Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.
–Donald Horne, 1964
How little things have changed since this ubiquitous quote was first published. Most people outside of Australia have probably not yet heard of what is perhaps the most widely quoted, some would over-quoted, comment about this country derived almost 60 years ago by Donald Horne. Even more surprising within Australia is the convenient way by which so many ignore the more scathing sentiments that form the bulk of this famous phrase. Many Aussies today still fall back on just a selective portion of this phrase as if it was wholly positive in nature, but with a casual dismissal of a deeper truth they are still unable to acknowledge and even less so to reconcile. It was meant as anything but praise, but rather as a scathing criticism, and one now that the 25 million people of this the world’s only continent-sized country should take heed, for no matter what Horne may have intended, it is clear that when it comes to climate change Australia’s luck is running out fast. Australia is now within sight of becoming one very unlucky country, indeed.
Australia used to be country where there was a sense of pride in being first or at least among the early adopters of incredibly important political decisions – the right of women to vote and universal suffrage, the 40-hour work week, the role of trade unions in collective bargaining, the cancellation of nature destroying dams and other projects and so many others. Our still – at least for the moment – nuclear free status, with no nuclear weapons or power plants on our huge territory and our very welcoming immigration policy, not to mention the world’s oldest continuous culture, out planet’s cleanest air, so much space and huge skies are all things that Australia and Australians should be rightly proud of and something to cherish. But when it comes to the environment, the shocking scale of extinction rates, the near death of the world’s biggest reef and all aspects and consequences of climate change, instead of being first, we are now one of the worst.
Although most of the world has been watching in horror the gruesome consequences of the illegal invasion and resultant minute-by-minute decimation of Ukraine and its people by Russia, the extreme weather events in recent weeks in northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland have already lost the interest of the world’s media. These floods have been and continue to be brutal and massive, and are just the latest in a huge list of warning signs that being located on the lower right-hand side of the world map is no guarantee of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. The unimaginable suffering being endured by tens of thousands in the areas worst affected by the unprecedented flooding – in some places 14 meters above normal levels – in locales largely unknown outside of Australia, but beautiful places which are home to tens of thousands of people such as Lismore, Woodburn, Ballina and elsewhere are climate-related events that are affecting growing numbers of ordinary, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. These Australians have every right to expect much more from their elected officials, but even if help were at hand, Australia is rapidly running out of time.
Governments in the once lucky country – local, state and commonwealth – may or may not wish to publically acknowledge it, but Australia’s climate change record is nothing short of dismal when contrasted to our fellow wealthy nations, and it is now very obviously affecting ever growing numbers of its own citizens. It is widely ridiculed time and again globally as one of the worst of all OECD countries, with climate deniers still far too dominant in too many political circles, pathetically meek net-zero commitments, and an ongoing over-reliance on coal, gas and oil still dominating policy decisions. Yesterday, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres even went so far as to single out Australia as a climate change ‘holdout’. A court case last week ended with the devastating decision that the minister of environment did not have a duty of care to children in the context of approving new fossil fuel activities, which stunned millions. Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, shamelessly held up a huge chunk of coal in our Parliament not all that long ago telling citizens not to fear it, indifferent to the fact that our CO2 emissions on a per capita basis disgracefully remain some of the worst in the world. He visits disaster zones and literally uses both hands to force people to shake his hand when they clearly have no wish to do so. He is a man utterly beholden to the fossil fuel industry and all that that entails. Last week he finally declared “Australia is becoming a harder place to live in”, while offering no plan or remedy for a situation his government has utterly failed to address. He and his climate cronies continue to attempt to declare to the world that Australia is doing better than all others when it comes to reducing emissions, something that flies in the face of truth from a country whose net-zero targets will only be reached in 2050, far beyond the point of no return. As a recent article notes, for instance, that CO2 levels in the US, Canada, Japan and New Zealand all went down between 2005-2019, but only Australia’s went up at a rate of 4%. Conditions in the country have grown so desperate, that one of our wealthiest citizens, billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder of Atlassian, made an offer to buy the biggest energy producer in the country, AGL, to expedite the end of coal burning, but they have repeatedly refused his multi-billion dollar offer.
The current flooding crisis provides yet another reminder of just how vulnerable Australia is to the effects of climate change. Indeed, far from being ‘down under’, away from the action, our ‘Great Southern Land’ is very much right in the thick of it. Australia is now a country that has created its very own internally displaced persons, a country that will soon need to use coercive powers to stop people building in certain areas and where internal migration may just take on gargantuan proportions. The extreme heat, fires and droughts that will keep worsening across all states and territories will induce more and more people to migrate to cooler parts of the country, which themselves are actually shrinking in size. More and more coastal areas will become severely eroded as sea levels rise faster than anticipated resulting in tens of billions of dollars of property losses in our house-price obsessed country. Many people who had expected to bequeath their coastal homes around the perimeter of our huge island to their children or grandchildren can already sadly kiss that dream goodbye, with our iconic coastlines soon to look entirely different than they do today. Before too long, maps will need to be redrawn to reflect these dramatic changes. It is truly is that bad.
And as we are reminded now, people living in flood plains will face ever-growing threats, with early warning systems measured on the basis of once in a 100-year floods becoming increasingly meaningless. The SES – the State Emergency Services – is currently carrying out tens of thousands of home assessments in the flood-affected areas and have already concluded that more than 2,500 homes have been officially declared as uninhabitable, a number that is likely to grow in coming days. This means – at a minimum – that 7,500 people are now effectively homeless who were not just a week or two ago, most of whom had no or too little flood insurance to assist them in rebuilding their lives. This number will undoubtedly grow. We can count on flood premiums going up dramatically after the current floods, making access to such protections even less likely for those unable to afford them.
The idea of housing buy-backs is now under serious discussion and may work to a certain extent, but concerns about cost are already being used to reduce the potential scale of such plans. By comparison, the US city of Houston is already engaged in a massive housing buy-back program that may end up buying out more than 160,000 property owners who face constant and growing flood risks. Billions will be needed now in the flood-affected areas in Australia, but only millions are being contemplated at the moment. A looming homelessness crisis is already being predicted for Brisbane and other cities and towns as flood-affected internally displaced persons will encounter and already strained rental market.
The bottom line is this: Australia has become a country of climate-induced displacement. Australia is a country with its own internally displaced persons, Aussie IDPs. This is not something that only happens ‘over there’, but something that happens in the lucky country, and something which no political party yet has an adequate answer as to how best to grapple with this tragic reality. The ridiculous climate policies of the Liberal-National Coalition (a very conservative coalition of two parties), which are universally so far behind those of other countries that we like to compare ourselves with, are coming back to bite us and our people. The suffering will expand if we do not use the urgency of the present flooding crisis to plan appropriately and finally take the measures needed to address climate change and where we live.
We can learn a great deal from local government responses to climate change that are already well underway in cities and towns across the world. Housing buy-outs are one thing, but so too are measures which I have personally witnessed working all around the world on climate displacement issues, land reclamation and replenishment, geo-engineering such dykes, groins, urban sponges, pumps, drains, and seawalls, offshore mangrove planting, river and tidal flow management structures, augmented disaster management systems, early warning programs, planned relocation and managed retreat, raising elevation levels of land and buildings, sewage and waste management, cemetery repositioning, planning and zoning law changes, retracting pre-existing development approvals, internal climate displacement policies, safer island projects, floating cities and much more are all part of the climate adaptation lexicon these days. These and countless other measures are being put in place as we speak. Australia will need to do all these things and more, but we’re already behind the curve and needs to play catch up.
Most people are not aware of it, but the capital of one of our nearest neighbors Jakarta, Indonesia after a government decision will be moved to another island because of the combined effects of climate change and the rapidly sinking of the city. It doesn’t get more dramatic than that. As a city home to more 30 million people, this decision – seen by many analysts as the first decision of many more to come for large coastal cities around the world – is almost too huge to imagine. Yes, it is ‘only’ the capital that is moving and not the entire city, but countless questions remain: Who will actually move? Will those in greatest need be assisted or just civil servants and the wealthy? What will happen to those left behind in a sinking and dying city that no one will want to invest in anymore? Will people receive compensation for looming property losses? How will people be able to participate in the decision of any moves to relocate the capital? Many of the world’s coastal cities will have to answer these and similar questions as rising seas, flooding and storms worsen with each tick of the average global heat index only going up.
Although global numbers still vary widely, the projected number of people who will have to move from their homes and neighborhoods throughout the world because of the effects of climate change continues to grow, with the World Bank in their important Groundswell report conservatively estimating that 216 million will have to find somewhere new to live, while other predictions are closer to 750 million people who will need to move and begin life anew. And the world is simply not ready for this, not just in Australia, but particularly in poorer regions of the world. The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR shockingly reminds us in a recent report, that internal displacement in all of its forms has increased seven-fold in only 15 years. What if this happens again before 2040? Where will these hundreds of millions of people go? No matter how it is sliced or parsed or talked up or down, it is obvious to anyone who looks that the climate displacement future is not a rosy one. Clearly, the world needs to be ready for this, and at present, it most certainly is not. Beyond Jakarta, cities as diverse as Venice, Lagos, Boston, Houston, Dhaka, Virginia Beach, Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, New Orleans, Rotterdam, Alexandria, Miami and many others are already facing existential threats due to rising sea levels and other climate and related threats.
These threats are increasingly recognized by a growing number of local governments and planning is underway as to how best to grapple with these previously unimaginable challenges, and Australia’s own policies can benefit greatly by paying attention to what others are already doing. Australia needs a whole new approach to determine where people live and what people should be able to expect from government to ensure that their housing, land and property rights can be protected. We need now to consider things that have previously been out of the question: Should communities be actively encouraged to relocate? Should people receive a house for a lost house and land for lost land through housing and land buy-back programs? Should people be legally prevented from building, or re-building in flood zones or likely to become flood zones? Does every local government even know the precise climate, erosion, sea-level rise and flood risks in the areas under their jurisdiction or do some simply leave it up to fate? Should real estate agents be legally required to disclose these flood or sea-level rise risks to potential buyers? Should all local governments develop climate land banks to ensure that a reserve of state land is available for future disaster-affected people? Shouldn’t the government and its ministers have a duty of care for children? The Australian population clearly wants action and in poll after poll the climate failures of the current government are on full display for all to see. The people are fed up with inaction, and these critiques are coming in from all sides – left, right, green and even rural right-wingers who watch as their isolated heat-stricken towns die a painful death as the effects of climate change worsen.
Clearly, Australia needs a whole new start when it comes to addressing climate change. Yes, of course, emissions need to come down dramatically, but it’s not only that that needs to change. Australia has everything it could possibly wish to have to be the world leader in tackling climate change. For starters, as the sunniest and windiest continent in world Australia surely has a lot more potential for renewable energy than has been tapped to date. Again, despite this famous ‘luck’, we have done virtually nothing with it, and instead of doing other things like supporting electric vehicles, we lag desperately behind in this category too.
On the rare occasions that I go the petrol station to buy a tank full of refined oil, I always ask the person next to me who are filling up their tank two questions. First, “G’day mate, how long is that full tank going to last you?”. The usual reply is something like two or three days. I then ask “How long do think it took for the fuel you are putting into your car to form in the oil that was removed from the depths of the earth, refined, brought to the petrol station and then put into your car to use in two to three days?” I kid you not, if I had to average out the dozens of responses I have received to my two questions over the years, it would be 50 years. Yes, highly unscientific it may be, but your average driver at your average petrol station in Australia in the 21st century thinks oil is created over a 50-year time frame. When I tell them the correct answer is actually measured in millions of years, the answer is always the same “Get outta here, mate!”
I don’t blame my fellow car drivers for not knowing such things, but I certainly do blame respective governments for utterly failing ordinary Australians when it comes to climate change. There are hundreds of things the next government which is formed after the upcoming May 2022 federal elections and those beyond it can and must do to tackle the effects of climate change, many of which are already baked into the system; they will happen no matter how low emissions go. For starters, one unique tool has been developed in a country that has battled water and floods for centuries, the Netherlands. The Dutch government has developed an online search engine that enables everyone to access 100 years worth of sea level rise and street and neighborhood specific data on what is expected to occur where they live today, with the ‘Will I Flood?’ App (www.overstroomik.nl). This one step alone will help prevent and reduce the worst consequences of climate displacement, and while it may not stop the seas from rising and the streets from flooding it will allow ordinary people, ordinary urban dwellers (and rural, as well), to plan far more effectively for the future, assisting them in determining when to move, where to move and how to prevent what could be catastrophic financial and other losses if they choose to ‘ride it out’.
This App is just one of countless things countries everywhere can do to begin what will be a decades-long effort to protect people against climate displacement. Such an App will not help the people enduring the types of tragedies the brave people in Queensland and New South Wales are enduring today, but if state, territory and commonwealth governments in Australia finally transform our fossil fuel addicted society into a leading light of how possible it is to create a regenerative and renewable energy nation, Australia has one last chance to finally move from worst to first. We’d better not blow it.
1. Graham Readfern, Is Australia really beating other countries at cutting emissions?, Guardian, 17 March 2022. ↑