From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Australia’s Devastating Wildfires Were Not Inevitable
Date January 31, 2020 2:11 AM
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[ Australia was once actually poised to lead on climate politics.
Perhaps the most brutal irony of all has been the Australian
government’s response to the crisis. The scope of the fires is
unprecedented.] [[link removed]]

AUSTRALIA’S DEVASTATING WILDFIRES WERE NOT INEVITABLE  
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Daniel Judt
January 27, 2020
The Nation
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_ Australia was once actually poised to lead on climate politics.
Perhaps the most brutal irony of all has been the Australian
government’s response to the crisis. The scope of the fires is
unprecedented. _

Sam Mooy / Getty Images // The Nation,

 

_Blue Mountains, Australia—_“There is no one in this current
federal government that has any semblance of a sense of crisis,”
Mark Greenhill tells me as we sit in his mayoral office in Katoomba, a
small town some 100 kilometers west of Sydney. It is December 19. For
over a month, three massive bushfires have plagued this small mountain
community, a UNESCO World Heritage site, ravaging its ecosystem and
laying waste to residents’ homes. I could smell the smoke in Sydney
that morning; the haze descended on the city at least a dozen times in
the past month, casting a sepia-toned pall and tripping office fire
alarms. But it was nothing compared with Katoomba, where my eyes began
to burn the moment I stepped off the train.

As Greenhill speaks, his eyes dart to the window behind me. “Oh,
fuck,” he says. I turn to look. A thick gray plume is billowing up
from the trees just north of us. He jumps up and rushes to the window.
“That is a cloud of fire,” he says. “That’s climate change
right there.” A moment passes as the two of us stand in silence.
“So, so,” he continues, picking up his train of thought,
“there’s no sense of that national crisis. And that’s what
we’re missing.” He points back to the fire cloud—“I’m just
going to find out what that is”—and begins texting furiously.

The technical term for what we saw that day is “pyrocumulonimbus,”
or “pyroCb” for short. PyroCbs are weather events generated by
wildfires. They can produce dry lightning storms, high winds, even
full-blown tornadoes. (An aerial photo of the Hiroshima bombing, long
thought to capture the distinctive nuclear mushroom cloud, was only
recently reidentified as an image of the pyroCb from the ensuing
firestorm that swept through the city.) In recent weeks, “pyroCb”
has become a household term in Australia—a literal manifestation of
the fires but also a symbol, nudging us to see what is happening to
the country in the terms of armed conflict. As the fires tear through
town after town with ruthless efficiency, pyroCbs lend them the look
of an airborne attack: climate blitzkrieg. When Prime Minister Scott
Morrison called in the navy to evacuate thousands of people stranded
on beaches and mobilized the Australian Defence Force to help fight
the fires, the symbolism became reality. Australia went to war with
itself.

An uncanny effect of the climate crisis: The way we describe the world
no longer lines up with the way the world is. “A smoke-free zone,”
reads a sign on Katoomba’s main street. Similar notices are posted
throughout downtown Sydney. The fires have made them ironic.
Meanwhile, a host of common metaphors—“can’t handle the heat,”
“playing with fire”—have become uselessly literal (much in the
way that “trump” is now a tainted verb). And then there are
moments when reality has turned so surreal that our depictions of it
become the ghostly receipts of normality. In Katoomba, tourists have
begun taking selfies
[[link removed]] in front
of posters of its famed mountain vista; the real view is hidden behind
a screen of smoke. Such dissonances seem trivial when compared with
the destruction wrought by the fires. But I found them profoundly
disturbing to witness. They are signs that the link between the world
and our words is beginning to fray.

Perhaps the most brutal irony of all has been the Australian
government’s response to the crisis. Much attention has been paid to
the Morrison government’s complacency—the inadequate provision of
aid, a prime minister who opted for a secretive holiday in Hawaii
while public servants and volunteers begged for government help. But
one of the unintended effects of this inaction has been to distract
from what the government _was_ doing during the crisis. While the
bushfires raged in Australia, the country’s delegates to the United
Nations’ climate negotiations in Madrid helped undermine
international climate policy by insisting, through obvious accounting
tricks that amounted to lies, that “Australia is also taking real
action on climate change and we’re getting results,” as Morrison
put it. But which results exactly did the prime minister have in mind?
The catastrophic fires? The unlivable cities? The deaths of his
citizens?

 

A pall: Satellite photos show smoke over Kangaroo Island.
NASA  //  The Nation
Once climate change becomes a crisis in wealthy, white-majority,
Western nations, then surely we will act. This has long been an
unspoken tenet of climate politics, a terrible but surefire last
resort, and it is a statement I heard all the time in Australia: These
fires are so severe, so terrible, so impossible to ignore, that
something will have to give. ”There’s no way that politicians
cannot react,” Julie-Anne Richards, the executive director of
Climate Action Network Australia, tells me by phone as I ride the
train back from Katoomba to Sydney, queasy from the smoke.
“There’s no way that people experience what we’re experiencing
right now and forget that by the next election.” This is one way to
understand the fires, as the beginning of the end of climate inaction,
a darkly apt coda to the year the world woke up to the climate crisis.

And yet, here and whenever else I heard it, this view was less a
conviction than a hope. And behind that hope, a fear that somewhere
along the path from the country’s climate crisis to its climate
politics, something was broken. Perhaps, the fear goes, the lesson
from these fires will be that there is nothing inevitable about the
link between a harsher, more-present climate crisis and better climate
politics. Perhaps it is just the opposite: The deeper the crisis, the
harder it becomes to act.

In terms of climate justice, Australia is a rare combination of
perpetrator and victim. Its politics are steeped in denial, its
politicians beholden to fossil fuel and mining interests. How
catastrophes like these fires—clear, stinging evidence of the
climate crisis that the country’s policies have helped cause—will
impact those politics is one of the most important questions of the
next decade.

Just before he spots the fire cloud, Greenhill spreads a map of the
Blue Mountains on the table in front of us. The region includes
Katoomba and a number of other mountain communities in (normally) lush
green forests. “We’ve got winds pushing this fire south at the
moment,” he tells me, gesturing to the northern part of the map,
where the Gospers Mountain mega-fire has already burned over
1,000,000 acres
[[link removed]].
“So this hits us in the next few days, probably. Wind changes
towards the back end of the next couple weeks,” he continues,
sweeping his hand northward from the southeast, where two more fires
are threatening to combine. “So we face the prospect of being hit
from this side and being hit from this side”—north and south.
“That’s never happened before.”

Australia has seen many terrible fire seasons. In 2003, fires swept
through the suburbs of Canberra
[[link removed]],
the nation’s capital, killing four people and destroying hundreds of
homes. In 2009, bushfires in the state of Victoria killed 173 people
in a single day—the worst bushfire disaster in Australian history,
now referred to simply as Black Saturday
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But every climate scientist and firefighter I spoke with confirmed
Greenhill’s claim: It has never been like this.

The conditions are unprecedented. Back-to-back droughts have turned
even rain forests into kindling. With the droughts has come heat. Last
year was the hottest on record in Australia. December 17 was the
hottest day in the country’s history
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with a national maximum average of 105.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As I
write on the afternoon of January 4, it is 120 degrees in the town of
Penrith, at the base of the Blue Mountains, which makes it the hottest
place not just in Australia but in the world. And with the heat come
winds—“dessicatingly dry,” in the words of one expert—that
whip up fires and smuggle embers across the containment lines.

The scope of the fires is unprecedented. New South Wales, the state
that has borne the brunt of them thus far, has seen several
100,000-acre mega-blazes with 200-foot flames
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their own unpredictable weather systems, including a fire tornado
(exactly what it sounds like) that flipped a 10-ton fire truck in the
southeastern town of Jingellic in December, killing a firefighter.
Greg Mullins, a former fire commissioner of New South Wales, tells me
that in his 48 years of firefighting, he had never seen conditions
this severe. “I’m seeing things that I don’t understand,” he
says. Other former chiefs from different states confirm this
sentiment. Naomi Brown, a former head of the Australian Fire and
Emergency Service Authorities Council, tells me this season “hit us
like a train.”

The consequences of the fires are unprecedented as well, with more
than 2,000 homes destroyed, at least 28 people dead, and over 26
million acres burned (compared with 1.9 million acres in California
in 2018)—to say nothing of the noxious smoke, which has spread all
the way to Chile
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made Canberra the most polluted city in the world. Along the
country’s southeastern coast, mass evacuations have been organized
by the Australian Navy, with the help of Esso, an arm of ExxonMobil,
which dispatched two of its ships from oil rigs to help the stranded.
(The company was “ready to assist in whatever way
possible,” according to _The Age_
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though presumably that doesn’t include curbing its projected 35
percent increase in oil production
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now to 2030.) And then there’s the carbon footprint of the fires
themselves, 400 million tons of carbon dioxide
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the time of writing, which is well over half the amount
that Australia emitted in 2018
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To dispense with the obvious: “There’s no doubt that climate
change is the culprit,” David Bowman, a fire expert at the
University of Tasmania, tells me. Climate scientists have been
predicting this kind of catastrophic fire season for years, he adds.

And we are nowhere near the end. Australia’s worst fires normally
occur in late January and early February. (The 2003 Canberra fires
erupted on January 18; Black Saturday was February 7, 2009.)
“We’re in the fog of war!” Bowman exclaims when I ask him how
bad the damage will be. The only thing that will stop the fires is
sustained rain, he continues, and that may not come for months.
“Look, mate,” he says, “if you’re looking at these weather
forecasts and there were no fire right now, you’d be worried.”
Toward the end of our conversation, he says, unprompted, “I just
have this sickening, sinking feeling.” And then, three times, almost
to himself, “There’s just too much fire in the landscape.”

 

Climate comes home: Protesters outside the residence of Prime Minister
Scott Morrison—or “Scomo,” as he is not so affectionately known.
Jenny Evans / Getty Images  //  The Nation
hile we’re waiting for news about the fire cloud, Greenhill drives
me to one of Katoomba’s lookout points in the “mayoral limo”
(his Kia Rio). As he winds up the deserted mountain roads—the Rural
Fire Service has closed most of them—I ask him for a quick stock
take. Enough fire volunteers? He laughs. “No. Nowhere near. A
portion of our trucks are actually in other parts of the state
fighting fires, so we’re really stretched,” he says. Water levels?
“Shit! About 30 percent.”

As we pull into the lookout, I can barely refrain from gasping. Smoke
spreads across the valleys that surround us. The land—full of
vibrant green in the pictures I’d googled hours before—is a
uniform orange-brown, so irrevocably parched that it is hard to see
how it ever had been or could be otherwise. “Worst-case scenario is
that we get smashed on all three sides,” he says. “Homes and
lives.” He doesn’t even have to say “lost.”

As we retreat from the lookout, I ask Greenhill, who moved to the Blue
Mountains 30 years ago and has been mayor for the past six, what he
would do in that worst-case scenario. “I’ll stay,” he says
decisively. “I figure it’s my job to stay. If I go, what kind of
signal does that send? But this is all about climate change,” he
continues. “Bushfires happen all the time in the Blue Mountains, but
not like this. Not with the bush as dry as it is, not with so many
fires, not with rain that hasn’t come and won’t come, you know,
fire behavior that I’ve never seen before…. That’s why it’s
part of the climate crisis. It’s the sheer number and scale of the
fires and what sits behind those fires that is truly worrying.”
Later, back in his office, he tells me, “I guess there’s a sense
of dread right now. You’ve seen the maps. The city that I lead and
have led for years now is literally surrounded by fire.”

 

The hottest place: On January 4, the temperature in Penrith, at the
base of the Blue Mountains, reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit, making it
the hottest place on Earth.
BOM Australia  //  The Nation
On the day I visited Greenhill, Scott Morrison was in Hawaii on
his ill-timed vacation
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(His office initially insisted that reports of the trip were
“wrong” but sheepishly retracted that after pictures of the prime
minister—or “Scomo,” as he is not so affectionately known to
Australians—surfaced of him bro-ing it up with Aussie tourists on a
beach.) Only when the deaths began to mount and apocalyptic images
made the front page of newspapers around the world did Morrison begin
a tour of the affected areas and announce a more robust federal
response.

But better disaster relief does not imply better climate politics. In
September, David Littleproud, the minister for water resources,
drought, rural finance, natural disaster, and emergency
management, proclaimed
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“I don’t know if climate change is man-made.” In November,
Michael McCormack, the deputy prime minister, went on the radio and,
stringing together a haphazard collection of right-wing
buzzwords, denounced
[[link removed]] the
“pure, enlightened, and woke capital city greenies” and
“inner-city raving lunatics” who were trying to link the bushfires
to climate change.

Both later reversed their positions. But that only paved the way for a
second wave of denial: the notion that climate change is man-made but
it isn’t Australians who are causing it. This has become one of
Morrison’s main talking points. “The suggestion [in] any way,
shape, or form that Australia, accountable for 1.3 percent of the
world’s emissions, that the individual actions of Australia are
impacting directly on specific fire events, whether it’s here or
anywhere else in the world, that doesn’t bear up to credible
scientific evidence,” he said in November
[[link removed]].
After repeated questions from journalists at a press conference on
January 2, he conceded that climate change had worsened the fire
season. But he has yet to back away from the
not-Australia’s-emissions line.

Morrison is relying on the fact that the way we think about
responsibility for climate change has lagged the way climate change
actually works. Of course Australia’s emissions are not directly or
solely responsible for its fires. (Would that climate change were so
just!) But the country is the 15th-largest emitter of greenhouse
gases
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the world, and its emissions per capita are the highest among members
of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—more
than three times the global average. Also, Australia is the world’s
largest exporter of coal
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liquefied natural gas. Until we move beyond understanding
responsibility for the climate crisis as a direct correlation between
one particular set of emissions and one particular natural disaster,
politicians like Morrison will keep getting away with their bad-faith
claims.

As the fires worsen into Australia’s gravest national crisis since
World War II, Morrison is leaning hard on another defense. He concedes
that climate change is real, that it is costing Australia lives and
land, and that reducing emissions will contribute to mitigating the
crisis. But he insists that Australia has already taken the robust
climate action his critics demand. “The business-as-usual model gets
us there in a canter,” he said of Australia’s emissions reduction
pledge under the Paris Agreement. “Our climate policy settings are
to meet and beat the emissions reduction targets,” he asserted in
a recent press conference
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This is a different strain of denial: not a dismissal of the science
or an obfuscation of responsibility but rather a complete reshaping of
the past. It is the culmination of a decades-long effort by
Morrison’s predecessors to put in place the kinds of deceptive
structures—accounting tricks, low expectations, complex legal
loopholes—that would allow future governments to describe the
history of Australia’s inaction on climate change as precisely the
opposite.

 

Pillar of fire: Thousands of tourists fled Australia’s eastern coast
in late December as flames raged out of control and smoke blanketed
the beaches.
Glen Morey / AP  //  The Nation
That effort began in 1997 with the first landmark climate agreement,
the Kyoto Protocol. Under Kyoto, Australia was one of the only
developed nations that negotiated a commitment to increase its
emissions, by no more than 8 percent over 1990 levels by 2012. Even at
that time, this was an absurdly low bar to clear
[[link removed]].
(The US agreed to cut its emissions by 7 percent.) And yet the
government wanted more. In the final hours of the negotiation, the
Australian delegation demanded—on pain of scuttling the entire
protocol—that changes in land use count toward emissions
calculations. The rule has come to be known as the Australia clause.

Why land use? “There was a huge amount of land clearing that had
happened in the years before 1990,” explains Mark Howden, a
professor at the Australian National University and a lead author on
reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. More
land clearing means more emissions from land use, but this is only
temporary. Once the clearing is done, land use emissions steadily
decrease over time. In other words, including land use emissions
allowed Australia to measure its reductions from an artificially
inflated starting point. The country could ramp up its fossil fuel use
and rely on the expected decline in land use emissions to make the
numbers look good.

That is precisely what happened. When land use figures are included,
Australia emitted just 2.5 percent more in 2012 than it did in
1990—far less than its deceptive Kyoto goal. When land use figures
are excluded, however, it emitted 28.3 percent more. And that figure
does not include emissions from exported fossil fuels, a convention
that greatly benefits Australia. The country’s emissions will likely
continue to rise in the years to come, since the Morrison government
does not have a plan to invest in renewables beyond 2020, and the lone
piece of federal climate legislation on the books, the Climate
Solutions Fund, is set to receive a total of AU$2 billion over the
next decade
[[link removed]]—about
as much money as Amtrak receives in a single year from the US
government. (In other words, not much.) To tout these figures as an
accomplishment is an astonishing act of bad faith.

At the recent UN climate negotiations in Madrid, Australia went
further still. In the 2015 Paris Agreement, it pledged to cut its
emissions 26 to 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2030, which,
according to the Climate Analytics, a nonprofit climate science and
policy group, would translate to a mere 5 percent reduction from 1990
levels
[[link removed]] (excluding
land use). But in Madrid, the Australian delegation insisted that the
overshooting of its Kyoto pledge be counted toward the calculation of
its reductions under the Paris Agreement. That way, Australia would
need to cut its emissions by only 16 percent from 2005 levels to meet
its Paris goal; the rest would come from its Kyoto credits. (Yet even
if the Paris target is met in earnest, it will be wholly insufficient,
since it is consistent with a rise in average global temperature of 2
to 3 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels—well above the
already dangerous goal of 1.5 degrees.)

This strategy, known as carrying over carbon credits
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one treaty to another, is like accruing rollover minutes on one phone
plan and then trying to use them with a different carrier. In Madrid,
dozens of countries pleaded with Australia not to pursue its carryover
policy, but Australia refused to budge. The ensuing anger was fierce.
Laurence Tubiana, a former French environment minister and a key
figure in the Paris negotiations, told the _Financial Times_
[[link removed]] after
the Madrid conference that the carryover “is just cheating…
Australia was willing in a way to destroy the whole system, because
that is the way to destroy the whole Paris agreement.”

 

Still marching: A rally for climate action outside Sydney Town Hall in
January.
Jenny Evans / Getty Images  //  The Nation
So, a country that negotiated a commitment two decades ago to vastly
increase its carbon emissions and then proceeded to greatly increase
them now wants to use that difference—from vast to great—to reduce
its current reductions pledge, which it is not on track to meet, even
with this creative accounting scheme. Small wonder that the 2020
Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last out of 61
high-emitting countries for its climate policies
[[link removed]].
On a scale of 100 possible points, the index awarded the Lucky Country
a score of zero.

The Morrison government’s response to the bushfires has prompted
comparisons to the conservatives’ response to mass shootings in the
United States: insisting that now is not the time to “politicize”
the issue, shrouding inaction beneath a veil of mourning, talking
about tangential problems, and waiting it out. While the analogy is
disturbingly apt, it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t
capture the government’s attempt to retroactively write climate
action into Australia’s past. Morrison is no longer saying that the
country doesn’t need to act on climate change. He is saying
something far more sinister, that we have already acted. (And by
“we,” he means his own Liberal Party. On December 22, _The
Guardian_ reported that his government adjusted the way emissions are
measured
[[link removed]] so
that, projected backward, emissions during the previous three Labor
governments increased, while emissions under the Liberal coalition
declined.)

So far, there have been very few cracks in this Liberal front. In
mid-December, the Liberal minister for environment in New South Wales,
Matt Kean, broke ranks with his party to insist that the fires were
linked to climate change and that “doing nothing is not a solution
[[link removed]].”
For this remarkably mild admission, he was reprimanded by
Australia’s army of Rupert Murdoch–owned newspapers and by his own
party. “We stand by everything we’ve said,” a skittish press
secretary in Kean’s office assured me when I called to request an
interview. “But as you can understand, we’ve had quite a week
here.” (He ultimately declined to be interviewed and has since gone
silent on climate.)

 

Nowhere to hide: With smoke from the fires detected thousands of miles
away, activists protested outside the Australian Embassy in Buenos
Aires.
Jenny Evans / Getty Images  //  The Nation
None of this was inevitable. Only a decade ago, Australia was actually
poised to lead on climate politics. In 2006, according to a poll
conducted by the Lowy Institute
[[link removed]],
an Australian think tank, 68 percent of Australians agreed with the
statement “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem” and
“we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant
costs.” Politicians listened. In the 2007 election the Labor Party
candidate, Kevin Rudd, campaigned on the promise of an
emissions-trading scheme. So did John Howard, the Liberal incumbent
who, a decade earlier, oversaw Australia’s deceptive accounting at
Kyoto. When Rudd won the election, he set about negotiating an
emissions-trading scheme with the Liberal opposition, led by Malcolm
Turnbull. It looked as though there would be a genuine consensus on
aggressive (if wholly market-driven) climate action.

Instead, negotiations over the trading scheme fell apart. Then the
Green Party sided with the Liberals in voting against the final bill,
claiming it was an insufficient response to climate change. (Labor has
never forgiven the Greens for this; Greenhill, a Labor Party member,
called the vote a “political stunt.”) The Liberals became the
party of climate denial, and public opinion shifted accordingly. By
2012, the Lowy poll showed 36 percent of Australians in favor of
immediate, significant action on climate change—a more than 30
percentage point drop in just six years. (Since then, the figure has
climbed steadily, reaching 61 percent in 2019, but it has yet to
return to its 2006 benchmark.) Climate change became, as journalist
Annabel Crabb wrote last year
[[link removed]],
“the most divisive issue of the Australian political century.”

Meanwhile, Labor has spent the last decade toggling between appeals to
its working-class base in Queensland—coal country—and demands for
a stronger climate policy. Last May the party suffered a surprise loss
to Morrison’s Liberals in what was billed by some media outlets as a
climate change election. Labor leaders maintain that the loss was not
a refutation of their climate policies. “There were a few key
factors about why we didn’t win the election,” Mark Butler, a
Labor MP for Hindmarsh and the current shadow minister for climate
change and energy, tells me. “Climate wasn’t one of them.” If
the election had been “a referendum only about our climate
policies,” he insists, “I think you may well have seen a different
result.” But when I press him on this—Labor suffered key losses in
Queensland, where the debate over whether to open the Adani coal mine
was central to the election—Butler concedes that “even though our
climate policy was not going to directly impact coal mines, there was
this sort of sense that we didn’t support their jobs.”

When I ask the Climate Action Network’s Richards what has driven
this regression in climate policy, she immediately replies, “Two
words: coal lobby.” Coal looms over Australian politics and culture.
Magnates like Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer are easily recognized
public figures. In the last election, Palmer poured AU$60 million
[[link removed]] into
a smear campaign against Labor. They knew they’d have a friend in
Morrison, who made his name in 2017 by presenting a lump of coal in
Parliament, James Inhofe–style, and saying
[[link removed]],
“This is coal. Don’t be afraid.”

Dotted against this dim backdrop are a few ironic points of light.
Many of the public servants closest to the fires—like Naomi Brown
and Greg Mullins—have called the government on its lies. “I think
the whole country is being gaslighted right now,” Brown tells me. In
April she, Mullins, and 21 other former emergency service leaders
founded the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and wrote to the
federal government warning of
[[link removed]] “increasingly
catastrophic extreme weather events.” They asked for bolstered
emergency services and rapid climate action. Morrison refused to meet
with them.

I met Brown and Mullins at a press conference in the Sydney Botanical
Gardens. Standing in front of a fire truck, accompanied by four other
former fire chiefs, they called the press conference to announce the
formation of the emergency council on bushfires—with or without the
prime minister. Mullins, the group’s unofficial leader, told me
gruffly, “I will not stand by as some politicians in denial ruin the
world and this country.” The event was a powerful image: six retired
emergency leaders, their faces leathered from decades of firefighting
and looking uncomfortable in their business suits, throwing their
clout behind climate action.

There are protests, too. In Sydney the week before Christmas, I saw a
gathering almost every day, from Extinction Rebellion die-ins to
marches thousands strong across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to
Morrison’s residence. I attended one a few days after visiting
Katoomba. The protesters, most of them under 25, kept up a rousing
“Scomo, fuck you!” all the way to the prime minister’s doorstep.
It was not a joyful gathering. You could see, hear, and feel the
anger.

But it was despondent anger, anger that came from the belief that no
change in government would be enough at this point. “Not Labor,
they’re shit too!” someone shouted during a speech, prompting
laughter and applause. Richards, who attended a march a few days
earlier, told me she sensed the same thing. “The mood felt flat,”
she said. “People don’t know what to do. They don’t want to be
resigned, but they’re fighting that feeling.”

It is not hard to see why. The fires are international news now, but
how long can that last? Rain will come (eventually), and the press
will move on. The next fire season might not be quite so bad; that is
always the risk of relying too heavily on weather events to
demonstrate climate change. And the government is cracking down on
climate protests by threatening multiyear prison sentences for
activists. “Perhaps this is going to be the moment when the climate
crisis becomes real,” I say to Mayor Greenhill on our drive up to
the lookout in Katoomba. “Yeah,” he responds with surprising
bitterness and tugs the car roughly into a curve. “Then winter
comes, and the bastards forget about it.”

 

Political theater: Images projected onto the Sydney Opera House in
support of communities affected by the fires.
Don Arnold / Getty Images  //  The Nation
There is a line from an essay that has stuck with me throughout my
time in Australia, lodged in my mind like a song lyric. The essay is
“Truth and Politics
[[link removed]]”
by Hannah Arendt. Writing in 1967, she asked why it was that lying
seemed so much more prevalent in politics than “truthtelling: to say
what is.” Her answer was that politics is at its core about
“changing reality,” breaking free from the world as it is and
“beginning something entirely new.” According to this definition,
truth is a constraint on our ability to alter the conditions around
us. “Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic
character,” she wrote. When a potential future turns into an
actualized present, it acquires a “stubborn thereness” that places
it beyond politics. It just is.

The political response to undesirable truths, Arendt feared, would be
the lie—a weapon that extends our ability to change the world into
an area that ought to remain beyond our agency. To lie “is clearly
an attempt to change the record,” she wrote, “and as such, it is a
form of action.” The liar “says what is not so because he wants
things to be different from what they are—that is, he wants to
change the world.” Lying in politics, then, is action pointed in the
wrong direction, not toward the future, which is up for grabs, but
toward the present and the past.

That is the fear behind the hope in Australia. Far from providing more
of an impetus for political action, the reality of the climate crisis
may serve to make real action all the more inconceivable. In its place
comes a perverse kind of climate action, a reaction: the Morrison
government’s attempt to wrench Australia’s emissions record away
from the factual and back into the political. “The past and the
present are treated as parts of the future—that is, changed back
into their former state of potentiality,” Arendt warned. So with
climate politics in Australia.

 

Fire on the mountain: In the heart of the inferno on Gospers Mountain.
David Gray / Getty Images  //  The Nation
Climate scientists warn of tipping points—thresholds that, once
breached, could lead to irreversible changes in the global climate
system. Tipping points are difficult to predict, although we now seem
to be approaching some large-scale ones at a terrifying pace. But
there are tipping points in climate politics, too, and we have arrived
at one this summer in Australia. Which one, though? Will the fires
send us mercifully toward the dramatic climate action that we now have
only a decade to take? Or will they mark the moment when the climate
crisis became too advanced to be altered and climate action became
about cooking our books as our planet staggered toward untold
dystopias? In the heat of the moment, it is hard to tell. But at the
least it feels possible now to say that we are headed in one direction
or the other—on the verge of a climate revolution or on the brink of
a climate reaction.

Meanwhile, we are left with that strange dissonance, the world around
us mocking the language we have built to name it. The line that has
remained stuck in my head is the final sentence of “Truth and
Politics”: “Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot
change,” wrote Arendt. “Metaphorically, it is the ground on which
we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” Another metaphor that
has now become real in Australia, where—in both senses—the ground
is burning and the sky is full of smoke.

_[Daniel Judt is a graduate student in political theory at Oxford
University.]_

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