Australia’s politicians will not be alive when climate impacts accelerate
If a plastics factory dumps toxic sludge into a river, we see, in days, the consequences. If a coal-fired power station in New South Wales dumps carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the impacts diffuse into a stupidly big sheet of roiling fluid film covering our planet, and the consequences manifest among a trillion hyperactive climate variables.
As you peer further into the future, the impacts of climate change get worse, and consequently, easier to detect on a personal, lived scale. They get so bad that I feel silly talking literally about them:
“In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilisations”
Average, middle-of-the-road scenarios now read like worst-case, disaster-movie plots. But, as horrible as they are, they’re distant – decades, rather than years, into the future.
This distance reduces concern for the people who are well aware that they’re likely to expire before these scenarios become physical reality. As James Hennessy writes in a criminally underrated (read the whole thing) piece of generational frustration:
“The loudest and most powerful voices when it comes to the future of the planet — the ones with their hands on the levers of power — have a strong tactical advantage: they will be dead before the shit really hits the fan”
Thinking about the future is a tricky challenge. Canberra-based Research Fellow and climate scientist Sophie Lewis created this graphic recently, to add a human element to the often confusing climate forecasts:
I wrote about this approach here, and I still think it’s an incredibly effective way of resetting a conversation that has begun to run a little dry. But I was also wondering about combining Hennessy’s piece and Lewis’ visual language, illustrating the I’ll-be-dead-so-I-don’t-care attitude over the top of climate forecasts.
Australia’s parliament is currently made of people who skew older than Australia’s current population. As an example, here’s data from the 45th Parliament:
Some of this makes sense – for instance, we shouldn’t expect many parliamentarians aged between 0 and 4. But the general over-45ness of parliamentarians means the people who might be living through the decades of major climate impacts, and paying the price for the decisions of today’s leaders, are not represented.
Sophie Lewis helped me find some climate change data relating to Australia, on the great, detailed site ‘Climate change in Australia’ (disclaimer: co-developed by my ex-employer, CSIRO). Specifically, the ‘time series‘ explorer lets us look at Eastern Australia’s temperature changes, in an ‘RCP 8.5′ scenario – basically, no one does anything from a policy perspective, to fix climate change:
We can take the data from the 45th parliament (and the less detailed data from the 43rd and 44th parliaments), combine it with average life expectancy for Australians, and get a rough estimate of the number of members of those parliaments who will be alive when those forecasts really start to climb:
By about 2070, it’s likely the last remaining representatives of Australia’s most recent era of climate politics will expire. Without strong climate action, annual average temperatures in Australia will be around 2 to 4 degrees higher. Under RCP 4.5, in which moderate climate policies make emissions peak in 2040, this is around 0.5 to 2.5 degrees higher.
A cohort of students currently in an Australian high school, born from 2001 to 2006, will experience something like this (with Parliament 45 left on for comparison):
In their later years, these high school kids will be experiencing average annual temps between 3 to 5 degrees higher than today. If we look at a hypothetical cohort of Australians born roughly around today, with an age distribution that matches parliament’s current mix, they’ll be sworn into power somewhere around 2090, probably Australia’s 70th parliament. They’ll see temperatures between 3 and 6 degrees higher than today:
Australia 70th parliament, assuming continued insufficient climate action, will look back on this current period, when we could have done something but didn’t, with a fury that I doubt we can come close to imagining, but a fury we will absolutely deserve.
As you guessed, this is the bit where I disclaim that, of course, Not all Boomers are emotionally deadened on climate by virtue of their age. I’ve been to plenty of climate marches in which my generation has made a poor showing, and the crowd was a head of silver-haired activists. But this specific subset is not reflected in broad survey data.
In Australia, and around the world, younger people are more worried about climate change, want more action, and are more likely to accept the science underpinning it. More specifically, in the past five years, young people have become seriously worried. Older people have remained steadfastly unbothered:
The School Strike climate movement, spearheaded by a Swedish teenager, seems like a natural and long-fermenting release of frustration and anger at this extremely strong pattern of attitude differences between generations, on climate. Greta Thunberg’s protest movement is powerful , but governments around the world keep ignoring the pleas for action.
Australia’s government, for instance, is, currently, failing to implement (or even propose) policy that effectively reduces Australia’s emissions. It is also sabotaging global efforts. This is happening for a range of reasons, including a paralysing fear of leadership and a web of social and financial connections between political players and fossil fuel industries.
I contend that we can say, with confidence, that one of those reasons is the simple and under-appreciated fact that every politician failing on climate change will also be happily expired when the actual consequences of their decisions manifest.