Australia: Ground Zero of Climate Politics

At a time when the toll of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent in both human and economic costs, recent events have also revealed the role corruption plays in the policy intractability around the issue. In Australia, where unprecedented bushfires have galvanized attention on the issue, the revolving door from fossil fuel lobbying to politics and back to the industry rewards denial and stymies progress.

The Australian bushfire storms may yet prove to be a tipping point in global climate consciousness. Or, like the images of Hurricane Katrina (when we thought that changed everything), or the satellite images of disappearing Arctic ice, the modern human family may just turn the page to the next big story. As I write this, that next big story is the coronavirus.

But it is worth considering: the koala bears and their burned paws, the silhouette of the leaping kangaroo with a backdrop of the inferno, the tornado cloud made of flame—these images might just save us.

We are perilously near other “tipping points”—the real and irreversible ones that represent an atmospheric point of no return. Still, our climate discourse is remarkably soporific and sophomoric. Politicians around the world (at least, those who claim to want climate action) talk of “meeting our Paris targets,” without knowing what they are or understanding what they would mean. And, of course, global bullies like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump make even those climate pretenders look good.

We really do need to understand just a little basic climate science. Beyond the confusing political babble of percentage cuts and shifting base years, there are some absolutes, things we know with certainty. We know (thanks to the analysis of air bubbles in Antarctic ice cores) that over nearly the last million years atmospheric CO2 never exceeded 280 parts per million. We know that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now well above 400 ppm. We know that we’ve forced these changes—slowly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and rapidly in the last half of the 20th century.

In cold periods, the ice ages, there was far less carbon dioxide inside the little bubble of our atmosphere (Carl Sagan once compared it to a layer of saran wrap around a basketball), but there were trace amounts, enough to keep the planet warm enough for human life to take hold. But even in the warmest periods, of tropical jungles at the poles, it never went above 280 ppm. When one considers that narrow band of atmospheric CO2 over a million years of earth’s history, the force of going from 280ppm to over 400ppm in a cosmic blink of an eye should get peoples’ attention.

No scientist will hazard a guess as to when “too late” really is. But we do know with certainty that with every increase in the concentrations of CO2, we are worsening the odds that human civilization will remain functional to the end of this century. We are gambling. We won’t beat the house.

The big danger is unleashing something referred to as “hot house Earth” or runaway global warming. The risk is from “positive feedback loops.” The carbon we put into the atmosphere sets in motion natural events which themselves put more carbon into the atmosphere, and so we accelerate the whole process.

Positive feedback loops come, for example, from melting permafrost that releases methane that warms the atmosphere that melts the permafrost and so on, from forest fires releasing CO2 that warms the atmosphere that dries the forest, and so on; from Arctic ice melting away and reflecting less sunlight and making the oceans warmer and melting more ice, and so on. And so, on and on. The big tipping point is unleashing self-accelerating, unstoppable warming.

British Columbia’s forests offer a key example of economic loss and damage from two positive feedback loop events. The first, the pine beetle epidemic, killed an area of forest as large as New England. Before the climate crisis, a cold snap in winter would have knocked out burgeoning beetle populations. So, a warming world led to the epidemic, which itself left standing dead trees—which in positive feedback loop fashion released more carbon one year than all human activity in B.C.

Feedback loop zinger-number-two was that the dead trees became standing and fallen fuel. Hot dry summers led to the tinder dry conditions for the extraordinary fire seasons that released massively more carbon dioxide, while leading to Beijing-like air quality in Victoria—far from the fires.

The fires in Australia in the 2019-2020 season were also caused by the hot dry conditions. Australian scientists have been warning of more forest fires due to global warming for years. Leading Australian scientist Dr. Tim Flannery, author of the global 2005 best-seller The Weather Makers, wrote recently:

“The first scientific report warning of an increase in dangerous fires was published in 1985. Australia’s Climate Council (for which I’m the chief councillor) has published eleven reports over the past six years warning of the increasing danger of bushfires as fire intensity strengthens and the fire season gets longer,” he wrote in the mid-January issue of the bi-weekly New York Review of Books.

This year’s fires have emitted more than 250 megatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere, roughly half of the total amount of Australia’s emissions in 2018. And, of course, they killed at least 24 people and millions of animals, destroyed 2,000 homes, burned 18 million acres, and hit the Australian economy hard.

Yet, Australia, like Canada, is one of the world’s worst performers in climate action. Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia and the United States are ranked the lowest in the industrialized world in terms of real climate action.

I have to believe—because I refuse to accept an unlivable world for my grandchildren—that humanity is on the verge of a massive economic shift to reject fossil fuels. So, it is sobering to read what Tim Flannery thinks Australia’s political leadership will do, again in the New York Review of Books:

“A significant minority of federal conservative politicians are climate change deniers, as well as part of the ‘revolving door’ system of Australian politics—whereby politicians enter as lobbyists for the fossil-fuel industry, emerge as government ministers, and then exit politics to become directors of fossil-fuel companies.

“I’m fairly certain that Australia’s bushfire crisis will not change this system. The next federal election is two and a half years away, and there’s just too much self-interest—too much money to be made pandering to the fossil-fuel industry—even if the cost of it is to send the country up in smoke.”

Similarly, most Canadian media pundits see nothing wrong with the prospect of the Trudeau administration spending billions in public funds to build a new pipeline. The new price tag on the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) is over $12.6 billion, up from $5.4 billion, in addition to the $4.5 billion Ottawa paid in 2018 to acquire the existing pipeline and route from Kinder Morgan.

We are operating in a fog. Or maybe it’s just the smoke. Perhaps the light from the fires of Australia may finally help us see things clearly.

As published in Policy Magazine,