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Too hard basket: why climate change is defeating our political system

When I was first asked to write an opening piece in The Conversation’s series on climate change and the energy transition, I wanted to say no. I didn’t want to think about what I and anyone else who has been paying attention knows is coming; not just next summer, which is likely to be a scorcher like the one the northern hemisphere has just endured, but in the summers after that for centuries to come.

It may already be too late to save the world as we know it. Coral reefs, low-lying atolls and coastal strips, glaciers, Arctic summer sea ice, will all likely be gone in the near future with predictable and unpredictable consequences for the life that depends on them, including ours.

Or should I write “be under threat” instead of “likely be gone”, to soften the story? No, already there has been too much softening and taking comfort in uncertainty. The focus on rising temperatures itself makes the future seem more benign than it’s likely to be. What is a degree or two warmer here or there on a linear graph? But linear graphs are not the main story.

The main story is Earth’s complex climate systems, and the risk that the continuing burning of fossil fuels is pushing some systems towards tipping points, including the way ocean and atmospheric currents move heat and moisture around the globe, with unpredictable cascades of non-linear consequences.

The climate scientist, the late Will Steffen explained there is a point at which Earth’s cascading feedbacks drive it past a global threshold and irreversibly into a much hotter state. This is the biggest risk, and it is existential.

The Albanese government’s softly-softly response

The Albanese Labor government is not denying the risk. In his 2023 Intergenerational Report Treasurer Jim Chalmers included climate change as one of the five major forces affecting future wellbeing. It’s one among many, and the emphasis is on the economic opportunities and jobs offered by the energy transformation.

This downplays both the risk and the changes needed to combat it. Chief Climate Councillor Tim Flannery said:

Climate dwarfs everything else in this report. If we don’t fix it, nothing else matters.

Media commentary, however, has been mostly about the consequences of an ageing population.

Soon after it assumed office, the new Labor government ordered a climate and security risk analysis. This has now happened, undertaken by the Office of National Assessments (ONI) and delivered to the government in late 2022. But you wouldn’t know it. The analysis has not been released, and there is no indication it will be.

Since then the government has barely said a word about the ONI findings or about climate security risks, although it has said plenty about the risk we face if, as seems likely, China supplants the United States as the dominant power in our region.

Responding to this risk, our government is allocating hundreds of billions of dollars of defence spending to buy submarines. The Greens have called for the immediate release of ONI’s assessment, as has former Chief of Australia’s Defence Forces Admiral Chris Barrie.

Man holding 'climate action now' poster
The government’s climate and security risk analysis has still not been released. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The think tank Breakthrough, the National Centre for Climate Restoration, has made some shrewd guesses at what’s in the report: that the world is unlikely to meet the Paris agreement goals and that the risks are compounding fast; that in the Asia-Pacific region some states will fail and political conflict increase as other states retreat into authoritarian and hyper-nationalist politics; that there will be refugee and climate-forced displacement crises of greater magnitude than ever.

In The New Daily, Michael Pascoe asked, “What is Albanese hiding? Maybe it’s the experts’ view of the climate hell ahead”. Perhaps, he speculates, the report canvasses the idea that our new best friend India with its burgeoning population may be a greater future security risk than China whose population is in decline.

The Labor government’s response to the greatest emergency we face seems set on slow, as if we have time for an incremental response with little disruption to daily life and it’s OK to keep subsidising fossil fuels and approving new gas and coal projects. So it’s not surprising it’s keeping the seriousness of the crisis under wraps.

Government can and must act

Government is our ultimate risk manager and as extreme weather events proliferate, calls increase for it to bail people out – from floods, fire and drought, as well as from increased food and energy prices. All this after four decades of neoliberalism in which both the federal and state governments have surrendered capacity to the private sector.

But as the COVID crisis showed us, when faced with an emergency our governments can act decisively and put the lives of people ahead of the interests of business. Assumptions that had guided monetary policy for three decades or more were overturned as both state and federal governments borrowed heavily to support people through the lockdowns and to buy and administer vaccines. If the political will is there, governments can find a way.

We have to convince reluctant governments to listen to the science, as they did with COVID, so people know the seriousness of the crisis we are facing. Here our federal political system is both a curse and a blessing: a curse because it can hamper federal initiatives, but a blessing because it multiplies potential sources of action.

There are some signs Labor knows effective state capacity needs to be re-built, but none yet that the Coalition does, nor that it has thrown off its climate denialism. How, when Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor berated Chalmers and the Intergenerational Report for worrying about what might happen in 40 years rather than 40 days, can we expect it to respond effectively to climate change?

But there is hope here too. Support for the temporally challenged Coalition is in freefall among younger voters and there is no indication the Liberal Party yet has a clue about how to regain wealthy urban seats lost to the teals.

A report from the Centre for Independent Studies claimed voters born after 1996 were the most progressive since the Second World War. As the electoral weight shifts away from the old baby boomers Labor’s federal future is likely to be as a minority government with support from Greens and independents who will demand bolder action.

Flinders Street Station and people in masks
COVID showed governments can act when needed. AAP/Dan Pockett

Why we struggle to face facts

Frogs in boiling water and lemmings going over the cliff are frequently used to describe humanity’s current predicament of living as usual in the face of looming disasters. More apt I think are these lines of T.S. Elliot from “Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets”:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

As governments around the world, not just ours, are failing to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, we still have to live from day to day, week to week and year to year.

I don’t want to live in dread of a dystopian future, or consumed with anger at go-slow governments, or in a state of depressed apathy because of my powerlessness, so I go about my generally enjoyable life accompanied by the drone of doom in the pit of my stomach.

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