Bursting the fossil fuel bubble

Our leaders’ coal addiction is looking increasingly exposed.

Australia’s leaders are facing a policy choice: allow the business-as-usual, politics-as-usual bubble to grow until it bursts, with messy consequences, or pop it now, face reality and lead accordingly.

Established economical and political norms that once seemed set in concrete turn out to have masked underlying weaknesses, not least being the fact that the same norms (endless economic growth among them) have led to the multiple crises now threatening human and other life on Earth.

Claims about strong climate and pandemic policies damaging the economy are hollowing out now that the consequences of neglecting them are on stark display. To see what contagion can do to government, just look at rising tension within and between pandemic-afflicted countries over repeated lockdowns and vaccine rollout – issues that could easily be ours too if we drop our guard.

But a pandemic is small beer compared to the compounding costs and stresses of climate inaction. Last week the Climate Council, a crowd-funded research and information organisation, released its most confronting report in over seven years of documenting Australia’s rising climate crisis.

The report’s principal author is a world authority on atmospheric science, ANU professor Will Steffen. As the title suggests, Hitting Home is about the price the world is now paying for failing to act decisively in the critical decade to 2020.

Even with the best possible level of global emissions reduction from now on – an impossible scenario given our record – the world will continue to get warmer for several more decades, which means more extreme heat, heavier rain events, bigger storms, bigger wildfires.

Also in store are more “flash droughts”, first observed in Australia in 2019, where an apparently good growing season turns to dust in a matter of weeks with sudden high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds accompanying low rainfall.

Recent warming, says the report, has caused a succession of mass bleaching events that killed off about half the Great Barrier Reef’s hard corals, and started “a new and dangerous era of megafires” – notably the Black Summer fires which burned an area eight times that of an average fire season.

Adjusting for inflation, the cost of weather-related disasters in this country is now about double what we paid in the 1970s. Future rapid sea level rise will add megabucks more. With more to lose from climate change than any other developed country, the report advocates a cracking pace in cutting emissions – at least halved by 2030 and down to net zero before 2040.

Australia’s body politic has failed to confront the reality that climate change is already upon us and that the worst will only be avoided if we stop burning fossil fuels, now if not sooner. Both the major parties still talk as if we can have our cake and eat it too. We can’t.

Australian governments acted decisively and cooperatively when faced with a pandemic disaster, and we’re now reaping the benefits. But Scott Morrison’s government shows no sign of applying that thinking to climate by raising its mediocre commitments.

This will change, not because the government suddenly decides to take notice of harrowing scientific evidence but because Joe Biden has ended the Trump horror show and injected science into US domestic and foreign policy. A vastly stronger US climate policy announced last week includes putting pressure on all nations, including Australia, to strengthen their own measures.

In April Biden will host a Leaders’ Climate Summit, ahead of which he will announce his nation’s targets under the Paris Agreement, which the US has now rejoined. Australia will attend, and will face exceptional pressure to come up with a strong, coherent, binding plan.

As of now, you could be forgiven for thinking Australia is moving in another universe. Both major parties have given unwarranted assurances about the future of coal and gas because they think the electorate will reward them. But the only visible outcome of those assurances is indecision and weakness, not something that any elector finds appealing.

Morrison is vulnerable over this, but no more so than Anthony Albanese after last week’s underwhelming reshuffle of Labor’s front bench. Mark Butler, a strong voice for climate action, now has Chris Bowen’s health role, Bowen has climate change, and Richard Marles has a big new national reconstruction portfolio.

Regardless of how that pans out, Biden’s powerful climate moves are a game-changer. Both major parties must now find the courage to abandon completely the big lie that we can safely accommodate fossil energy in our future and focus on climate policy leadership. They might be surprised at voters’ response.

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An Australia Day reflection on Aboriginal fire

Booting Indigenous Australians off their land wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Cultures and traditions are like forests. Their big, structural elements need to be left undisturbed for long periods, with small, frequent changes here and there to stimulate renewal and growth.

The British settlers who came to Australia in 1788 boasted the world’s most advanced science and technology, but they were handicapped by a culture damaged by centuries of disputation and war.

Australia’s Indigenous culture was everything theirs was not: truly ancient, contiguous and robust. Whereas European traditions span a few thousand years at most, Australian traditions were 50,000 years or more in the making.

Venturing out of their Australian settlements, British explorers reported landscapes resembling Europe’s cultivated parks and gardens. Rural settlers, encouraged by their leaders to regard the continent as being uninhabited, chose to ignore the possibility that humans had a hand in this.

Eight years ago I wrote in these pages about The Biggest Estate on Earth, a detailed, thoroughly-documented study of pre-colonial land management practices by historian Bill Gammage.

Other studies since then have strengthened the view that living on this land for more than a thousand generations, Aboriginal people developed a deep knowledge of it and sophisticated techniques, including fire, to manage it.

Fire Country, a 2020 book by Victor Steffensen, an Indigenous Australian from Cape York Peninsula, picks up that theme and runs with it – literally. Essentially, he describes how traditional fire knowledge and practice, applied continuously year on year, makes a healthier forest while also keeping fuel loads in check.

As Steffensen explains, Aboriginal fire is applied prescriptively to “fire country” at specific locations and times of the year depending on geology, animal habitats and plants, with the aim of renewing understorey vegetation and avoiding year-on-year accumulation of unburnt vegetation.

For me, reading this book has been both refreshing and nostalgic, taking me back beyond formal education to my infancy in the bush, when everything I knew about the living world – about how plants and animals live together, and how humans interact with them – came via personal experience, what I could see and hear and feel around me.

Steffensen undoubtedly understands a lot of science that I didn’t back then, but he has learned more from doing than from reading and writing. For decades he has striven to revive his people’s traditional knowledge, born of experience and passed down through the generations by example and the spoken word.

His story moves between two very different worlds: the natural world of his Cape York people and the highly structured world of institution and authority.

Apart from the land on which he grew up, his inspiration has been his mentors, tribal elders George Musgrave (“Poppy”) and Tommy George (“TG”). Like the rest of us, they had to learn to deal with authority. That was not an attractive proposition for Poppy and TG, whose childhoods were severely disrupted by government arrogance, indifference and ignorance.

Nor was it for Steffensen. As Poppy and TG handed over to him their fire knowledge and authority (Poppy died in 2006 and TG in 2016) and he became a leading voice in the fight for wider recognition of Indigenous fire expertise, he saw clearly what he was up against.

It isn’t hard to picture the scene, described many times in Steffensen’s book, when a ranger, fire officer or bureaucrat tells the would-be burners that, sorry, the law won’t allow you to do that. With some lateral thinking Steffensen often found ways around such obstacles, but it has remained a battle.

The Indigenous fire management implemented by Poppy, TG and Steffensen has been shown to work effectively right across northern Australia. Application of similar techniques in southern parts of the continent and Tasmania have been questioned because of differences in climate, vegetation and population.

But two hundred years without active human oversight and care has left our forested lands far more vulnerable to the devastation we witnessed last summer. In our planning for a wildfire-prone future, the full-time, low temperature, ecosystem-specific regimes practised in the tropical north deserve a permanent place at the official table.

Steffensen’s story is a sobering reminder of where our British-based administrative systems fail us. Facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, all of us, governed and governors alike, must seek to rediscover Earth’s natural rhythms and learn to work within them.

Each summer, waiting in our European cities for the next megafire, it’s worth considering whether pushing Indigenous people aside and pretending they don’t exist was – or is – such a good idea. Especially today, the day the British landed their version of civilisation on Australian shores.

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The continuing calamity of global warming

With temperatures rising at a fearsome rate, we need our political masters to cede policy power to real authorities.

As if the ructions caused by the global pandemic and political mayhem in the US weren’t enough, last week we were hit with the 2020 global temperature record.

Eventually we’ll probably get over the pandemic. The US along with the rest of the world might even settle back into some sort of business as usual. But economic and political news is really just an aside. The real deal is what’s happening to the global temperature.

On Friday the World Meteorological Organisation released its annual analysis of global mean temperature data from five leading state sources, coinciding with another report by the privately-funded, US-based Berkeley Earth. They all tell us that the planet’s fever is worsening.

The WMO concluded that 2020 ranked alongside 2016 as the warmest years on record, but that’s not the whole story. The 2016 record was set when the world was in the grip of a naturally-warming El Niño weather event, but from mid-2020 a cooling La Niña prevailed.

The final six years of the warmest decade on record, starting in 2011 and ending last year, were all warmer than any previous year. The WMO predicts that 2021 will still be among the hottest ever despite being cooled by the current La Niña.

It also holds out the possibility that the planet will exceed the “safe” Paris target of 1.5C of warming within just three years, and says we are now firmly on track to a catastrophic temperature rise of between 3C and 5C within a human lifetime. If that seems bearable, it isn’t. It would render most of the planet uninhabitable, and Australia would be among the hardest hit.

But the climate data, while concerning in itself, is just the tip of a mountain of growing evidence that as our collective activities and the sheer numbers of people on the planet continue to grow (despite the pandemic), we are undermining our life support systems.

Oceans and waterways are being contaminated with our toxic waste. Freshwater and food resources on every continent are diminishing. We are losing both wild nature and arable land at an unprecedented rate through urban sprawl and bad agricultural practices and policies, including excessive pesticide use, land-clearing and irrigation.

Our inability to respond effectively to these human impacts reflects badly on us all. The biggest burden must fall on those who govern the world’s most developed economies, including our own, and in the case of democratic countries, on the people who elected those governments. That’s us.

So what should our governments do? What should we be demanding of them?

The wickedest part of this wicked policy problem is the fact that the full outcome of our excessive carbon pollution today is not revealed in the temperature signal for many years. The pandemic has shown how difficult it is to maintain a disciplined policy approach when the delay in impact is just a few weeks. How much more difficult is it when the lag is so much longer?

Australia needs to look no further than its own shores. The virus is contained (fingers crossed) here because governments were sufficiently spooked to invite public health specialists into the inner sanctum of power, even ceding authority to them in front of television cameras on a daily basis.

In most other parts of the world this is not the case, and we only have to look at national infection and death data to see the horrific results. There is a parallel here with climate policy responses, except that the potential outcome in the case of climate is massively greater.

The incoming Biden administration in the US plans to respond to the climate crisis with new authorities able to enforce urgently-needed policy reforms, to cut emissions at home and resume that country’s leadership role globally.

Remember the Climate Change Authority, set up under Julia Gillard’s government in 2012? That had the potential to become something with real teeth, a centre of expertise and executive power able to direct governments on policy changes that would make a difference on the ground.

But it has never come to anything because no elected official has been willing to cede that power. Tony Abbott tried to abolish it; it survived but sits on the outermost rim of government, an empty shell ignored by its political masters.

While a slow-burning global environmental crisis threatens to engulf us, our government refuses to yield power to expertise. To understand the impact of this policy failure, we need look no further than those countries now reeling from a pandemic out of control.

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