|February 03, 2020|
If there's a silver lining in the clouds of smoke it's that this could be a tipping point
|As a climate scientist on sabbatical in Australia, I've had plenty of conversations about the climate crisis lately as bushfires have burned their way to the front of everyone's mind. Although the Murdoch media make it seem as if there's plenty of debate, the reality is that most Australians I talk to get it.|
And why shouldn't they? More carbon pollution means warmer temperatures which dry out the landscape, making it easier for fires to spread. The fact that the bushfires tore through Australia as we ended the hottest decade ever recorded is no coincidence.
But those opposed to climate action have tied themselves in knots trying to fool the public into believing that it's really environmentalists and arsonists at fault.
Yet it's hard to sell denial when people are busy fleeing the flames. It's tough to distract from the reality of climate change when plumes of smoke dim the sky, and when every breath of soot-filled air stings your throat. As one climate scientist colleague put it in response to the almost-biblical fires bearing down on Canberra: "This is a stark reminder that climate change seems gradual until it is on your doorstep."
That's precisely what happened to Jeremy Wright, a Rotary Club member who came to a lecture I gave the other day at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney. Wright lost much of his family farm that has been around for 180 years, outside Milton in south-east NSW where the Australian author Henry Kendall was born. The bridge that provides access to the farm burned and he lost a herd of steer, several vehicles and his farm shed. Climate change is no longer just a theoretical construct for Jeremy.
Despite the tragedies playing out around the country, I'm hopeful we're hitting a tipping point. Not a physical one -- which we will hopefully avoid, where the global climate undergoes dramatic, irreversible and catastrophic change -- but a psychological one.
Here and around the world these fires appear to be pushing us toward a tipping point in public consciousness, a mass recognition that we must act.
But there has always been a disconnect between what the public knows and what their elected leaders choose to do. Ruling political parties in Australia, the US and Britain are particularly intransigent, their denial driven by ties to fossil-fuel interests and bolstered by the Murdoch media's steady drumbeat of denial.
It's something I've noticed quite clearly in my time here. The Australians I've talked to about climate change seem well aware of the science, are very concerned about reducing emissions and, most of all, are frustrated by their leaders' unwillingness to take meaningful action.
If there can possibly be a silver lining to the clouds of smoke from the bushfires, it is that they are galvanising public opinion, making it clear that deniers' and delayers' rhetoric is a smokescreen to cover for the fossil-fuel industry. Much like how sea level rise and unprecedented wildfires, heatwaves and floods in the US have begun softening the Republican party's staunch denial, the bushfires have brought the climate crisis to the front and centre of Australian consciousness.
For years, fossil-fuel-funded voices have taken to Rupert Murdoch's media outlets to tell the public that climate change isn't real, or it won't be a problem until years from now, at which point we'll all be so rich we can just buy our way out of trouble. They told the public to ignore climate scientists who are ringing the planetary fire alarm, that all is well despite the increasingly stark warnings from those who have devoted their lives to studying the issue.
Sadly, despite criticism from within the Murdoch empire, and even from Murdoch's son James, the promotion of denial and delay continues unabated. "Warming is good for us" read the headline on Andrew Bolt's column in the Herald Sun the other day to widespread derision as climate change-fuelled bushfires continue to engulf the continent. The headline on Paul Kelly's column in the Australian read "Any climate policy change is going to be slow burn", with no apparent sense of irony.
But telling people to ignore the fire alarm doesn't work so well when they can feel the heat, with flames consuming their country and with so much smoke it's made a full circuit around the globe.
We won't know if this will be a tipping point for the public's demand for climate action until we have the benefit of hindsight. But people will have an option: to vote out politicians in denial, and vote in candidates who are honest about the issue.
Perhaps we shouldn't call it a tipping point, but a flipping point.
Then perhaps she'll be right, mate.