In 1969, a Union Oil drilling platform ten kilometres off the coast of Santa Barbara, a small tourist town in California, had a drilling hole blow-out and, over the next ten days, eight million litres of oil sludge spilt into the ocean, most of it landing on nearby beaches.
At the time, it was the largest environmental oil spillage in the United States, only surpassed by subsequent Exxon Valdez spills in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010. The spillage had a significant impact on the local wildlife, killing over 3,500 seabirds and other marine animals, and creating ongoing hazards for the citizens of Santa Barbara over the next decade.
Newly-elected US President, Richard Nixon, not noted for any environmental credentials, and barely mentioning the environment during the 1968 election campaign, saw enough of a political opportunity in the spillage to claim: “preserving the beauty and the natural resources are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. I don’t think we have paid enough attention to this. We are going to do a better job than we have done in the past.”
Nixon used the Santa Barbara oil spill as leverage to push forward an agenda to reduce pollution, an agenda which gave rise to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
While it’s stretching a long bow to suggest Nixon was an environmentalist—he was, after all, simply following the electorate’s heightened concern about quality of air and water pollution—he did show right-of-centre politics can engage with environmental concerns, even if Republican Presidents since Nixon—Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump—have repealed much environmental legislation since that time, as well as deregulating the EPA.
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Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had a brief dalliance with environmental issues in the late 1980s, when she outlined the effects of global warming, acid rain and pollution, to the Royal Society in 1988 and, in a 1989 address to the United Nations, stressed the importance of international legislation to manage and limit the world’s greenhouse emissions.
Although Thatcher never acted upon any environmental legislation in the UK, and her brief appearance in the field of environmental politics had more to do with the rising Green vote across Europe—14.9 per cent of the vote in the 1989 UK European Parliament election—it was, nevertheless, another instance of conservative political leaders engaging with environmental issues, even if they were only looking for political opportunities or mouthing platitudes without an intention of addressing the serious climate issues confronting them. But at least Thatcher made an attempt.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, doesn’t even offer the semblance of concerning himself with climate change. He is, after all, the one who brought in a large piece of coal into the House of Representatives, a symbol of his climate change denialism and emphasising the point that he is firmly in the ledger of the minerals and petroleum industries, the largest donors to the federal Liberal Party. And to support these industries, Morrison will stretch and fabricate every piece of data to claim Australia is achieving all of its targeted climate goals, even if these claims are far from the truth.
In September, Morrison addressed the United Nations and attacked global critics of his Government’s lack of action on climate change, claiming Australia had “overachieved on its 2020 Kyoto protocol targets” and would reduce “greenhouse gas emissions to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030”. These are clearly fabrications, as every key indicator shows Australia will not reach its 2020 Kyoto targets, and is unlikely to reach the 2030 Paris Agreement, unless significant policy changes are made.
This LNP Government is not for turning
Climate change is anathema to the contemporary Liberal–National Party, and Morrison is even prepared to junk the environment at the expense of burning communities. While it is the case in emergencies such as bushfires and floods, there is not much for a prime minister to do in practical terms—putting out the fires once they’ve commenced is a task for state and territory authorities—there is still a great deal the federal Government can do in implementing long-term solutions to minimise the chance of bushfires occurring and, at the least, implement shorter-term solutions to manage crises when they do occur.
One person who did want to discuss these shorter-term issues is Greg Mullens. Not many people might have heard about Mullens, but he is a highly respected expert in bushfire and natural disaster management strategies and was the Commissioner for Fire & Rescue NSW. He also has a strong international reputation, working with fire regulatory bodies in the US, Canada, France and Spain, and representing Australia on the United Nations International Search & Rescue Advisory Committee.
In April this year, Mullens delivered a letter to the Prime Minister on behalf of 23 former fire emergency leaders and the Climate Action Group, requesting a meeting to discuss fire management strategies, such as the purchase of a fleet of larger water-bombers and introducing specialised fire retardants, in the belief—proven to be correct—there was a great danger of imminent and severe fires, and a national approach was required to deal with this danger, if and when it occurred.
For the past seven months since the delivery of that letter, Morrison has refused to meet with Mullens, or any other former fire emergency leaders, and Government ministers such as Jason Falinski have claimed the Prime Minister is a “very busy man” and too busy to set aside the time to discuss climate change and fire management issues.
Obviously, the May election would have taken up a great deal of the Prime Minister’s time, formulating his new Ministry and creating a pathway towards the next federal election due in 2022. However, these are some of the other events that have clearly taken up Scott Morrison’s time:
- In October, he was the thirteenth man for the Prime Minister’s XI in an all-day cricket game against Sri Lanka in Canberra.
- Early in the same month, Morrison was in Fiji running water for the Australian rugby league team, as well as placing the kicking tee into the ground for one of the team members.
- A few weeks ago, Morrison attended the Constellation Cup netball game between Australia and New Zealand in Perth, taking selfies and chatting with the public during half-time.
- In September, Morrison attended the AFL Grand Final, another all-day event.
Some of these events, of course, we’d expect the Prime Minister to attend, but others are overt media opportunities and personal sports fetishes. Prime ministers do devote all of their time to matters of state and some leeway has to be provided, but if there’s enough time for a seven-hour game of cricket, or being the water boy in a meaningless two-hour game of rugby in Fiji, surely there would be time to schedule a one-on-one meeting with one of the most pre-eminent members of the fire emergency community.
A prime minister needs to consult with a broad range of people and interests group to develop the best policies and the best solutions in the best interests of the Australian community. Neglecting to meet with the Climate Action Group is a serious oversight and, in the wake of these bushfires—currently burning in every Australian state and territory—this is verging on criminal negligence.
While it could be argued that whether Morrison did or didn’t meet with Mullens is immaterial—any substantial outcomes from such a meeting would take many months to formulate the processes, protocols and budgets, and procurement would take up to a year from international providers—there are other decisions made by government that do have a material impact on the ground.
In New South Wales, the Liberal Government cut the capital expenditure budget of Fire & Rescue NSW by $28 million, and the NSW Rural Fire Service by $50 million in the 2019/20 NSW Budget—a total of $78 million. This compares to the $729 million allocated to the demolition and rebuild of the Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park, and $810 million for the revamp of the Olympic Park Stadium at Homebush in Sydney’s west.
When questioned about the significant cost of rebuilding two sports stadiums in Sydney—taking into account the Olympic Park Stadium is less than 20 years old—NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state could afford the vast amounts, due to the ‘better economic management of the Coalition’ over the past eight years. Apparently, the coffers are so overflowing that $1.5 billion for an unwarranted and needless rebuild of two Sydney-centric sports projects can easily be found, but critical fire services need to be cut by $78 million to make ends meet.
Something doesn’t quite add up here.
A vexed history
Climate change has been a vexed issue for many governments over many years, and despite the many warnings for at least the past forty years from a wide range of experts, analysts, environmentalists and business leaders, little has been achieved.
The first substantial international report of global warming appeared in 1972. The Club of Rome, formed in 1968 and comprised of former heads of state, United Nations bureaucrats, politicians, government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders, released The Limits To Growth.
The main premise of this report is economic growth cannot continue indefinitely because of resource depletion over time, and it introduced ‘problématique’, the understanding that the issues of environmental deterioration, poverty, endemic ill-health, urban blight and criminality needed to solved collectively, not in isolation, and urgent and quick resolutions had to be made to avoid the collapse of the global system by the year 2050.
There was also an expectation—unrealistic as it turned out—that by the year 2020, the international community would have reached global consensus in introducing a raft of mitigating measures, such as emissions reduction and carbon trading schemes, lead reduction in petrol, and elimination of toxic wastage into water supplies.
The second major report published by the Club of Rome, The First Global Revolution, appeared in 1991. Its main concern was that since its first report nineteen years earlier, little had been achieved politically and practically, although it recognised there was a greater awareness of global warming among political leaders in the 1980s.
Again, it forewarned that action on global warming and reducing carbon into the atmosphere was imperative and the world had a 30-year time limit to commence meaningful action, even though it also considered that by 2020, it could be too late to halt irreversible damage to the environment and the world community.
It also pointed out the world community would need to manage the effects of this irreversible global warning and increases in catastrophic weather events such as floods, extreme temperature shifts and hazardous unseasonal fires.
In Australia, climate change and global warming has transitioned from an environmental issue; through to a ‘moral’ issue in 2007, according to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd; and now, 47 years after the first warnings issued by the Club of Rome, it has morphed in a political issue played by conservative politicians, satisfied to reap the rewards of divisive debate and a divided community, while the rest of the country burns.
Leaders fiddle, the world burns
Ever since he became a member of Parliament in 2007, Scott Morrison has never shown any intention in implementing climate-based solutions or any interest in global warming.
While Morrison might be the ultimate marketing man, he displays the ultimate in political cowardice. At the height of the bushfires, he virtually disappeared from the public arena for three days, finally appearing at Sydney Airport at a Friday-morning corporate event, welcoming a Qantas Dreamliner long-distance flight from London. The fires were still burning, but the media interest had dropped off, and Morrison felt it was safe to appear in public again.
Of course, the Prime Minister disappearing while the fires were raging around the country was a politically sensible act. Brand ‘Morrison’ is the winning brand and travelling to areas where he was likely to be abused by victims of the bushfires and asked too many uncomfortable questions about climate change, always had the potential to damage his brand.
Appearing at a Qantas airport promotion, where no one was going to ask climate change questions, or enquire about the symbolism of the amount of emissions generated by that long-distance flight—incidentally, about one tonne of CO2 emissions per passenger—was always going to be the safe option.
At the end of this week, 1.7 million hectares have been burnt across Australia—mainly on the eastern seaboard—476 homes have been lost, and four people have died. As a comparison, the Amazon fires that spread through Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay burnt through 900,000 hectares; and the recent fires in California burnt 100,000 hectares.
The responses from the three leaders in these regions have been equally bizarre and dismissive: US President Donald Trump’s response to the California fires was to threaten cuts to federal funding and reiterate his belief that there is no link between the fires and climate change. In response to the Amazon fires, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused environmental groups of starting the fires and refused all international assistance offered from a wide range of countries.
Locally, Scott Morrison has largely retracted himself from the bushfires, aside from the obligatory sending of ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims, the common response of leaders so bereft of ideas, they have little else to offer.
Before Morrison disappeared from the public view for three days, he did ask for the debate to be taken “down a few notches” and claimed that now was not the time to talk about the links between the bushfires and climate change, or to engage in political point-scoring.
Politicising the bushfires, of course, was left to Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack and National MP Barnaby Joyce, who incorrectly laid the blame for the bushfires on Greens policies and inner-city activists: Joyce humiliating himself further by claiming the two people who died near the NSW town of Glenn Innes “most likely” voted for the Greens, and he rightly received the opprobrium from most of the Australian community for even suggesting this as a factor.
Climate change is an issue that will not be disappearing any time soon. And managing the effects that result from a lack of action on climate change—unseasonal and more frequent flood and fire events—is an area that needs to be managed by government effectively.
Scott Morrison cannot simply defer the debate about climate change by claiming ‘today is not the day’, or just shrugging his shoulders and saying: “I’m going to leave that debate for another day”, a statement he made on a recent visit to the drought-stricken region of Quilpie in western Queensland.
The Liberal–National Party has been in office for seventeen of the past 23 years, and a succession of prime ministers—John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now, Scott Morrison—have done little to address climate change issues. Morrison should be wearing the blame of these bushfires like a crown of thorns, and hammered until he provides effective responses to the crisis and takes on responsibility.
Today is the day to talk about climate change.