By the end of the 2020’s, we’ll know which way we’re headed: toward environmental oblivion or an era of global restoration

(This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Part 4 will be published in early February, 2020.)

By the end of this decade, we will have crossed one of two opposing tipping points. The first would tip us toward an irreversible global environmental catastrophe; the second toward an era of environmental restoration and its attendant prosperity. 

But, come January 2030, how will we know which threshold we’ve crossed? What indicators will tell us which way we’ve tipped?

By the mid 2020s, two countries, Australia and Brazil, could serve as bellwethers for the rest of the planet. Both countries are large, with G-20 economies that rank among the world’s wealthiest; both are currently run by what could be fairly characterized as “anti-environmental” governments; and both are at the forefront of the climate crisis — Australia because of its propensity toward drought, Brazil because of the possible collapse of the Amazon rain forest. Here we’ll consider the case of Australia, and devote the next column in this series to Brazil.

Australia’s current situation can be understood in the context of recent trends in global environmental politics and policy. Beginning in 2016, a wave of elections brought parties with what can be fairly called “anti-environmental” agendas to power in several of the world’s major democracies, including the U.S., the U.K., India, Hungary, Poland and Brazil.

But it was predicted that Australia would buck that trend. For years successive “business-as-usual” Australian governments had stymied virtually all advances on climate policy. So, when incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison ran for reelection in early 2019 — while repetitive extreme droughts had been crushing Australia’s agricultural sector — almost all observers thought the issue of climate change would hand the government to a coalition of green parties. 

Morrison campaigned on strengthening Australia’s coal industry and claiming that transitioning to alternative energy sources would hurt the economy, cost jobs and cause endless blackouts. “[Greens] have an obsessive, irrational fear of coal,” he claimed, as he famously held up a lump of it in Parliament, saying, “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.” (The coal had been shellacked so it wouldn’t dirty his hands.) By forming a coalition with a small party led and financed by a coal billionaire, Morrison eked out a narrow victory.  

Morrison and most of his followers subscribe to a peculiar form of climate-change denial. Their position can be paraphrased as “Yes, some climate change is happening globally, but, no, it’s not happening to Australia or in the South Pacific.” 

Environmental scientists (and Mother Nature) beg to differ. If the proof can be considered to be in the pudding, this early (Australian) summer’s horrific drought, heat waves and massive fires — all linked to climate change — are terrifying hearts and changing minds in the land down under. 

A few statistics are in order. Most of Australia’s major cities and much of its “forested” (bushy) area are in the relatively humid southeast corner states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. By the end of 2019, fires had consumed more than 7.4 million acres of bushland in NSW alone. (By comparison, all 2018 California fires combined, including the famous Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, burned 4.4 million acres.) 

Simultaneously, Australia’s all-time temperature record was broken on two consecutive December days with readings above 104ºF in NSW and 120º in some parts of the country — while hundreds of out-of-control fires raged across the entire continent — many merging into “megafires” that created their own firestorm weather.

Thousands of buildings and whole towns have disappeared from the map, and vast areas have been evacuated — with many people fleeing for their lives. Fortunately, human casualties are somewhat limited: by mid January 32 people had died. (The long-term health effects of smoke inhalation and PTSD from the event have yet to be calculated.) But sadly, about one billion wild animals are thought to have perished in the flames, and many endangered local species might have gone extinct as the fires even penetrated wetlands.  

Will these horrific events finally topple Australia’s conservative government and bring some kind of Green New Deal to the Land Down Under? Could such a change begin a global trend?

Recovering from this single season’s economic, agricultural and environmental losses will take decades — and may be impossible unless Australia can find a way to address climate change. Meanwhile, Australia’s next general election, in 2022, could indicate whether humanity will choose to respond to climate change or continue to stick its head in the increasingly hot sand.  

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

(This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Part 4 will be published in early February, 2020.)

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