Will the apocalyptic bushfires be a turning point in Australia’s climate emergency?

February 11, 2020
Thousands of protesters surround Australia's Parliament House in Canberra on February 4 to demand climate action. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Overseas observers of Australia’s catastrophic bushfires — which have now been burning for more than three months — may wonder if the country has moved on to the “adaptation phase”, as some like to claim.

The truth is, while political elites would have us believe that everything is under control, this is not the case. While hard to fully quantify, a political shift is taking place as a result of the bushfire emergency and lack of preparation by state and federal governments.

The enormity of the bushfire emergency resembled a war zone. Nearly 11 million hectares were burnt — an area equivalent to about one-quarter of Papua New Guinea. So far, more than 2000 homes have been destroyed, 23 lives lost and an estimated 1 billion-plus animals killed. Smoke from burning forests, homes and businesses was so toxic that residents in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne were told not to step outdoors.

The annual summer holiday season turned into a nightmare for communities living on the eastern seaboard, and their travelling friends and relatives. It was little wonder that tens of thousands took to the streets in late December and early January, outraged by a missing-in-action Prime Minister and a federal Coalition government largely buck-passing responsibility to the states.

Communities on the bushfire frontline are still reeling, and not just because of the severity of the fires: the future of whole townships is anything but secure, with many people being under- or not insured. Red tape and pitiful amounts of emergency support are rubbing salt into the wounds.

Medical practitioners are warning of mass “solastalgia” — a phenomenon when your sense of home or place is lost because of destruction. Symptoms include grief, trauma, nostalgia, alienation, depression, anxiety and loss.

Community anger

The fires have not gone away and neither has anger towards the federal government. Audience disgust with Liberal Senator Jim Molan's climate-denialist answers on the ABC's Q&A panel discussion on February 3 was palpable. Molan, a former Iraq War major-general, is credited with being the architect of Australia’s inhumane “border protection” policy. Molan claimed that, as he is not a climate scientist, he is not in a position to know whether or not climate change is really happening — a refrain deniers like to use.

When federal parliament resumed on February 4, several thousand people surrounded it demanding real action on climate change. And the protests have not let up: a national day of action is planned for February 22 and School Strike 4 Climate is organising another strike for May 15.

Beyond the bigger public manifestations of dissent, many smaller ones are bubbling along, drawing in new activists, including guerilla artists decorating bus shelters. Even before the bushfire emergency, 66% of Australians were demanding action on climate change. Another poll in January found that number had increased to 79%, with 67% agreeing that “climate change is making bushfires worse”.

Australia’s population is small but, per capita, the country is one of highest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. Some like to apportion blame indiscriminately, but the real climate criminals are the major parties who are indebted to the powerful fossil-fuel industries and climate denier media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

The federal government argues it is on track to meet its Paris Agreement commitments and that emissions are at their lowest levels in 28 years. Data shows that even if Australia achieved its insufficient Paris target — which is contested — it would still be behind other developed economies such as the United States, China, Japan and the European Union.

This is due to the bipartisan consensus that Australia has no option but to keep expanding fossil-fuel energy sources, particularly gas.

Climate criminal

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese reiterate debunked myths that coal is supporting regional communities and that unconventional gas is a “transition” fuel that will bring down energy prices and provide secure jobs.

These false claims have been refuted time and again. But data on its own is no match for the powerful forces keeping these myths alive.

So powerful are these doubt-sowing elites that they have even managed to introduce the false etiquette of it being “disrespectful” to link the bushfire crisis to climate change in times of emergency. The ABC, and even some Trades and Labor Councils, have fallen for this.

The resulting reluctance to talk about the real cause of the catastrophic fires allows for others to be scapegoated, notably “greenies”, “inner-city raving lefties” and “arsonists”. It also reinforces the idea, popular with climate deniers, that the bushfires “must not be politicised”.

But the connection between the ferocity of Australia’s bushfires and the climate crisis is not lost on firefighters. Volunteer firefighting organisations and professional firefighters’ unions have been candid about the causes: it is in their interest to do so. They are furious that years of state and federal government funding cuts to fire services has given rise to the partisan notion that firefighters are happy to be volunteers, rather than be paid at public service rates.

This fits with the climate deniers’ depoliticising stance — which is also the de facto position of most state governments and even some unions that are closely tied to the Labor Party.

Corrupting influence

The climate deniers’ next ideological frontier is to focus on “adaptation” measures which, of course, do not include a transition away from coal and gas.

This is because Australia’s major parties are heavily in hock to fossil fuel corporations. The latest figures show these corporations donated $1.8 million to Labor and the Coalition parties during the 2019 Federal election campaign (in almost equal measure). Woodside, Adani and gas lobby group Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association were the biggest donors.

Mining billionaire Clive Palmer donated a massive $83.7 million to his own party, the United Australia Party, to help ensure the Coalition was returned to government. 

The corrupting influence of fossil fuel corporations on the major political parties is one of the key reasons Australia lags behind other advanced capitalist countries in transitioning to renewable energy.

The Production Gap, a 2019 report from several agencies collaborating with the United Nations Environment Program, found Australia was failing to meet its Paris targets because it is the world’s leading exporter of coal and second largest producer and exporter of liquified natural gas. It said this was largely due to government support for major coal, gas and oil projects, despite the host of alternatives being supported by the private and public sectors.

A new report on the country’s 40 biggest tax dodgers found that Australian gas company Santos, US coal giant Peabody and Exxon Mobil Australia have all made billions of dollars in profits.

Growing awareness

In terms of political culture, Australians can be seen as being somewhat laid-back. The lack of leadership from elected representatives to the bushfire catastrophe has, however, awakened many to the non-option of continuing with business-as-usual.

It is polarising politics. The recent leadership jostling within the fossil fuel-obsessed National Party and the selection of left-winger Adam Bandt as leader of the Australian Greens can be viewed in this light.

There is also a growing feeling that the climate emergency cannot wait until political parties catch up. Protecting workers’ rights on the job, moving quickly to renewable energy solutions that can provide sustainable green jobs and supporting communities reeling from drought are now high on most people’s wish list. There is also a greater receptivity among broader layers of the population to the idea that protesting works. Greater collaboration across diverse networks is starting to happen.

These are positive signs that “adaptation” — the climate deniers’ code for continuing on as usual — is not going to be the panacea its proponents hope for. Unions, professional bodies and the traditionally more conservative rural-based Country Women’s Association are all calling for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

With the economy heading into recession, there are growing calls on governments to invest in the renewable energy transition and to end subsides to fossil fuel industries.

The climate movement is going to have to grow and deepen considerably for this to be realised, but there are more than enough signs that most Australians want change — and want it fast.

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