2020 hindsight

Earth, fire and water; and a deep foreboding on opportunities lost

By David Salt

Today [as I write this] is the first day of the Australian summer*. A hot north westerly is whipping up the temperature to an ‘uncomfortable’ 35 degrees C. I’d like to say ‘unseasonable’ but increasingly the ‘seasons’ make no sense. They did once, but that was about 20 years ago.

What a year

This time last year (December 2019) a fire raged down on the NSW south coast, unseasonably early but nothing to lose sleep over; fires, after all, are a natural part of the Australian environment.

But this fire simply didn’t go out. It burnt for months; chewing up forests, wildlife, homes, people, infrastructure and dreams. It stole Xmas, killed New Years, and blanketed eastern Australia in choking noxious fumes (closing down cities and killing scores of people in the process).

Then our city of Canberra was clobbered by an unseasonal hail storm (actually, it was the season for hail storms but this one was unprecedented in its ferocity). Forty thousand cars were destroyed in less than 15 minutes!

You may not believe this, but many of us joked at the time that given the run of disasters we had just endured that a plague just had to be just around the corner (CoVID had not been named at that instant)…

And now it is summer again. Temperature records are again being broken*; fires are again breaking out across Australia (though not with the intensity or scale of last year because it’s been raining); and forecasts are (again) for another mass coral bleaching.

Expect severe conditions, expect disruption; welcome to the Anthropocene.

By the way, everything we’ve experienced in the past year has been long forecast by science, if not in detail then definitely in spirit. However, our political leaders, experts in discounting long-term uncertainty while capitalising on short-term political expediency, have encouraged us not to worry about counting the costs decades down the line. (In fact, Prime Minister Morrison claims he can’t sign up to net zero by 2050 because he’s not able to count the costs 30 years ahead.)

But think where things were only 20 years ago. Imagine what we might have achieved if we had been honestly thinking about the costs we (and our children) would be paying in a couple of decades.

Twenty years in hindsight

So what were you doing, thinking and worrying about 20 years ago? Because Australia’s Radio National, along with many other organisations, journalists and academics (and the odd errant blogger), have been asking how has the world developed over the past 20 years – one fifth of the way into the first century of this new millennium. Among other things they looked at pop culture, technology, Indigenous affairs and health (apparently in the high income world in the last 20 years we’ve done well on aids and infectious disease but not so well on heart disease and obesity – who’d have thought).

What I haven’t seen is too many commentaries on sustainability policy over the last two decades – and yet there is so much to comment on in this space in Australia. Some pretty big ‘landmark’ laws and policies were put in place but have they addressed the challenges they were created for?

1999 (pretty much the same thing as 2000 so I include it in my 2020 retrospective) saw the launch of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act aimed at protecting our nation’s natural values (and specifically our biodiversity). It’s undergone two decadal independent reviews; has been the centre of an ongoing fight about green tape, farmer’s rights to clear and miner’s rights to destroy. It’s generated a lot of heat and light, and been the whipping boy of every conservative government we’ve had in that time (even though it was established by a conservative government). What it hasn’t done is slow or reverse Australia’s biodiversity crisis and during its operation we’ve lost a species of bat, skink and rat (and probably a whole lot more that we haven’t even noticed). More recently, we’ve watched on while once common icons like Tasmanian devils, koalas and platypuses have slid towards the precipice.

Then there was the National Water Initiative launched in 2004 aimed at dealing with the over-allocation of water to agriculture from Australia’s major river systems in the Murray-Darling Basin. This was followed a $10bn national plan in 2007, built around the nation’s first national Water Act, that aimed to place water management in the Murray-Darling basin on a sustainable footing and in particular to halt salinity, reverse the collapse of the Coorong and Lower Lakes in South Australia and the widespread degradation of wetlands, floodplain forests, native fish and waterbirds across the Basin. The Basin Plan made under the Water Act has been a failure. Remorseless politicking by irrigators and farmer lobby groups, and gaming of the system by the states saw cuts to the amounts of water provided for environmental flows, failing governance, water theft and cheating. Toxic algal blooms, dying towns and mass fish kills were the result.

And who could forget our merry lark involving putting a price on carbon? The Greens Party managed to block the first serious effort (something called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) in a tangled dance involving a mega-maniacal Prime Minister named Rudd, a Machiavellian-styled opposition leader called Abbott and a failed international consensus staged in Copenhagen. It all came to tears in 2009 and directly led to the toppling of Rudd the following year (opening up a torrid decade of political instability at the national level).

The next serious effort was undertaken by the Gillard Government and resulted in a Clean Energy Plan that came with a carbon price scheme launched in mid 2012. And it worked. It’s been estimated that the scheme cut carbon emissions by as much as 17 million tonnes, the biggest annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 24 years of records in 2013 as the carbon tax helped drive a large drop in pollution from the electricity sector. But it also didn’t work in that the incoming Abbott Government was able to dismantle the scheme and Australia has gone from being a world leader in tackling carbon emissions to a world laggard.

No certainty

Of course, since then a lot of bad stuff has happened to Australia’s environment (and its people). In addition to the mass fish kills we’ve endured mass coral bleachings, collapsing ecosystems on land and unprecedented wild fires.

We’ve seen the brutal rise of despotism and nepotism around the world, the collapse of traditional media, the contraction of the rule of law, and an epidemic of conspiracy and fake news.

Looking back from the present day, the world of two decades ago seems a very different place. Back then I thought science held the answer, and truth would eventually win out. By and large, however, we have failed to meet the environmental challenges facing our nation (biodiversity, water security and climate emissions as three important examples), and we are increasingly unable to trust the very words that fill our multiple media feeds.

On the plus side, a new generation of young people are asking hard questions about the environment they are inheriting. They are prepared to talk truth to power, are questioning the paradigm of unfettered economic growth and are demanding climate justice in an increasingly unfair world.

There is no certainty about what the future holds, but with 40 years of climate change already locked in even if we could stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, we know that 2040 will be a place very different from the space we occupy today.

Banner image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*Mercury rising: And, as you may now have heard, on this the first day of summer, the data (from the Bureau of Meteorology) is in and Australia just had its warmest spring (and November) on record! The national mean temperature for spring was 2.03ºC above the 1961-1990 average, the first ever spring with an anomaly above 2ºC.

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