Environmentalists once saw abstraction as the biggest obstacle to climate action. How, they wondered, could one focus the public on the distant future?
Today, we confront the opposite problem, with the very immediacy of the crisis generating a strange paralysis.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global heating made extreme flooding more commonits new report at the end of February spurred relatively little discussion – in part because of the water covering swathes of Queensland and New South Wales.
As tinnies plucked desperate residents from the deluge, who could give due weight to the warning from Prof Brendan Mackey, one of the IPPC authors, that the science clearly projected “an increase of heavy rainfall events?”
The urgency of rescuing flood victims muffled the impact of a document that the UN secretary general, António Guterres, described as “an atlas of human suffering”. It also diverted attention from a previous manifestation of that suffering: the 2019/2020 Black Summer fires that burned out 84m acres of land and killed at least 33 people.
That crisis remains far from resolved, with more than half of the $2.74bn pledged by the Morrison government to bushfire recovery still unallocated.
Yet, as the scale of recent flood damage becomes more apparent, the Black Summer survivors might legitimately wonder as to whether they’ll be remembered or not.
In 2007, for instance, the Garnaut climate change review predicted “longer dry spells broken by heavier rainfall events”; in 2015, scientists found that global warming increased the frequency of La Niña events; in 2016, the Department of Energy and the Environment published a State of the Climate report which warned of more intense floods.
A comparable dossier might be assembled about bushfires, beginning with the 2003 report that explained how “climate change throughout the present century is predicted to lead to increased temperatures and, with them, a heightened risk of unplanned fire.”
In 2007, the IPCC warned that “heatwaves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency”; in 2008, the National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management explained that “Fires’ frequency, intensity, and size are expected to increase under climate change.”
But despite all of that, in 2017, Scott Morrison chose to borrow a “prop” from his friends at the Minerals Council of Australia to wave in the House of Representatives.
“This is coal,” he laughed. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you!”
A few years later, the same Scott Morrison stood in a ruined Lismore and mused: “Australia is getting hard to live in because of these disasters.”
With the right climate policy we might have transitioned away from fossil fuels under conditions of relative stability. Instead, we’ve allowed the symptoms of ecological breakdown to proliferate so greatly as to render addressing underlying causes increasingly difficult.
“I’ve never seen so many natural disasters…” said the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk. “[M]ore cyclones, more floods, a couple of years ago… we had the catastrophic fire event in central Queensland.”
But even as Palaszczuk acknowledged the role of the climate crisis in the recent catastrophes, she doubled down on her state’s output of fossil fuels.
“Queensland is lucky,” she said. “We have coal, we have gas, and we have huge renewable investment, which is going to really rapidly increase over the next 10 years.”
One presumes that, with a multibillion-dollar flood bill looming and many of its homeless citizens, the state doesn’t want to forgo the mining revenue on which it has traditionally relied.
What an illustration of the mess in which we find ourselves – reliant on coal to pay for the damage coal brings!
In a different context, the sociologist C Wright Mills outlined what he called “crackpot realism”, a perfectly reasonable political consensus on its own terms but utterly deranged from the perspective of the species.
Most scientists attribute the proliferation of pandemics to environmental degradation: deforestation and uncontrolled urbanization increase the likelihood of pathogens crossing over from animals to humans.
So, logically, Covid-19 should have spurred a ceasefire in the war on nature. But that’s not what happened. Carbon emissions have now rebounded to their highest level in human historyas, in response to the Covid downturn, politicians relied on coal to reboot their economies.
The same “crackpot realism” manifests in relation to Ukraine.
as the British academic Helen Thompson notesit’s been obvious for decades that “addressing climate change would be constrained by geopolitics, and that choices about which new energy sources to develop would have geopolitical consequences.”
The west’s refusal to quit fossil fuels thus facilitated Russia’s imperial ambitions. Paradoxically, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has now emboldened those most committed to further pollution.
The Nationals’ Matt Canavanfor instance, say that the war means Australians should “stop trying to save the planet by building a green economy, and instead defend Australia by rebuilding our industrial base.”
If we once hoped that real-world manifestations of the climate emergency would, in and of themselves, force world leaders to change, we should quit kidding ourselves. It’s now clear the reverse holds true: that each fresh environmental calamity sends the wealthy and the powerful, like dogs returning to their vomit, to the cheap profits of the carbon economy.
As disaster chases disaster, we need to hold our leaders’ feet to the flames – and, for that matter, to the water. That means drawing the links between global heating and the proliferation of “one-in-1000-year” occurrences and insisting on climate action, even (or perhaps especially) amid economic and political uncertainty.
Yes, the “crackpot realists” of the political class will scoff. They’ll say we’re naive and dismiss us as utopians.
Mills had a response to such people. “[P]recisely what they call utopian,” he said, “is now the condition of human survival.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism