The Royal Commission into Australia’s 2019/20 bushfires handed down its report last week. With the US election (sort of) over, I wanted to revisit it to talk about an omission I noticed at the press conference: climate change.
Minister David Littleproud introduced the report saying:
The real theme about the report is around risk reduction, preparedness, around response, relief, recovery, reconstruction and above all, resilience.
The report mentions climate change 67 times. Minister David Littleproud mentioned it zero times. When asked a question about the relationship between natural disasters and climate change – a point the report raised repeatedly – he fluffed about the government’s (panned) 2030 emissions target before talking about how technology like carbon capture will solve global warming for us. No one is denying technology matters, but carbon capture is still in its early stages and is no a silver bullet.
This is part of the slow motion evolution of conservative environmental politics. ‘Resilience’ is central to their emerging position on climate change: from outright denial to grudging acceptance and a focus on ‘resilience’ and ‘adaption.’ I imagine eventually we will reach a point where they accept climate change but argue it is too late (or too expensive) to do anything except build resilience and adapt, aka not much.
This is happening alongside the shift to ‘rivers, forests, and reefs.’ Clean rivers, well-managed forests, and wildlife are all vitally important, but are often a useful rhetorical advice to shift attention from climate change; a way to talk up green credentials without doing anything meaningful. As climate change damages these habitats and causes natural disasters, it may perversely allow governments to draw attention away from the big abstract global problems to nitty gritty issues like how many fire-fighting planes we need. Its much simpler to fight fires than do something about climate change.
A third vein which I have yet to see, but expect soon, will be the fusion of ‘rivers, forests, and reefs’ and anti-immigration politics. Our pristine countryside and fragile ecosystems will join our jobs and ‘way of life’ as the things at risk from swarms of immigrants. We tend to think about the environment as a progressive issue, but it absolutely need not be, nor has it always been historically.
What can progressives do? Overly apocalyptic assessments might play straight into conservative hands, allowing them to pivot completely to ‘resilience.’ We need to keep the link between natural disaster and climate change before people’s eyes, while proposing real solutions that give people hope. My vote still lies with Green New Deal style policies.