extinction Rebellion protest in Brisbane on October 12. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

If you thought extreme weather and climate events would eventually force politicians to wake up — that notion should now be definitely put to bed. 

Not only did the Coalition fail to acknowledge climate change makes it more likely that extreme weather events will be more frequent and severe, several MPs aggressively attacked those who dared to point out this obvious link. Others even went as far as to spin a crass conspiracy theory that blamed “greenies” for the bushfires. 

As catastrophic fires swept through large swaths of the state, NSW parliament readied itself to debate new laws exempting the judiciary from considering downstream carbon dioxide emissions as a factor in deciding whether a new coal mine should be approved. This was just the latest in a long list of attempts by the NSW Coalition to make it easier to approve coal mines.

The Coalition is simply incapable of asserting any political independence from the fossil fuel industry — but Labor is hardly any better. Although it has a progressive, though moderate, renewables policy, state Labor governments have given their blessing to violent police repression of peaceful climate protests and brought in new laws to criminalise environmental activism.

The canary is clearly dying, but politicians want to go further down the mine so that the country can export more coal and gas. That’s the Coalition and Labor’s plan in a nutshell.

Yet clear alternatives to this suicidal course exist. Moving from fossil fuels to renewables is eminently achievable and few countries are better placed than Australia to make the shift to 100% renewable energy. 

It is depressing to watch thousands of hectares of once-lush rainforest dry out and burn into a barren hellscape as crippling droughts affect huge portions of the country. It is depressing for those living in the cities and, even more so, for those who live in directly affected areas.

Nonetheless, there are reasons for hope. They can be found in actions such as the blockade of the International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne at the end of October; in the disruptive protests being organised by Extinction Rebellion; and, in particular, in the huge school student-led Climate Strike that swept Australia and the world on September 20. 

Hope can also be found in the substantive policy initiatives, such as the Green New Deal being proposed in the United States by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or the Green Industrial Revolution recently adopted by the Jeremy Corbyn-led British Labour Party, that have moved from the fringes to mainstream discussion. 

These policies are focused on, among many other things, public investment and ownership of renewables and a just transition for fossil fuel workers. They stand in stark contrast to the useless neoliberal market mechanisms that liberal political parties and NGOs have demanded for far too long. 

Hope can also be found in the breakouts of mass protest occurring right now, in Lebanon, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Chile and many more places.

Politicians may not have woken up to the severity of the climate emergency, but people around the world are. The bubble that politicians and the corporate rich inhabit and the reality everyone else lives in are diverging. 

This is how revolutions start.

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