Greater trust in a fossil fuelled government should spark dread, not cheer

Did you know that it’s still 2020? Yep, sorry. Still another four days to go. Soon, the clocks will tick over and we’ll watch chemicals combust colourfully in the atmosphere; a silly and obvious metaphor for the unstoppable background drumbeat that is climate change. I don’t have what it takes to wrap up 2020, but a few things I read today make me think about 2021. Here are those thoughts.

I don’t live in Australia anymore (I might return at some point), but I’ve retained a healthy obsession with its climate and energy issues. Australia continues to be a globally significant player on climate, in the worst way. It supplies an incredible quantity of fossil fuels to the world, in the form of coal and processed fossil gas. Please enjoy this painfully huge chart I made:

From the 2019 UNEP production gap report.

This time last year, Australia got the place it deserves in global media, but for a terrible reason: it was on fire. The Black Summer bushfire crisis ripped through its heart and stole the sun away. That thermonuclear solar symbol was shrouded behind a cloud of bushfire smoke; a crisis intensified by the burning of fossil fuels. The debate that followed was teeth-gnashingly point-missing: “Australia’s emissions are only 1% of the world’s”, as if the supply to other countries doesn’t count. “None of my policies did this”, as if the decades-long history of Australia’s geopolitical climate shenanigans isn’t even worth mentioning.

There is a strong bipartisan agreement on maintaining Australia’s bloated position on fossil fuel supply. On domestic emissions, the conservative Liberal-National Party seeks to delay the transition as much as possible, and the centre-left Labor opposition sort of hints sometimes that it might go faster; always framing that in a quasi-nationalistic “renewable superpower” economic frame. Neither want to ramp down domestic emissions in line with a 1.5C climate target,. The Labor party’s leader says Australia will still be mining coal in 2050. The Prime Minister tried punishing the energy market by revenge-building a fossil gas power station. The year closed off with the government openly considering an inquiry into any bank that refuses to lend money to harmful and dangerous fossil fuel projects. This worldview that seeks to maximise emissions (through their increase, or the delay of their decrease) is a deadly, cultish and horrific thing to spectate, but it is a widely held and broadly accepted one.

Public anger was rising in late 2019, pre-bushfires, but the second those bushfires were extinguished the COVID19 pandemic flared up across the world. As covered in Guardian Australia, a few new surveys tracking trust in governments show that the public has responded positively to how Australia’s government has handled the COVID19 crisis. Trust in politicians has lifted across the board. This was celebrated as a “post-partisan” sign of hope by Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy, and by Essential Vision’s Peter Lewis.

“When there are shared facts and values, and when governments are seen to be broadly competent and connected to the needs of citizenry, politicians lay the foundations of trust, because citizens are bound together rather than occupying detached alternative realities”, wrote Murphy. “The prime minister, Scott Morrison, who started the year under fire for being seen to dodge his responsibilities as the nation burned, has embedded his positive standing with the Australian public”, wrote Lewis.

Both pieces briefly mention climate change, but that briefness is weird. If you take time to dig into that comparison, you realise how little has changed. If anything, COVID19 worsened this, with plenty of new public money pouring into fossil fuel industries in Australia, and public championing of both gas and coal coming from both major parties; totally unaffected by bushfires and the pandemic.

This is, in fact, a brilliant example of “shared facts and values” and “bipartisanship”. Everybody wants a brick on the accelerator of fossil fuel supply; both major parties dance nervously around setting domestic action at a speed that reflects a desire to protect human life (different tunes; same steps). “Hugging these commonalities allowed important points of detail to be contested – vigorously at times – without the over-arching public health strategy unravelling”, wrote Murphy. That too is true of climate politics in Australia, but in the exact and literal opposite sense: it allows both major parties to figure out ways to damage public health to maximise their enrichment without too much debate about the fundamentals.

To give an example: both the Labor party and the government in Australia outwardly champion the use and sale of fossil gas in eye-watering quantities, and will simply allow that industry to continue unabated, essentially forever. They are rarely asked about the bushfires that will burn longer and more intensely due to the mining, processing and burning of that gas because ignoring that is a commonality, and it is hugged by all involved, without the over-arching public harm strategy unravelling.

Bipartisanship as a cure-all for modern crises ignores the current high levels of bipartisanship on using and supplying a deadly product for the purposes of personal enrichment. What happens if everyone agrees on cruelty? Is it rude and unserious and just unpolite to fight against that?

Much of Australia subscribes to the view that worsening climate harm is pretty much okay, as long as it benefits Australians. That same Essential polling that showed increasing levels of trust? Only one third of Australia support shutting down coal mines and coal power ASAP (exactly the same as February 2020; in the midst of those fires). 42% support public subsidies for fossil fuels; 49% support new coal mines. True moments of pushback, like the climate marches of 2019, fizzled due to COVID19 gathering restrictions.

That there is increased trust in the political arm of the carbon death cult is dangerous. It doesn’t signify better things to come in 2021. It signifies that the reality shared between Australia’s political, corporate and conservative media classes will be met with greater acceptance and less scrutiny, even as the world begins taking bigger steps away from these deadly decisions.

Of course, the only way out of this is shattering that “shared reality” in which the release of greenhouse gases for personal benefit is rendered consequence free. Support for renewable energy is vital but insufficient. Shutting down fossil fuel industry and infrastructure fast is also vital, but no one really wants to tackle that one. Disagreement with this vile state of affairs and an increased focus on its human and natural cost are the only way out of stagnation – uncompromising, fact-driven and well-researched, but also passionate and angry and as outraged as is justified, which is very, very fucking outraged. The perpetrators of the greatest threat we face do not deserve our trust.

  1. You nailed it Ketan. My hope, as a soon to be retired school teacher, is that the climate marchers from the citizens of tomorrow will be out in force again, eventually. And like last time, there will be lots of us grey haired ones there to support them. Those who’ve seen what we’ve lost, and those who dread what they’ll have to live through and deal with, are nTural allies. Not sure how you speak to the apathetic ones in the middle.


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