Published 20 February 2020
The catastrophic bushfires which have burned for months up and down the eastern Australian seaboard have once again put climate change front and centre in our political discourse. While politicians (and the conservative media) have for some time dismissed climate change as a concern, the shift in public sentiment in the aftermath of the fires has resulted in a grudging acceptance by the Morrison government that climate change is a reality. Former deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who had previously gone to great lengths denying climate change admitted on a recent 60 Minutes bushfires special not only that “the climate is changing” but that the bushfires are a consequence of this changing climate. Even arch climate change denying columnist Andrew Bolt of the Murdoch-owned Herald Sun recently conceded that human activity is warming the planet (albeit arguing that “it will be good for us”). The times they are a changing, or so it seems.
However, behind this grudging acceptance of the reality of human-induced climate disruption another political strategy is unfolding; promoting the idea that the only practical way to respond to climate impacts is through better local adaptation and greater “resilience”. Such framing has been front and centre in the Prime Minister’s pronouncements in the wake of the epic heat and bushfires, echoed in the line that “we must build our resilience for the future.“ Whether it’s the drought, the decimation of major river systems like the Murray-Darling, the mortal threat to the Great Barrier Reef arising from heat-induced coral bleaching, catastrophic flooding events, or bushfires that now burn earlier and more intensely each spring and summer, the political rhetoric of adaptation and resilience reappears as the preferred political response.
There is no doubt that the communities, individuals and brave firefighters who survived those devastating blazes demonstrated amazing resilience, courage and fortitude in not only fighting the fires but also dealing with the resulting loss and destruction. However, the political discourse of resilience does them a disservice. When the Prime Minister speaks about “adaptation and resilience” he is articulating a rhetorical response to the obvious community anger of a government that has failed to safeguard its citizens from a threat that scientists have long anticipated.
Despite hastily announced government funding initiatives to respond to the bushfire crisis, this was ultimately a reactive response to growing public criticism of government inaction and a PM missing in action. When fire chiefs two years ago set out the need for government investment in a fleet of water-bombing aircraft (exactly the sort of infrastructure that would be needed for a future of worsening firestorms), the government response was stony silence.
In reality, the government discourse of adaptation and resilience is political spin to distract from the serious conversation that is needed around decarbonizing our economy and reducing our country’s contribution to a worsening climate crisis. While, governments worldwide proclaim their acceptance of “the science” what is missing is any tangible policy initiatives which meaningfully respond to the scale and urgency of the crisis. To avoid greater than 2 degrees Celsius average warming, the world needs to radically reduce its carbon emissions by a factor of two over the next decade and down to zero by 2040 if we are to avert catastrophic climate impacts. Yet, the world continues to set new records for fossil fuel consumption and Australia as the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas is at the heart of this trend. Before the fires had even finished, the Prime Minister eagerly announced his $2 billion plan to boost the expansion of gas fracking. Indeed, at the same time that the government claims it is taking action on climate change, its coalition partners are busily talking up the prospects of new coal-fired power stations and the opening of new export-oriented coal basins.
There is much to be learnt from the rhetoric our politicians use in the aftermath of the weather disasters that now dot our newsfeeds. It is the language of distraction, wherein cutting carbon emissions, prohibiting new fossil fuel developments and embracing renewable energy are considered off limits; a political taboo. However, in the grudging acceptance that climate change is a reality, the political response from those defending the fossil fuel hegemony is a softer form of denial. Don’t worry about mitigation and decarbonization, we’ll just adapt to the new normal and work on being resilient! We’ll grow gills, fins, and fireproof skin.
Not only does such rhetoric threaten human society, it does so with a duplicitous political purpose; to defend the continued viability of fossil fuels and leave local communities to fend for themselves. However, as the recent catastrophic bushfires revealed, the reality is that there are limits to adaptation and resilience in a world careering towards 3-4 degrees Celsius of warming this century.
There is an urgent need for serious climate adaptation planning and investment in combination with dramatic emissions mitigation and decarbonization. Unfortunately, governments worldwide seem unable to confront these issues with anything like the urgency they require.
Join Dr Tanya Fiedler in conversation with Professor Michael Mann 4-5.30pm on Tuesday 3 March. Register for this free public event at www.sydney.edu.au/environment-institute/ourhouseisonfire
Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School and a key researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. He is the author, with Daniel Nyberg, of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).