The Burning Question


Words || Angus Dalton

Content warning: Mention of suicide

David S Buckel was an American lawyer who fought for the civil rights of gay and trans people, and was instrumental in the legal battle that led to nation-wide marriage equality in the US in 2015. In mid-April, he burned to death in a park in Brooklyn, New York. He had set himself alight – using fossil fuels as a propellant – in protest of the world’s march towards climate catastrophe.

“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result,” Buckel wrote in a suicide note sent to the New York Times. “My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

Buckel is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have died as a result of increasing heat levels, widespread droughts, and natural disasters made exponentially more deadly by climate change. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030, 250 000 lives will be claimed per year as a direct result of climate change.

The burning of fossil fuels has raised the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees. That’s enough to reduce the volume of summer ice in the Artic by 80 per cent and increase the ocean’s acidity by 30 per cent. We desperately need to meet our target of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees, set at the Paris Agreement, or we’ll be facing serious threats to civilisation as we know it.

Government Shenanigans

Our federal government should be putting in place drastic policy change to ensure we can hit that Paris Agreement target. But during Question Time in Parliament you’re more likely to see our treasurer, Scott Morrison, waxing lyrical about the lump of coal he’s feverishly brandishing in the faces of the opposition, or a climate science-denying racist peeling off a burqa, than sensible discussions about climate policy.

In April, 20 Coalition MPs banded together to form the Monash Forum, a group bent on championing the purported benefits of coal and the construction of new coal-fired power stations. Their supposed enthusiasm for coal goes directly against climate science – in a report released in November 2017 the UN emphasised the importance of halting the construction of new coal-fired power plants – and economic modelling which shows that energy derived from new coal stations would be vastly more expensive than renewables.

“The Monash Forum has been formed really just to criticise and undermine Malcolm Turnbull rather than be terribly interested in climate or energy,” says leading climate change authority Professor Lesley Hughes. “I think they’re using that as a vehicle to wreak revenge on Turnbull for usurping Abbott. It’s a government riven with strife, and the energy-climate issue is really just a tool in that strife. Unfortunately that means we still don’t have a price on carbon, we still don’t have an effective climate policy. Ever since the carbon price was abolished by government, Australian emissions have gone up every quarter.”

Professor Hughes (a Pro-Vice Chancellor of  Macquarie) helped inform the government and the Australian public as a Climate Commissioner in the Gillard government. Tony Abbott’s first act as Prime Minister after Gillard was firing Hughes and disbanding the Climate Commission that she worked on. After Abbott killed the price on carbon too, federal climate policy is in ‘shambles’, says Hughes.

“Moderate elements of the current government seem to be hostage to the radical right wing,” she tells Grapeshot. “We are absolutely going in the wrong direction, to meet even our very weak and modest targets under the Paris agreement, there’s no way at present we can meet them because our emissions keep increasing rather than reducing.”

Our government has the relevant information about climate change, and the power to cut subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and invest in lucrative and job-creating renewable energy industry. So what’s the hold up?

The Australian Fossil Fuel Industry – our NRA?

Everyone is familiar with the extent that the National Rifle Association (NRA) works actively in the US to prevent gun control legislation by fostering powerful political partnerships, which are often lubricated by generous donations. Fossil fuel companies are doing the same here in Australia, and their influence is undermining democracy and stalling action on emissions reduction that should have started two decades ago.

Last year, the Minerals Council of Australia, an industry association made up of Australia’s largest mining and coal companies, spent almost $5 million on pro-coal ads. In 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that another industry group, the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, had spent $5.5 million on campaigns aimed at obstructing effective climate policy.

In his book Populism Now! David McKnight writes, ‘The attack on pricing carbon in Australia was part of a long-term global campaign by some of the most profitable corporations on the planet. With the global coal and oil industries at their core, the fossil fuel industry had used lobbying, lies, spin and bullying to insist that the world keep following the path towards a climate catastrophe.’

While these huge associations attempt to sway public opinion with pro-coal, anti-climate science ads, the mining and energy industry also promotes a close synthesis between government and the fossil fuel industry.

The Conversation pointed out that Campbell Newman, the former premier of Queensland who tried to bankroll infrastructure for the Adani coal mine, had at least nine staffers who swapped between his office and fossil fuel companies, including the Adani Group. Michael West reported in February that, “well over 150 former and current politicians, political advisors and bureaucrats have either moved from the fossil fuel and mining industries into public office or vice-versa over the past decade.”

The lobbying and swapping of staffers is so unethical that even BHP, the largest contributor to the Minerals Council, has disagreed publicly with the approach of the council and has threatened to pull out unless the body prioritises the reduction of emissions and stops swaying the government to build more coal stations.

The stakes here are incredibly high. If current coal-mining plans in Australia go ahead, enough greenhouse gases will be released to push us 30 per cent of the way to the 2 degree global temperature rise. The Galilee Basin – which Adani plans to mine – could singlehandedly push us 6 per cent of the way. The Coalition is in full support of the mine, and Shorten’s opposition has failed to rule out funding. Together they are facilitating an inertia on climate policy that could lead to our end.

A Different Approach

McKnight writes that we shouldn’t have expected bold strides from government in the first place.

‘Governments are attuned to interest group pressure and represent an establishment of existing players, not future generations. They operate in the short term and are dominated by spin, not substance,’ he writes. ‘At best, they are capable of small incremental changes … waiting for governments to act decisively on the climate crisis will take a long time. Too long.’

That’s why climate campaigners are focusing their attention, for the time being, on the public. 

When Gillard’s Climate Commission was ended by Abbott, Professor Hughes and the other commissioners founded the Climate Council, which secured funding to continue providing information to the public about the damages of climate change. One of these areas is the Great Barrier Reef, a natural wonder and an asset worth $54 billion to the Australian economy that’s being killed by rising sea temperatures.

Hughes also researches the effect of climate change on individual species. She’s studied insects that feed on plants grown in high CO2 environments – “they don’t do well, because plants grown at high CO2 are less nutritious than when grown at ambient levels”. Hughes also says the NSW native long-spined sea urchin has moved south because of warming oceans, and is now wreaking havoc on huge kelp forests around Tasmania.

In addition to releasing nearly a hundred reports about impact of climate change on species, ecosystems, the weather and economy, the Climate Council launched the Cities Power Partnership last year. It’s a free program that allows councils and cities to significantly cut their emissions by installing renewable energy, promoting energy-efficient transport and educating the public on emissions reduction. So far, seven and half million Australians live in councils dedicated to the project. Hughes says that even while federal government stalls, great action can be taken by smaller bodies and local governments.

“This reflects action globally on a sub-national level has been making great strides in contributing towards actually meeting those Paris Agreements,” Hughes says.

What can we do at Macquarie?

In the spirit of acting on climate change and emissions reduction on a local scale, Leanne Denby, Director of Sustainability at Macquarie, has been working to reduce emissions, improve water usage, and revolutionise waste management at the university for a decade.

Looking at other universities take responsibility for their carbon output, Denby is setting ambitious goals.

“UNSW have bought a solar farm. Charles Sturt and University of Tasmania are certified carbon neutral. There are these big statements coming out, and I don’t want us to just follow that trend of carbon neutrality – what’s next? What’s that big thing that we can have a statement around that makes us unique, and sets us above and beyond the carbon neutral train?”

At present, Macquarie Sustainability have a goal of 40 per cent reduction of carbon emissions, a tough target to meet as the student population increases. She says that we’re in dire need of concerted student support for a more sustainable campus.

“When I think about my colleagues at other universities, our student population is fairly disengaged in this conversation in comparison to the rest of the sector.”

If you look to the top of Macquarie, you’ll see Michael Egan, our Chancellor, who’s head of Newcastle Coal. It’s pretty clear we won’t be getting support for a more sustainable campus from the top end; as with broader politics, we need to demand change from the bottom up.