Death, revival, and a nation divided

Dark clouds are looming above Scott Morrison’s glittering election victory.

Scott Morrison claims victory alongside his family on Saturday. PHOTO Australian/Sam Ruttyn

The death of Bob Hawke, the political deaths of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, and the tub-thumping revival of Scott Morrison have left Australia divided and disoriented in a climate policy vacuum.

Amid all that sound and fury, a more momentous milestone passed almost unnoticed last week. Across the Pacific in Hawaii, Mauna Loa atmospheric observatory recorded carbon dioxide levels above 415 parts per million for the first time in its 71 years of records.

In itself, this is not huge. Every year about this time there is a spike in carbon dioxide because of the dominant influence of the annual cycle of growth and decay of Northern Hemisphere land plants, and the current peak reading was entirely predictable.

What is huge is what this sustained and accelerating rising trend – which last year alone saw about 4.25 billion tonnes of carbon emitted to the atmosphere – implies for our future climate.

Leaders who boast about containing emissions need to know this. For the past 60 years greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere have been accumulating over 100 times more rapidly than in any earlier time. The rise of over 3 ppm in 2018 was the fastest ever known.

Earth has not seen this level of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere for at least three million years – more than 15 times longer than humans have existed on Earth, when temperatures were at least 5C higher than today and, with little land ice, sea levels were several tens of metres higher.

Given the lag time between rising CO2 and temperature, portents for human and ecosystem wellbeing, not to mention coastal life and infrastructure, are ominous indeed.

Other ominous signs are appearing daily. Two random examples from last week: unprecedented May heat in the Arctic (29C at Arkhangelsk in far northern Russia for instance) and warming Antarctic seas causing ice shelves to melt several times more quickly than previous estimates.

For many years I nursed the hope that such warnings from science, repeated often enough, would eventually enable everyone to see we needed stronger action on climate, but I was wrong. Much more important is lived experience. We are now getting that in spades.

Each passing year has brought record-breaking weather events. Summer heatwaves, bushfires, prolonged warm conditions, sustained drought, intense rainstorms and huge floods have brought a new urgency to the debate. Voters everywhere know in their hearts that we have a problem.

Queensland aside, climate policy played a bigger part in this year’s election than ever before. It caused the ousting of Tony Abbott, and is top priority for four independents elected to a finely-balanced lower house.

In the new parliament, expect less negativity about electric cars, wind and solar power, possibly stronger emissions and renewable energy targets and even carbon pricing. But on present indications this will amount to no more than tolerance.

“All politics is local,” Labor leadership contender Anthony Albanese told supporters on Saturday night after winning his seat by a huge majority. Scott Morrison knows this as well as any, exploiting it brilliantly in a focused, targeted, supremely disciplined campaign.

As a campaigner Bill Shorten was no match for Morrison. For all its carefully stage-managed campaign and the Coalition’s deep divisions, Labor had no counter to negative tactics that targeted with pinpoint precision the Labor leader’s every weakness or misstep.

But the story does not end here. We accept voters’ choice in a fair election because that’s how democracy works, but we also know from Donald Trump’s election in the US and Nigel Farage’s Brexit win how electoral outcomes can go horribly pear-shaped.

Lauded in 2016 for their winning styles and strategies, both men still claim to be a force for good in their respective countries. But those fateful votes have left a very dark cloud over the rule of law and stable democratic institutions in the US and the UK.

Scott Morrison’s natural talents lend themselves to this kind of situation in Australia. His salesman’s patter has glossed over contradictions inherent in our national polity that have put Australia on course for its own, home-grown crisis.

Celebrating victory, Barnaby Joyce cited the Adani coal mine controversy and farmers’ knowledge of life on the land to claim Labor was out of touch with the bush. That seemed to be borne out by the big Queensland swing and Labor’s failure to win support in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

But the combined issues of Adani and Murray-Darling basin administration (Joyce’s former ministerial responsibility) have the makings of a perfect storm. Unresolved environmental, financial and legal risks are attached to Carmichael, while the Murray-Darling is on course to become a natural disaster rivalling catastrophic bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

While appearing to support new Queensland coal mines with their disturbing implications for global emissions, the prime minister would have us believe that his current climate policies are adequate.

Morrison’s electoral wizardry has got him this far, but now he must confront the real world. His government is woefully unprepared for the multi-dimensional, multi-jurisdictional emergency that is steadily descending upon us.

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Living in a fool’s paradise headed for calamity

The environment’s loss is ours too, if only we knew it.

Aftermath of a storm, Kuta Beach, Bali (IPBES)

Humanity is destroying itself. That’s the only conclusion to reach after an exhaustive scientific assessment of life on Earth found that the likely extinction of over a million species of plants and animals within decades will have “grave impacts” on people everywhere.

“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report says, and as a result we are a threat to our own food and water security, health and social fabric.

Given that we continue along the high-growth, high-consumption, high-waste pathway, this seems like suicide. But it’s actually a matter of avoiding hard choices and hoping they’ll go away.

The public response in Australia should quash any thought that rationality carries weight in politics. At news of last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES), Campaign 2019 barely missed a beat.

Labor referred questioners to its already-announced $100 million native species protection fund – better than we have now but a small fraction of what ecosystem scientists say is needed – and its pledge to establish an environment protection authority.

For his part, prime minister Scott Morrison said the government had already acted on IPBES concerns (ludicrously, he was referring to a law to regulate cosmetic tests on animals) but then promised to cut “green tape” – environmental regulation – and attacked Labor’s environment plan.

Conservative news and commentary, still going through the awkward process of coming to terms with man-made climate change, was firmly in the latter camp. There is no extinction crisis, declared Andrew Bolt of the Herald-Sun, adding that the only thing at risk of extinction is reason.

The lines must have been running hot at Conspiracy Central when it became clear that IPBES spokesman Robert Watson is the same leading climate scientist attacked by fossil fuel interests two decades ago and subsequently, under US pressure, ousted as head of the UN climate panel.

But all such attacks are a baseless distraction. The report was a three-year effort by 145 top experts from 50 countries, including Australia, with input from another 310 contributing authors. There is no remotely comparable contrary assessment. We have no option but to take this seriously.

IPBES found that nature is in decline and species are being extinguished at rates unprecedented in human history. We have seen off over 80 per cent of land mammal species, and around a third of marine mammals and reef-forming corals are on course for extinction within decades.

Deforestation is putting increasing pressure on terrestrial species and land resources, which the report finds are best managed by indigenous people. Runoff from excessive use of agricultural fertilisers is creating dead zones in coastal seas, with impacts right up the marine food chain.

Slash-and-burn deforestation, Madagascar (IPBES)

Every year, as much as 400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other industrial wastes are being dumped into the world’s waterways. Four-fifths of our wastewater globally is being discharged back into the environment without treatment.

The report found that marine plastic pollution is 10 times what it was 40 years ago, causing death or disease in 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals.

Apart from the odd signature event like the 1983 Franklin River blockade, the natural environment has not been a political focus in Australia. The Greens tried to change that, but in the process unwittingly opened the door to the false notion that environmentalism is a political brand.

There are still people who don’t care about any life but their own – that’s obvious from the extreme self-obsession seen in today’s public life. But I doubt that anyone, even the hard nuts who run the country, could remain indifferent if they were directly confronted with what extinction means to us.

People feel uneasy about death and disease in others for a good reason. Embedded deep in our DNA is the knowledge that our survival depends on other functioning life forms and the ecosystems they are part of. It’s natural to feel bothered when animals and plants disappear.

Becoming aware that we’re messing up the climate is a start. It’s no great extension to accept that nature is not endlessly renewable, and messing it up has real consequences for economic security.

Political, bureaucratic and business leaders continue to claim economic success on the back of the current market value of goods and services, but they shut environmental impact out of calculations. We are left with false data, living in a fool’s paradise headed for calamity.

The last word in the IPBES title acknowledges what our leaders do not – that Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystem are a service. Not just any service, but the only really essential one. Our impact on nature (including the climate) has a huge negative value that we’ve failed to account for.

Giving voice and substance to that all-important environmental bottom line in our national accounts ought to be the determining issue of the 2019 election. Nothing else comes close.

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Hobart gets a Breath of Fresh Air

Owen and Helen Tilbury are bringing their outstandingly successful BOFA film festival to southern Tasmania.

The extraordinary cinematography of Kaloyan Bozhilov is a feature of Aga, Milko Lazarov’s movie about change and loss, to be screened in Hobart and Launceston as part of this year’s BOFA film festival

A breeze is blowing down through Tasmania’s Midlands towards its capital, but unlike smoky summer northerlies this one brings only fresh, thoroughly breathable air.

Since 2010 the Breath of Fresh Air (BOFA) film festival has offered northern Tasmanian film-lovers current cinema from all parts of the world, bringing stories that inspire positive action.

Founded with funding from the venerable Launceston Film Society and since supported by Screen Tasmania and Events Tasmania, BOFA has consolidated its position as a signature Tasmanian event. This year, co-founders Owen and Helen Tilbury have extended its reach to Hobart.

BOFA’s success in presenting significant social issues to Tasmanian audiences persuaded UTAS Law Faculty to support Hobart screenings of 10 of the 32 films in the 2019 Launceston program. The idea is that the Hobart component will get bigger with each passing year.

It’s heartening to see the north-south differences that have plagued this island since European settlement (maybe before, who knows?) being put aside for the benefit of the whole island.

BOFA has made an art out of variety. Documentaries are a feature of the 2019 BOFA program, tackling all manner of human lives and conditions – celebrity, music, our changing world, radicalisation, migration, yacht racing, food, feminism, invention, and much more.

The Eulogy is Janine Hosking’s tribute to Geoffrey Tozer, a concert pianist who was acclaimed abroad for his outstanding talent but not in his own country, except for a brief period of controversy when PM Paul Keating rewarded him with Australian Artists Creative Fellowships in the 1990s.

Tozer had a strong Tasmanian connection. He was conceived here (but born in India), and returned in the 1960s as a budding young pianist to study under Hobart teacher Eileen Ralf. Keating’s eulogy at his funeral in 2009 lambasted Australian orchestras for failing to draw on his outstanding talent.

A European-Australian collaboration called Island of the Hungry Ghosts sounds like an inviting prospect for Tasmanians, acquainted with both island life and (recalling my past life at Port Arthur) also ghosts.

This takes us to Christmas Island, known for its annual land crab migration from forest to sea and more recently for the detention of people seeking asylum in Australia. Besides exploring the visual wonders of the island, the film looks at detainees’ spiritual life in the face of uncertainty and death.

The program features two notable films on environmental themes. One is Aga, which I’ll come to later. The other is Defend Conserve Protect, by and about the Sea Shepherd organisation and its intrepid volunteers as they battle the Japanese whaling fleet in icy Antarctic waters.

I’m not a huge fan of single-issue environmentalism, but I found myself caught up in a beautifully filmed, dangerous and dramatic cat-and-mouse game, where real people show raw, unvarnished fear and genuine heroism in this unforgiving, magnificent environment.

Feature movies this year include shock-horror (Ghost Stories), crime (The Guilty), psychodrama (The Seen and Unseen), and plenty of exotic offerings including Birds of Passage and Memories of my Body. Two classics are The Seagull and a fully-restored My Brilliant Career (1979), whose director Gillian Armstrong and co-star Sam Neill will attend the Launceston screening.

Two particular titles caught my eye. Under the Cover of Cloud is a one-of-a-kind story about life and leisure in Hobart, filmed in a documentary style. Directed by Tasmanian-born writer and filmmaker Ted Wilson, the whimsical narrative revolves around David Boon and other Tasmanian cricketers.

The movie received critical acclaim at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August last year, where it had its global premiere. Wilson will attend his movie’s red-carpet screening in Hobart on Friday.

The second is Aga. I could not get access to the full feature, but what I did see brought back fond memories of The Raven’s Dance, a 1980 film by Finland’s Markku Lehmuskallio which greatly shaped my perspective on humanity and nature.

The first half of The Raven’s Dance, about the intrusion of industrialism into a couple’s forest life, was devoted to the beauty and slow rhythms of the natural environment, eventually broken by the sound of a distant chainsaw.

Aga, too, is about unvarnished nature, in this case the freezing, remote tundra near Yakutsk in far north-eastern Russia, where an indigenous couple who live in a yurt, Nanook and Sedna, must come to terms with the fact that the land of their forebears is changing, permanently.

Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov measures the pace at which those changes and the couple’s response to them unfold, illuminated by wonderful cinematography by Kaloyan Bozhilov and a music score by Penka Kouneva that builds to an epic conclusion.

Having done a huge service for Launceston’s cultural life, Owen and Helen Tilbury now promise to do the same for Hobart. Lovers of good cinema will be richly rewarded.

• BOFA is at Hobart’s Village cinema complex, Collins St, from Friday to Sunday. Launceston screenings (including 22 films not showing in Hobart) are from Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 May. Tickets at Village.

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