In coal-dependent Australia, a national crisis is unfolding that threatens its very democracy
Imagine a disaster movie where a whole continent is on fire after decades of increasing heat and drought. The air is thick with smoke, and daytime skies turn black at the fire fronts. The population is at the mercy of a climate-denying leader in the pocket of the coal, oil, and gas industry. A maniacal media mogul controls information to the public, and shields industry by blaming the apocalypse on arsonists, environmentalists, and poor land management.
Welcome to Australia.
Fires have burned for 11 weeks in seven of Australia’s eight states. At least 30 people are thought to have died, 17 million hectares have burned (43 million acres), and one-third of the country’s population has been impacted with more hot weather to come. Up to a billion animals have died, and the habitats of threatened species like koalas devastated.
The tyranny of King Coal
For decades, scientists, experts, and NGOs have said Australia must act to end its dependence on coal, and transition from exporting coal and gas (Australia is the world leader in both) to renewable energy. But their warnings have fallen on deaf ears.
Despite the raging fires, the major political parties – Liberals, Nationals and Labor — refuse to stand up to the might and dollars of mining magnates such as Gina Reinhart (Australia’s richest person) or the irrepressible Clive Palmer. After seeing one of his iron ore businesses go under, Palmer personally spent A$60m on campaign ads in the last federal election to ensure the most mining-friendly government was re-elected.
And of course, there is Rupert Murdoch. His fierce climate change denial agenda dominates vast portions of Australia’s media, making it difficult for all anyone to get a word in other than what Murdoch critics call the “anti-science death cult.”
The flip side is Australia’s business leaders across virtually every sector – investment, banking, tech, agriculture, tourism, even mining have demanded national climate action for years via direct lobbying, and open letters. This, too, though, has largely fallen on deaf political ears.
But this may be changing. BlackRock’s decision to sell $500 million in coal investments will directly impact at least five Australian mines and companies.
Scotty from Marketing
Australia’s fires also expose the complete failure of leadership by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Nicknamed Scotty from Marketing, Smoko, and The Liar from the Shire, Morrison famously serenaded a lump of coal in Parliament and took a family vacation to Hawaii in December whilst his country burned. Cursed on camera and in social media by firefighters, journalists, and fire victims alike, it’s hard to think of a national leader more loathed.
So what now?
So what can the thinking people of Australia do in this leadership void? Plenty. Aussie comedian Celeste Barbar took to Facebook to raise more than US$30million to support the largely volunteer Rural Fire Service. Celebrities are jumping in with Chris Hemsworth and Keith Urban donating millions. National campaigns to stop the Adani coal mine and oil drilling in the environmentally important Great Australian Bight may still be victorious. And while we have virtually no national climate change policies, citizens are themselves making the switch to renewable energy at a remarkable rate. One in five Australians have rooftop solar on their homes, and numbers are climbing. A$20billion was invested in large-scale renewable projects in 2018 and 22 percent of the country’s energy coming from hydro, wind, solar, and a mix of other renewable sources. Market analysis predicts that the current wind and solar pipeline could make this coal-rich country coal-free by 2040, largely without policy federal government support.
Climate change deniers are feeling the burn
As the ashes finally settle, a political reckoning on climate is underway. PM Morrison now says that he’s “always” believed in climate change – contrary to public statements. The fires are also proving to be a catalyst for new action from the nation’s states and businesses. Even Australia’s conservative media has finally acknowledged climate change but in a perversely twisted way. Up to now, the media has blamed the fires on everything but climate change. Now their tune has changed from there is no “such thing as climate change” to “it’s too late to do anything to stop climate change.”
With the cataclysmic cost of Australia’s national fire emergency rising by the day, it’s pretty clear the era of climate denial is over. What is less clear is what comes next.