I hope that you and your loved ones have been safe through this spring and summer of unnatural smoke and fire.
It is hard not to be swallowed up by grief and rage as the country we love is burned around us and our once blue-skies turn red, brown and black. These are unnatural disasters; this is severe climate damage; the price of years of failure by political and business leaders. Their negligence is there in ten million burned hectares and half a billion dead animals. It is there in the seven year old girl asking her dad if she will have to wear a pollution mask every day in the future.
The impact of the fire crisis has been so profound that it is as if, over Christmas, we have travelled through time and space and woken up in another country.
We can’t afford to be paralysed by the scale of the catastrophe and I wanted to share with you my own analysis of where things are. I ask your forgiveness because this is quite a long email.
I wrote to you last year that I think that this is potentially Australia’s ‘Chernobyl Moment’ – I took that analysis a step further in this op ed in Guardian Australia. If you’ve not seen it, this powerful piece by Richard Flanagan in the New York Times, elaborates on the parallel. The central analogy is that the fires have revealed that the Australian system too is untenable; that things cannot go on as before, built on the deep denial of the climate emergency. The fires have revealed that our political leaders have ignored warnings about both the broader danger of climate change and the proximate risk of catastrophic fires, and in so doing have failed the primary duty of any government – to safeguard the lives of citizens.
Positions and statements that would have seemed radical just a few weeks ago are now coming from the most unlikely sources. The fires are a moment of unprecedented disruption with the potential to bring about a paradigm shift.
Greenpeace’s role in this is clear: to use all our capabilities to ensure that the bushfire crisis continues to be framed as a symptom of the climate emergency, and to maximise pressure for rapid systemic emissions reduction action. Our ambition must be massive – and new resources are essential to delivering on the transformative potential in the air. Now is not the time for caution or increments. We are challenged to have imagination apt to this crisis – and to respond at the necessary speed and scale. At Greenpeace we are throwing everything we have at this – and working in deep collaboration with friends and allies to ensure our greatest shared impact. With more resources, more would be possible to seize the moment.
There is now a mass group of Australians with the shared and protracted material experience of severe climate damage, either first hand or second hand, through family, friends and acquaintances, reinforced by blanket traditional and social media. Many Australians now face relative economic hardship as a consequence of the climate damage – though of course many may not yet think of it in those terms. Environmental and social issues have coalesced. In our segmented and atomistic 21st century society, the fires have been a universalising experience – a kind of mass phenomenon reminiscent of the forms of social life in the last century that were generative of massive political activity. The unfolding fire disaster has overwhelmingly transcended the traditional climate advocacy space.
Our nation has been rendered strange; the holiday season was not a holiday. Australia feels, smells, looks and tastes uncanny. We have images of refugees in our own country. Our ‘land of plenty’ has become a charity case for the world.
There have already been a range of consequences. The taboo around talking about climate change in the middle of disasters has been smashed forever. Morrison’s personal authority has been badly damaged. The public authority of institutions that are already trusted: the ABC, the firefighters and emergency workers and the ADF, has been enhanced – for some, this is an instant of remembering just how amazing and useful government can be. People have found comfort in the kindness and reciprocity within community and so been reminded of those things that money can’t buy. And in the obscene spectacle of animals and forests being burned alive we have recalled our deep love for nature.
So what should our country do? Perhaps there are three things that together might cover the field of what is needed.
1.) Australia to go on full climate emergency footing, to make the rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to all aspects of society necessary to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees.
2.) Australia to establish a universal care guarantee – a climate safety net – that no resident of Australia will be left behind by severe climate damage as part of a comprehensive national resilience framework.
3.) Emergency intervention for Australia’s flora and fauna in the wake of this unprecedented disaster for nature (this might include unprecedented new funding, much stronger nature protection laws and even stronger special protection laws in fire impacted bioregions).
These are rough ideas. Perhaps a fourth pillar is needed about democracy – though that could also be a byproduct of 1. Many of us are no doubt thinking what next and I’m very keen to hear what you think about what is needed.
Much of the anger so far has been directed towards Scott Morrison, which is justified, but also dangerous because it draws attention away from the system he represents. Yes, Morrison is a chronically poor prime minister in the climate emergency – but it is the system that needs to change. If the shift from Abbott to Turnbull taught one thing, it is that merely changing the leader can mean little. There is a real risk that the crisis of legitimacy is concentrated on the person of Morrison, who becomes the convenient scapegoat, enabling the wider show to go on as before – for a time at least.
We also need to think about how the charitable frame is playing out here. On the one hand, charity is both necessary and wonderful, it is the best of us showing our love, solidarity, empathy and altruism towards each other. But in addition to immediate charity, we also need systems change. Some of the corporate charity in particular has been breathtaking in its cynicism. Chevron, for example, who have actively funded climate denial and are one of the world’s greatest contributors to driving dangerous global warming now giving money in bushfire relief. Perhaps it is intended as an act of atonement.
The forces of the status quo are trying very hard to implicitly frame what has happened as a one-off natural disaster, but to do so is a form of deep denial. The consequences of the current fires alone, are having a myriad of spin-off effects, on water supplies, on biodiversity, on health, on culture, on housing, and so on. And we know that more severe climate damage, through drought, flood, fire, storm and ecological catastrophe are coming – already baked in at current levels of warming. These will compound and there will be some ugly multiplier effects. We need a permanent national resilience framework. Morrisons’s two billion dollar commitment to bushfire recovery is far too limited in scope as well as being too little. The government’s priorities remain clear when they give 500 million dollars for bushfire recovery in 2020 – compared to the 29 billion dollars annually in subsidies that goes to the fossil fuel industry in Australia.
The situation will continue to evolve. Morrison and co will attempt to bring the situation under control, following a usual natural disaster relief narrative. The same political leaders and vested fossil fuel interests who led us to this disaster will try and reestablish business as usual, making enough concessions to public anger to re-establish legitimacy. But as we know, the confrontation with reality will continue. There are still at least seven weeks left in the natural fire season – and it could be much longer in our climate changed world – and as we know too well, we can expect a other climate damage disasters this summer too. I am scared for the Murray Darling and the Great Barrier Reef in the next few months – and for many other less famous places besides.
Needless to say, there’s even worse than BAU. The fire crisis has normalised the military on the streets and declarations of emergency creating a basis for forced evacuations of people. As environmental defenders, we are already subject to routine anti-democratic attack, and at the end of last year, Morrison was threatening further repression, an to outlaw environmental boycotts. Vicious conspiracy theories are being actively promulgated. With any kind of historical imagination, it is easy to see how this could go. But it doesn’t have to go that way – the fires could also herald a moment of national regeneration. That’s my hope and it is what I believe that we – all of us who want a just and sustainable Australia – can achieve.
Thank you for reading this long email. These notes are written in the spirit of Antonio Gramsci’s phrase about ‘pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will’. We face enormous challenges now, but the truth remains that human beings working together can achieve practically anything. Because of the fire-crisis, there is now sufficient political and social energy to overcome the blockers of progress – the fossil fuel interests and their political servants. That is what is needed to achieve the systems level progress that our beautiful country so desperately needs.
I maintain faith and commitment in our shared capacity to build the bridge through the smoke and fire, to an Australia Remade, to the ideal depicted in Damon Gameau’s film 2040, to the Greenpeace vision of world capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity, in the name of all we love and care about.
Like it or not, these are times of radical change. But to paraphrase Raymond Williams, what is truly radical in these days of flame is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.
— David Ritter
CEO Greenpeace Australia Pacific