Dystopia in the land of Oz: A climate change story

Brisbane protest for real action on climate change, January 25. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Climate scientists and other observers often refer to various regions, such as the Arctic, low-lying islands, the Andes and Bangladesh, inhabited by Indigenous and peasant peoples as the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the adverse impacts of anthropogenic climate change.

It is often said that those people who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions are the ones suffering the most from climate change — a more-than-accurate observation.

Conversely, there is one country, a developed one, that is punching above its weight in terms of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions not only from domestic consumption but due to massive export of coal. It is the canary in the coal mine, signalling the adverse impacts of climate change.

Over the past decade or so, Australia, as the driest settled continent, has been experiencing rising temperatures, droughts accompanied by water shortages, raging bushfires, storm surges, flooding and the bleaching of its iconic Great Barrier Reef.

A tipping point of sorts began in 2019 when large portions of Queensland and New South Wales experienced high temperatures and bushfires that contributed to Sydney, as Australia’s largest and most visited city, being enveloped by smoke.

While this climate crisis impacted his electorate, Prime Minister Scott Morrison jumped ship with his family for a holiday to Hawaii in mid-December, texting opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese that he would be gone for a week and that Michael McCormack, The Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, would be at the helm.

Many Australians became outraged by the PM’s action, particularly after two firefighters lost their lives fighting bushfires in NSW. Sensing this outrage, Morrison and his family returned to Sydney and publicly apologised for having offended so many by his actions.

When, in early January, Morrison visited the small historic town Cobargo in NSW which was burnt to the ground, he experienced overt hostility from Cobargo residents.  Despite considerable political fallout, Morrison insists that Australia’s present emissions reduction policies are adequate to mitigate a climate crisis and bushfire risks while bushfires continue to burn in six states. Due to the bushfires, Australia’s emissions have increased dramatically.

Canberra has also experienced smoke from the bushfires, to the point that government offices, universities, and other facilities were closed for 48 hours because the air had become extremely dangerous in the first days of the New Year.

During this period, the national capital was reportedly the most polluted city in the world.

Smoke from the bushfires had crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in the east and reached as far away as Indonesia in the north-west.

Melbourne residents woke up to a thick haze on the morning of January 5, not so much as due to smoke from bushfires in New South Wales and East Gippsland on previous days, but largely from bushfires in Tasmania across the Bass Strait.

Australians often believe that they reside in the “lucky country” which enjoys one of the highest material standards of living in the world, although this characterisation does not apply for most Indigenous Australians and a growing number of non-Australians as the country experiences a growing amount of social inequality.

While Australians have experienced droughts and bushfires for some time, the intensity of these events and other climate-related events, such as storm surges and flooding, have become much more pronounced.

In addition to rising global greenhouse gas emissions, the warming of the Indian Ocean (known as the Indian Ocean Dipole or the Indian El Nino) in which a mixture of warmer waters off the African coast and the cooler water off the Indonesian coast, may have contributed to late arrival of the monsoon in northern Australia and heat waves over much of Australia.

Anthropogenic climate change compels us to seriously confront not only its impact on Australia but the rest of humanity and the world's fauna and flora. Ultimately, it compels us to transcend global capitalism and begin a revolutionary eco-socialist shift to an alternative world system based upon social justice and parity, deep democracy, environmental sustainability and a safe climate.

Given the vested interests in the present system, both in Australia and elsewhere, this will not be an easy task. But the time is riper than ever to develop a radical social vision.

This will require challenging a world in which multi-national corporations make and break governments and politicians.

[Hans Baer is a Principal Honorary Reseach Fellow at the University of Melbourne and is the author of Democratic Eco-Socialism as a Real Utopia.]

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