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When Will Australia’s Prime Minister Accept the Reality of the Climate Crisis?


When Prime Minister Scott Morrison took Australia’s top office, in August, 2018, the leadership of his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, had been in question for months, if not years, by his coalition of right-leaning National and Liberal parties. But the final blow came after Turnbull supported a national energy plan that would have moderately reduced the power sector’s reliance on fossil fuels, thereby cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigating global climate change. In an attempt to save himself, at the eleventh hour, Turnbull backed off enshrining any emissions reductions into law, but it was too late. Morrison was elected by Liberal lawmakers in a backroom coup, and quickly declared that Turnbull’s energy plan was dead. His commitment to fossil fuels was already well known. As recently as 2017, when he was Australia’s treasurer—and when, according to the International Energy Agency, Australia exported more coal than any other country in the world—he brought a lump of coal to Parliament and presented it to his fellow-members as if they were primary-school students. “This is coal. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be scared! Won’t hurt you,” he said. He did not mention that the coal had been shellacked to prevent his hands from getting dirty.

Morrison’s tenure as Prime Minister has since been marked by his refusal to acknowledge the scientifically confirmed link between the fossil-fuel industry and climate change. Through the remainder of 2018, a severe drought and record-setting heat waves led hundreds of thousands of flying foxes to fall dead from the sky. That year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found, among many other terrifying climate impacts, that the Great Barrier Reef will die entirely if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Already it has seen extensive coral bleaching and death.) The spring of 2019 was Australia’s driest on record. But, instead of changing his stance, Morrison championed a pro-fossil-fuel policy that included plans for a new coal-fired power plant, and the allocation of ten million dollars toward a study assessing whether to revive a decommissioned coal plant in Queensland. The Labor party, meanwhile, campaigned against him on a platform of greater climate action, including more aggressive emissions-reductions targets. No one expected Morrison to win reëlection; polls suggested that a majority of voters were concerned about climate change. But low turnout and apathy due, in part, to the generally unstable nature of Australian politics—no Prime Minister has lasted a full term in more than a decade—contributed to a surprise victory for Morrison, in May of 2019. On Election Night, he told a crowd, “I have always believed in miracles.”

Perhaps that is why Morrison insisted that coal “won’t hurt you,” when, of course, it will. Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Shutting down all coal-power plants is imperative to limiting increases in global temperature, and eliminating coal, especially in O.E.C.D. countries like Australia, is the lowest-hanging fruit in the transition to renewable energy. (According to one report, O.E.C.D. countries could conceivably end coal use entirely by 2030.) There is widespread scientific consensus that the increase in temperatures that we have already seen—a global average of 1.1 degrees Celsius—has contributed to Australia’s terrifying, devastating fire season, by creating ever drier and hotter conditions. But, as recently as November, Morrison threatened to outlaw climate activism, a day after protests at a mining conference in Melbourne led to skirmishes with police. “We are working to identify serious mechanisms,” Morrison said, “that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow-Australians.”

In December, the country reached its highest national average temperature ever, with some places hovering around a hundred and fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. These conditions quickly created a hellscape of devastating bushfires that continue with no end in sight. Thousands of homes have been turned to ash, several towns have been obliterated, and twenty-eight people have died. Smoke from the fire has blanketed cities. In December, the air quality in Sydney was eleven times the hazardous level; on New Year’s Day, in Australia’s capital, Canberra, where Morrison lives in the official Prime Minister’s residence, known as the Lodge, the air quality was more than twenty-five times the hazardous level. Residents were advised to stay indoors. The fires have killed as many as a billion animals, too, wiping out a third of the koalas in New South Wales, and possibly putting some species dangerously close to extinction, including the eastern bristlebird, the southern corroboree frog, and the mountain pygmy possum. The fires have been so hot, and so widespread (megafires were created when two fires joined), that they have generated their own weather, including uncontrollable fire tornadoes, formed when spinning winds build massive columns of fires, ash, vapor, and debris. Areas that almost never burn, including rain forests home to rare, endemic species, have alighted. Even Australian climate scientists, who have known for years that global heating would increase the severity of the bushfire season, have been horrified by the fires’ scale. Virginia Young, an Australian forest expert, told the Washington Post that she believes the country is on the verge of a “major ecological shift.”

The Australian government, with Morrison at the helm, has not handled the crisis well. Morrison ignored requests from a group of former firefighters for a meeting last spring, in which they planned to warn him of the need for more water bombers. In December, despite the increasing intensity and speed at which many bushfires were spreading, he took a holiday to Hawaii, only prompted to return early after the death of two volunteer firemen. During his first day back in the office, he told a Sydney radio station that he was still considering new coal-fired power plants. “You need the whole mix,” he said. “I am quite agnostic, just as long as it is reliable and cheaper.” He added, “There’ll be lots of shouting noises elsewhere, but I tend to listen to those quiet, still voices.” He has been heckled on visits to towns that were destroyed, with residents and firefighters refusing to shake his hand. While touring the town of Cobargo, a town that was scorched, a protester told Morrision that he should be “ashamed of himself,” that he had “left the country to burn.” On Friday, hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens marched in the streets to protest his leadership, to oppose new coal mines—including the huge Carmichael coal mine, owned by India’s Adani Enterprises, which the federal government approved in June—and to demand policies that would reduce the nation’s fossil-fuel emissions. They chanted “Scomo has got to go,” while online the mocking hashtag #scottyfrommarketing was trending, a reference to his background working in marketing, including a stint as the managing director of Tourism Australia.

Morrison was unmoved. On Sunday, after another volunteer firefighter had died overnight, Morrison, in an in-depth interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, called this bushfire season, and the changing climate, “the new normal” but gave no indication that he would change his policy stance and transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, he called for a high-level inquiry into the government’s response to the fires, what some observers said is an easy way to make it seem like he cares without actually doing anything. He also emphasized prevention and adaptation measures to deal with the impacts. “It isn’t just restricted to bushfires,” he said. “It deals with floods. It deals with cyclones. It deals with the drought, which is affected by these broader issues. Adaptation and resilience is key to that. Building dams is key to that. Native-vegetation management is key to that. Land clearing is key to that. Where you can build homes is key to that.” He added, “That is as much a climate-change response as emissions reduction.” Although it’s true that adaptation is necessary and urgent, it absolutely cannot be all that any government does to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

For now, it seems, Australia will remain reliant on coal. On Wednesday, Morrison told reporters in Canberra, “Our resources industry is incredibly important to Australia.” The country remains the world’s second-largest exporter of thermal coal (the kind used to make electricity), after Indonesia. In 2018, the country sent two hundred million metric tons, worth twenty-six billion dollars, to China, Japan, and other countries in Southeast Asia. That number is declining slowly, as China increasingly relies on its own domestic production, and both China and Japan move away from dirty coal. But Australia still also gets a third of its own electricity from coal-power plants, making it one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita, and Morrison’s government was partly responsible, at the United Nations climate talks in December, for blocking negotiations on policies designed to advance global climate goals. If countries like Australia continue to act like a dead weight on the energy transition, then all the adaptations Morrison mentioned—the entirety of his “climate-change response”—will be virtually inconsequential. Warming will continue unabated, and great swaths of that continent, and the rest of the planet, will become uninhabitable. Tragedies like these bushfires can no longer be considered natural disasters. On January 2nd, Morrison attended the funeral for Geoffrey Keaton, one of the firefighters who had died on the job. At a press conference afterward, he was asked about his climate policies. “This is a natural disaster,” he said. “We cannot control the natural disaster, but what we can do is control our response.”

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