On trial: Australia’s dismal climate record

The pandemic lays bare a truth leaders consistently ignore: in the end, nature reigns supreme.

It ought to be worth noting that last month was Earth’s hottest September over the 140-year global temperature record, or that this year is in record territory even without an El Nino, or that warming over the past 12 months was just 0.2C below the internationally agreed “safe” limit.

But that was in a week of unheard-of budget deficit numbers, when Europe succumbed to a second COVID-19 wave, when the White House became a pandemic hotspot and the FBI foiled a plot to kidnap a governor and stir up civil war. How can climate data compete with that?

The sad fact is that new temperature records have next to no impact in a world that has become hardened against climate shocks, a situation encouraged by an unholy coalition of political and corporate interests which over many decades have worked hard to obscure the true story.

As a nation, we ought to be up in arms about the Morrison government’s plans to ramp up methane extraction, based on the false claim that generating power by burning natural gas is somehow clean energy. But we’re not. It seems that in a pandemic you don’t question and don’t argue.

The pandemic is bad and generally getting worse getting worse as countries battle with competing health and economic demands. But at least, on the whole, governments recognise that COVID-19 constitutes an emergency and that urgent measures are needed to counter it.

What they don’t see is that the pandemic emergency sits within a bigger emergency. For all its devastation – and we should never downplay its impact on lives and livelihoods – in the long run we know it will end. That cannot be said about the all-enveloping catastrophe of climate change.

Climate change is an emergency for one reason only: with very few exceptions governments around the world, our own included, have ignored the clear imperative to stop the burning of fossil fuels, the principal cause of rising carbon dioxide levels in our air.

This failure, compounded over 30 years, has brought general warming, more heat waves, accelerated polar ice melting and sea level rise, more extreme storm and fire events, and a global ocean growing warmer, more acidic, less amenable to thriving marine ecosystems. It means a climate that is less stable and a world less safe for our children and grandchildren.

Knowing this, and frustrated by the repeated refusal of governments to act, some people have moved outside normal processes like petition and peaceful protest. Extinction Rebellion, which seeks to get attention by illegal actions like obstructing traffic, is an extreme form of this.

I find such behaviour perfectly understandable. These are acts of despair, stemming from a belief that our governing systems have failed us. But in times when governance itself is under great stress, going outside the law cannot solve the crisis. We have to find ways to make the system work better.

Litigation and divestment are two potent legal and financial levers that hold much promise. A case brought this year against the federal government promises to pull both of them.

Katta O’Donnell, a 23-year-old La Trobe University law student, grew up in Victoria’s central highlands. She experienced the impact of long-term drought on that landscape, and twice in 11 years saw it devastated by unstoppable wildfire. Last year, inspired by a lecture by Australian climate law specialist David Barnden, she decided it was time to act.

With Barnden’s help, O’Donnell filed a federal court claim alleging that the Australian government was breaching its legal duty and misleading sovereign bond investors by failing to disclose climate-driven financial risks, such as stranded fossil fuel assets and worsening environmental conditions.

In identifying a material risk to the market in government bonds everywhere, her action attracted attention globally, including in business circles in Europe and the United States alert to any sign of future financial loss.

Australia’s troubled environment, she told me last week, puts it on the front line of the climate crisis. Coral bleaching threatens Great Barrier Reef tourism, drought is lowering our capacity to grow food, and last summer’s bushfires will cost us upwards of $100 billion. Such tangible threats prompted Sweden to sell its Australian bonds last November.

The pandemic is telling us that fiscal and monetary controls, budgets and banks and all the rest of our economic constructs and artifices can’t hide the fact that it is nature, above all, that determines wealth, or its absence. We should all take that message to heart and welcome O’Donnell’s initiative as a long-overdue wakeup call.

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