Burning the Future: the Growing Anger of Young Australians

Photograph Source: Helitak430 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Growing up in a small town in Tasmania, Australia, not far from the coast, every summer we would spend seemingly endless carefree days at the beach – swimming, sunbathing and eating freshly-caught fish. I was there again last year with my family, during the Christmas break, but this time rather than enjoying the beach we spent the holiday glued to the television screen, watching as small bushfires across the country rapidly grew into huge uncontrollable conflagrations, burning everything right down to the shoreline.

My small home state was spared, but we know that summer in Australia will never be the same. Not only has the annual threat of fires grown, but Australians are now coming to terms with the fact that their government has no interest in dealing with the causes of this crisis and is, in fact, making it worse.

The fires did not come as a surprise to the Liberal/National party government – more frequent and intense fires were predicted in an official report in 2008. The National Disaster Risk Framework warned that “with the driver of a changing climate there is growing potential for some natural hazards to occur at unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations”.

No less than 23 former fire chiefs and emergency leaders attempted to warn the government for months in 2019 that more resources were urgently needed to tackle bushfires.

What did the government do?

Some would say, “nothing”. But actually, that is not true. On top of ignoring the warnings from their own fire experts, government officials spent most of their time actively opposing any moves to limit climate damage and prevent bushfires.

Only weeks before the eruption of fires across the country, at December’s international climate change meeting in Madrid, Australia was one of a handful of nations that thwarted a deal on the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, using accounting tricks to reduce their emissions reduction commitment.

This at a time when Australia is one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters per person. In absolute terms, in 2017, Australia’s share of global CO2 emissions from domestic use of fossil fuels was about 1.4 percent. Accounting for fossil fuel exports would lift Australia’s global carbon footprint to about 5 percent, making it the fifth-biggest emitter in the world, despite its relatively small population of 25 million.

One might think that following the summer fires the government would start reducing carbon emissions. To the contrary, while Australia already has four of the 10 biggest coal mines in the world, they are planning to open an even bigger one – Adani in Queensland, which once operative would more than double Australia’s coal-based carbon emissions.

While standing in the incident control centre for a statewide bushfire emergency, National Party leader and Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack announced that “… Adani is going ahead. The fact is, this is going to lead to more coal exports. We need more coal exports.”

Australia recently became the world’s largest producer and exporter of liquefied natural gas and in 2018 became the world’s third-largest exporter of CO2 in fossil fuels. While the world is heating rapidly, Australia is literally throwing fuel on the fire.

Comparing recent and planned coal extraction in Australia with Germany, one readily sees the opposing trends. Whereas Germany has been cutting back its coal mining, Australia is pushing forward as if climate science is fake news.

Disregarding all environmental predictions, the government continues to throw massive fossil fuel subsidies at the industry – estimated at $8bn annually. Solar power subsidies have been withdrawn, in a continent with the highest solar radiation per square metre in the world. Not surprisingly, photovoltaic energy in Australia still provides a lower percentage of electricity than in Germany.

The government’s myopic environmental policies can be traced back to different interest groups. Powerful mining corporations are calling the shots, to such an extent that even former Liberal Prime Minister John Hewson wrote recently that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is “almost totally beholden to the fossil fuel lobby”.

In tandem, Australia has the world’s third most concentrated media market in the world, with Rupert Murdoch controlling nearly 60 percent of daily newspapers. The media has played a key role in putting climate deniers into government, and maintained a consistent policy in the recent bushfire crisis of arguing that climate change is not the key cause.

The Australian government’s focus even now is on “resilience and adaption”, or in other words, they are telling their citizens “we’ll keep mining, selling and burning the fossil fuels, and you better just get used to the consequences”.

Young Australians are angry. They are rapidly losing the right to enjoy the sort of innocent summers I had when I was young, with the bushfire crisis this year likely to be just the beginning of a new reality. Indeed, they have the sight every day of the Australian government busy burning their future.

Bill Spence is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary University of London.

[First appeared in Al Jazeera]


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